President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi headed the Egyptian delegation to the Arab and Islamic summits that were held in Mecca at the end of May.
This top-level representation reflects an awareness of the magnitude of threats facing the Arab region in light of mounting foreign penetration and the approaching revelation of the “Deal of the Century” with its disastrous repercussions on the Palestinian cause.
President Al-Sisi’s address to the Arab summit clearly and concisely expressed a number of Egyptian foreign policy principles concerning Arab national security. On the whole, the substance of the speech was informed by four main characteristics.
The first is the breadth of vision of an approach that treats Arab national security challenges as a single comprehensive whole. Although Saudi Arabia’s call for the Gulf and Arab summits was a response to the attacks that targeted Emirati and Saudi interests, which is to say essentially the interests of countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the presidential speech reflected awareness of the interrelationship between three levels of security; namely, the Egyptian, Gulf and Arab regional levels.
I believe it goes without saying that, to Egypt, the security of the Gulf is a fundamental cornerstone of Arab national security and is closely and organically related to Egyptian national security.
This awareness had taken root in Egyptian political consciousness long ago. Egypt has never hesitated to take part in any of the battles that were forced on the Arab region, from the Palestine war in 1948 to Resolute Storm in 2015.
At a time when Egypt resisted (as it continues to do) foreign military pacts and Greater Middle East projects, it spearheaded the establishment of the Arab League, in 1945, together with six Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia.
Egypt has been a leading partner in all attempts to develop instruments to safeguard Arab national security, from the Joint Arab Defence Treaty to the Red Sea Security project and the Joint Arab Force project.
The more communications technology advanced by leaps and bounds, the more these advances threw into relief the interconnection between the three levels of security.
A terrorist organisation such as Al-Qaeda, for example, could extend branches from the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant to the Nile and North Africa.
Moreover, technological advances drove home the interconnection between the three abovementioned levels of security and international security. We find people fighting their battles in Chechnya and East Turkistan on Syrian territory, and people exacting revenge for the Crusades in New Zealand.
The second characteristic of the speech is its spirit of frank introspection in its assertion of the need for the Arabs to assume responsibility for the protection of Arab national security.
While recognising that the terrorist threat to Arab states is also a threat to international security for which the international community is responsible, President Al-Sisi in his speech stressed that the Arab region should be the first line in the defence of Arab national security: “If we require the international community to undertake its full responsibility toward these terrorist threats, we, as Arabs, must also assume the responsibility to activate the mechanisms of Arab cooperation in the fight against terrorism and in efforts to build our autonomous capacities to confront this threat.” The president then issued a call to reopen discussion on how to activate already existing or proposed mechanisms for collective Arab action.
The president’s call for the Arabs to “Arabise” or to regain the initiative on Arab security merits much closer attention. The great powers deal with our Arab countries as mere arms warehouses and oil pumps. Their protection of us comes at a cost and their interests govern how sources of threat are prioritised.
The third major trait is the objectivity brought to bear in evaluating the sources of threat to Arab national security. President Al-Sisi, clearly alluding to Iran, condemned foreign intervention in the domestic affairs of Arab countries and attempts to fuel sectarian strife.
He also condemned attacks staged by Houthi militias, which are linked to Iran, against targets in the Gulf. He described the attacks as flagrant acts of terrorism.
But at the same time, he alluded to the Turkish threat when he said that it was unacceptable for a regional party to occupy territory in two Arab states and to openly support terrorist militias with arms and materiel in full sight of the international community.
This observation simultaneously underscored the international powers’ selectiveness in identifying what is and what is not a threat to this region. They magnify the Iranian threat, minimise the Turkish threat and disregard the Israeli threat.
The suggestion that the Arabs needed to adopt a more balanced approach acquires greater importance in this context, as does the president’s emphasis on the fact that the Palestinian question is still the chief source of instability in the region and will remain so until the establishment of a fully sovereign independent Palestinian state within pre-4 June 1967 borders with its capital in East Jerusalem.
The fourth trait is the speech’s appeal to rationalism and cool-headedness as it cautioned against a rush to war against Iran or any other party. The significance of this point cannot be overstated at a time of brinksmanship and heightened fears of an impending military confrontation between the US and Iran, whether directly or through proxies.
The Arabs have already suffered and continue to suffer immensely from wars and armed conflicts in the region. Therefore, while the Arabs cannot tolerate any threat to their national security, as Al-Sisi pointed out, they have always accorded great value to maintaining healthy and peaceful relations with neighbours.
Naturally, such relations come with certain principles and mutual commitments, but the president’s point was that war is not inevitable and that the Arabs should not allow it to be imposed on them by others.
Egypt has a right to be proud of its contribution to the Mecca summit. Its message was succinct, coherent and cogent.
*The writer is professor of political science at Cairo University.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 June, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Egypt at the Mecca summit