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Egypt and the Mashriq region: Prioritising the East

Egypt is slowly finding its way around the Mashriq region which includes Syria, the Palestinian territories, Jordan and Lebanon

Dina Ezzat , Friday 6 Feb 2015
Sisi, Abdullah and Abdullah
Egypt's President Sisi, Jordan's King Abdullah, and the late Saudi King Abdullah. (Photo: Reuters)
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When Russian President Vladmir Putting arrives in Cairo on Monday for talks with President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, developments in Syria and in the other countries of the Mashriq will figure high on the agenda.

Syria, say Egyptian diplomats, is a particular concern for both Moscow, for whom Damascus is about the only remaining trusted Arab ally, and for Cairo.

Egypt’s leaders are convinced that the stablisation of the political-military situation in the four-year Syrian conflict would be an essential step in the war on terror.

Both Cairo and Moscow have recently held independent sets of talks for Syrian opposition figures and some of the representatives of the ruling regime of Bashar Al-Assad.

Both are of the opinion that the top priority for Syria is not the elimination of the regime of Al-Assad, the original demand made in the early, peaceful weeks of the demand for democracy in the spring of 2011, but rather the containment of the highly militant radical Islamist groups that are fighting the army of Al-Assad. These groups have now spilled over the region, including into Egypt’s restive Sinai peninsula.

With the receding opposition of Riyadh, Cairo’s top economic and political guarantor after the 2013 ouster of Mohamed Morsi, to a political formula that allows for a presence of Al-Assad regime somehow, Cairo and Moscow might now find it easier to move forward on promoting a gradual political settlement in Syria.

“There is no quick fix for the situation in Syria and this is not just because of the war between the regime and the opposition of all types, but also because of the many differences, one could safely use the word ‘battles’, among the Arab opposition,” said an Egyptian diplomat who had taken part in the recent Cairo talks.

Like Moscow, Cairo is planning to host a new round of talks for some of the top figures in the Syrian political equation.

“We are not pushing for any particular political formula to be adopted but we are pushing for a formula to be found – yes, we don’t want to give prominence to the Islamists of Syria in this formula but we acknowledge the presence of some of their elements there,” another Egyptian diplomat said.

A mission against radical Islamism

Cairo, to an extent, views the war in Syria as a matter of consequential influence of the overall regional anti-Islamists’ mood that it has been actively promoting for close to two years in cooperation with Jordan, and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The elimination of the highly Shia-biased government of Nouri Al-Maliki in Iraq allowed Egypt to open up to the new authorities in central Iraq to work on the coordination in the war against ISIS – a predominantly Sunni militant group that is said by some observers to have the sympathies of angry Iraqi Sunnis who have suffered discrimination at the hands of Al-Maliki.

In December, there was an upgrade in the exchange of visits between the two countries from that of the technocrats to one that included the foreign minister of Egypt and the prime minister of Iraq – in addition to the exchange of cooperation on the security front.

Jordan is another key partner in the war on ISIS given its role in the international military coalition against the militant group and the recent high-profile anti-Islamist statements that were made by Jordanian officials following ISIS’s gruesome killing of a Jordanian military pilot last week.

“I think it is safe to say that Egypt is slowly working to create a network of cooperation across the countries of the Mashriq to confront the influence of Islamic militants,” argued an Egyptian official. He added that Cairo is also pursuing wider Arab and international support for this anti-Islamist scheme.

Ahmed Ban, an expert on political Islamist movements, argues that political and military coalitions are not the ultimate tool to confront radical Islamism in the Mashriq countries.

“By their nature militant Islamist groups in the Mashriq argue their case on the radical interpretations of the text and they use the deteriorating socio-economic conditions to strengthen their case; this is substantially different from the case in large parts of the Maghreb where the Islamic preaching and the political discourse are independent,” Ban said.

The longer the delay towards democratic reforms and the more limitations that are put on public space, Ban added, the tougher the mission to combat radical Islamism – no matter the intelligence and military efforts.

“Today, ISIS is at the heart of the Arab Mashriq and it has extensions or sympathetic arms almost across the Mashriq, so the first step is to make sure that this expansion is checked and that the zone of sympathy is contained,” he argued.

This would for sure, he explained, require a clarity of vision to avoid mingling ISIS and its sympathisers with other radical groups. To lump all Islamist groups of all styles together is not going to help the war on ISIS.

“We need to be clear that there are groups that consider their societies and the states they are living in as infidels; these are different from other Islamist groups who do not take issue with the faith of their societies or with those like Hamas, in Gaza, and Hezbollah in Lebanon that have a moral pretext related to the war on Israeli occupation,” Ban said.

Mistakes of the past, a role for the future

Arab diplomats in Cairo and Egyptian diplomats who have served in the countries of the Mashriq argue that traditionally, Egypt, although being the very centre point between both the Mashriq and the Maghreb, and being located in Africa, has traditionally associated itself more with the Mashriq.

“The influence of Egypt across the Mashriq was hard to challenge for years until Egypt decided to turn its back on its leadership and to act essentially as a country associated with the wishes of the leading country of the Arab Gulf, Saudi Arabia,” said a former Syrian diplomat who has served in Cairo.

Arab diplomats also complain about what they qualify as an unfortunate Egyptian tendency to get into political decline followed by miscalculations.

The most recurrent complaints these diplomats refer to include an all but total retreat of Egyptian diplomacy in Iraq following the US invasion, and “clear support for the Israeli war on Lebanon in 2006 in the hope of eliminating Hezbollah”.

Then there is always the complaint over the bias of Egypt in the internal Palestinian political war between Fattah, chaired by the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and Hamas, which expelled the Palestinian Authority and took control of Gaza in the summer of 2007.

There are also accusations of Egyptian illicit and/or implicit support for the Israeli war on Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009.

Cairo has denied all these accusations and insisted that what it was doing was opposing the challenge that radical groups put to state sovereignty in a country like Lebanon or the Palestinian Authority to pursue a peaceful settlement with Israel.

This argument is reiterated today with a new line suggesting that when all is said and done all these groups are simply off-shoots of the Muslim Brotherhood which was recently qualified by the Egyptian president as “the most dangerous underground organisation.”

A comeback to the Mashriq

There is a debate today within the quarters of Egyptian diplomatic-security decision-making circles on what course Egyptian authorities should take to secure a balance between a comeback in the Mahsriq, an essential to the Egyptian objective of regaining regional influence, and a continued confrontation with the radical Islamist groups which are, according to political-economists, the “rasion d’etre” of the ascent to power of the current authority and perhaps to the claim for international support.

Western diplomats in Cairo agree that a good deal of the decision of world capitals to accommodate the otherwise apprehensively received regime in Egypt has to do with the expansion of militant Islamist groups across the Mashriq, a strategic zone of interest due to the very close proximity to Israel and to Gulf oil reserves.

Some from within the heart of Cairo’s diplomatic-security quarters preach pragmatism. They warn that a long delay on the side of Egypt to reach out to “all the political components in the Mashriq” would simply mean a prolonged political vacuum that could be filled with a keen Turkish presence – “especially now that Turkey is reaching out to the new ruler in Saudi Arabia with the intention of building bridges and jointly promoting political settlements.”

Former Egyptian ambassadors to leading Mashriq countries say that overwhelming the local populations have no taste for radical Islamism, or at least fear the expansion of militant groups.

“In this sense there is a chance for Egypt to simply say that it is not at odds with the concept of political Islam provided that groups affiliated to it should acknowledge the role of the sovereign state,” said one.

According to another, “Egypt in fact does have in-roads with almost all the non-militant and in some cases militant components of political groups in all the Mashriq countries and this makes it the best fit to promote political compromises -- only if the decision-making authorities decide to part ways with the excessive sensitivity against all that is Islamist.”

Both ambassadors argued that if Egypt does not move forward then other regional powers will, both in the settlement of internal disputes, including the Palestinian issue, and the promotion of a political deal “of sorts” between Israel and the Palestinians.

The expected changes in the immediate backyard of the Arab Mashriq, with the possible deal between Iran and the West, and the significant in-roads that Iran has with most of the Mashriq states, the same ambassadors said, should prompt Egypt not to take too long before it decides to opt for political pragmatism.

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