Egypt's FM heads to Morocco: Is Cairo searching for a North Africa strategy?

Dina Ezzat , Thursday 15 Jan 2015

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri heads to meet with the Moroccan king to sort out relations reportedly strained by low-level media wars, Algerian connection, and differences on attitudes to Islamists

Mohammed VI  and Morocco
Morocco's King Mohammed VI (L) and Egypt's President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi (R) (Photo: Al-Ahram)

On Thursday, Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri headed to Morocco for a 24-hour visit designed to ease a recent wave of tension between Cairo and Rabat.

On Friday, Morocco's King Mohamed VI will meet with Shoukri, who is there to convey high-level commitment on the part of Egypt to maintaining good bilateral relations. Also under the spotlight will be Egypt's attempt to balance relations with Morocco and with its rival Algeria.

 “The foreign minister will reassure the Moroccan king that Egypt is not at all planning to side with Algeria against Morocco in any political conflict,” said an aide to the Egyptian foreign minister, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“The message is that Egypt is keen on good relations with all Arab countries and is not willing to intervene in any way that would aggravate existing conflicts,” he added.

Egyptian-Moroccan relations, which are traditionally low-profile, have been under stress recently. The first incident came late last summer, when an Egyptian TV anchor described Morocco on air as “a country whose economy is heavily based on prostitution.”

A prompt apology was offered in Cairo and the concerned anchor and private but pro-regime TV channel was forced out.

Arab diplomatic sources say that President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi had offered to pay a visit of “respect and appreciation" to the king of Morocco last September on his way to head the Egyptian delegation at the UN General Assembly, but the visit was cancelled at the last minute because of concerns about planned anti-Sisi protests in Rabat and Casablanca.

Egyptian diplomats at the time argued that the protests were being planned by influential local Islamists in solidarity with Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, rather than to show dismay at the offensive statement.

Cairo-based Arab and European diplomats at the time contested the Egyptian narrative. They argue that the planned protests were about both the offensive statements against Morocco as well as Islamist sympathies.

It is also, said one, a question of Egyptian-Algerian relations, which have grown warmer following the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt and the ascent of El-Sisi to power.

“It is never an easy job to keep good relations with both Algeria and Morocco at the same time; this is true but we are always very careful,” said the Egyptian diplomat. He added that Cairo and Algiers recently have maintained closer coordination due to the “rapid and disturbing developments in Libya” and due to the energy assistance that Algeria has offered to Egypt.

In the Moroccan narrative, however, this Egypt-Algeria cooperation stepped over a clear red line: the disputed territory of Western Sahara, a decades-old point of contention between Rabat and Algiers.

Moroccan diplomats in Cairo and elsewhere have shared with their Egyptian counterparts their dismay about the "involvement of the Egyptian media" in producing documentaries and news features on the life of the residents of the Western Sahara who are seeking, allegedly with direct Algerian support, independence from Morocco.

It was the “failure” of the Egyptian authorities to put a stop to this media attention that is said to have prompted a TV anchor in Morocco to recently qualify on air the process of the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood in July 2013 as a coup d'état – a description which the Cairo strongly rejects.

Direct communications between Cairo and Rabat and a prompt Saudi mediation – given the close ties that Riyadh has with both Arab capitals – prevented an escalation in media hostilities.

In Morocco, Shoukri will work on securing a détente.

“He will stress the keenness of Egypt to expand economic relations with Morocco on the bilateral front," the diplomat said.

"Preparations are currently under way for the convocation of the Higher Joint Committee at the leadership level and a wider level through many forums including the Aghadir Agreement” which was signed in the late 1990s to secure close trade cooperation among Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Jordan, said the diplomat.

However, a détente between Cairo and Rabat, which would be effectively secured by the meeting of King Mohamed and Foreign Minister Shoukri on Friday, will still be tenuous due to the Islamist file.

The Moroccan king, say Arab and European diplomats, is not willing to quell the voice of Islamists in his country, for reasons related to domestic politics. This entails a certain amount of tolerance for sympathy with the Muslim Brotherhood – with the possible show of hospitality to some Brotherhood figures who are forced by legal or political concerns to leave Egypt.

On the official front, Egypt could reconsider the balance it has been keeping on the file of Western Sahara but it will not reconsider its animosity towards Islamists.

Egyptian authorities are clear about their firm unease with Islamists anywhere in the Arab world, and are particularly determined to support anti-Islamists in neighbouring Libya.

And despite close rapprochement with Algeria, which goes beyond energy assistance to the shared determination of both regimes to eliminate Islamist influence in both countries, Egypt is more radical in its rejection of all shades of Libyan Islamists.

Egypt was also, by the account of Cairo-based European diplomats, "very actively supportive" of the ascent of Caid Essebsi to the presidency in Tunis at the expense of his Islamist-allied rival Moncef Marzouki.

Egyptian diplomats who have been assigned to the Maghreb desk or had served in the five Arab countries of North African countries – Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Mauritania – share the same narrative.

Egypt's focus has been on just two countries in the region: Libya, a direct neighbour with long shared borders and home to a large population of Egyptian migrant workers, and Algeria in view of the historic support that Egypt offered during in the 1950s and 1960s for the country's struggle for independence from France -- part of a wider commitment by Gamal Abdel-Nasser to the liberation movement in Africa and the rest of the third world.

After the end of Arab boycott of Egypt following its unilateral signing of a peace treaty with Israel by president Anwar Sadat in the late 1970s, Egypt never regained any serious interest in North Africa.

“During my years in the foreign service I have only seen a few prominent diplomats put on the Maghreb desk or posted to any of the North African countries,” said one diplomat who is approaching retirement.

In the assessment of this and other diplomats familiar with the Arab file, Egyptian relations with most North African countries have been conducted on an ad-hoc basis, particularly since the last few years of the three-decade rule of Hosni Mubarak.

Some analysts cite the disturbing feud between Egypt and Algeria in 2010 after a football match as an example of the on-a day-by-day basis approach.

“It came out of nowhere really, and one day we woke up to see strong anti-Algeria propaganda and demonstrations at the Algerian embassy in Zamalek,” said one.

The feud reached a high level with a strong media offensive against Algeria and a ban on music by Warda, a singer of Algerian origin beloved in Egypt.  

Algerian diplomats in Cairo attributed the “offensive” to business deals gone sour between a member of the Mubarak family and a relative of the Algerian president.

“Whatever the true story there, at the end of the day we had a situation where we moved from us being friends with Algeria to being enemies with Algeria,” said a diplomat who at the time was on the Arab desk.

According to Mohamed El-Aggati, an Egyptian political commentator, Egypt needs to “seriously formulate a cohesive foreign policy towards North Africa.”

For the most part, El-Aggati argues, Egypt has been acting as a Middle Eastern rather than a Maghrebi country, and this is neither justifiable nor purposeful.

“Relations with the countries in North Africa, with the only exception of Libya as a border state, have been for the most part operated based on political moods – so today we like Algeria because of the semblance of the identity of both regimes [in Egypt and Algeria] and tomorrow we might dislike Algeria; yesterday we liked Morocco and tomorrow it might be otherwise,” he argued.

“There are many avenues for multiple cooperations with these countries but these avenues have not really been explored in Cairo,” he added.

Concerned Egyptian diplomats admit that beyond the current crisis-management mission to Rabat, relations between Cairo and the rest of its North Africa neighbours will probably be administered on an almost day-to-day basis.

They argue that Egypt has demonstrated a considerable appreciation for the support and influence exercised by Algeria to facilitate the return of Egypt to the African Union which suspended Egyptian membership following the ouster of Mohamed Morsi in 2013. Algeria was one of the very first foreign countries President El-Sisi visited following his election last summer.

El-Sisi, they add, is also planning a visit in the next few weeks to Tunis and would possibly also visit Morocco if things "move in the right direction.”

Egypt, the diplomat add, is keen to see all five North African countries strongly present at the annual Arab summit that Egypt will host in March.

They admit however that given the current harsh economic crisis that Egypt is facing, priority for a while will be with the Gulf countries that have been source of essential economic support.


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