Trumpian foreign policy in the Middle East has contributed, to a great extent, to a major regional realignment. The normalisation agreements chaperoned by the Trump administration between Israel on the one hand and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan last September and October, on the other, have changed the regional strategic environment. There is the pre-normalisation Middle East and the post-normalisation region.
In this unprecedented realignment after the World War II and the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the ranking of the major powers in the Middle East, and I would say in the larger Arab world, has been reshuffled, including that of Egypt.
In the post-war period, Egypt played a determining role in regional affairs. Its weight, resources, political ideology and international alliances played a great role in shaping and reshaping the regional map. This role has not gone unchallenged, whether from within the Arab world, or from regional powers like Israel, Turkey and Iran. The last three powers, at times prior to the Khomeini Revolution of 1979, had had mutual interests, some of which coincided with the national interests of some Arab powers.
The new regional environment poses a great challenge to Egypt and its role and influence in the Middle East, especially the newly-shaped strategic landscape comes at a time when Egypt is in a long process of reconstruction as well as a time of economic transformation. A tenuous situation at best that will be challenging politically. Will Egypt be in a position, under these circumstances, to have a say in matters of regional peace and security? Will Egypt marshal enough power of deterrence to defend its vital national interests? It is hard to tell at the present moment.
Integrating Israel in the regional system has been a strategic choice that all American administrations have worked for in the last seven decades. The Peace Treaty between Egypt and Israel that the two countries signed in Washington DC on 26 March 1979 set in motion the gradual integration of the Hebrew State into the Middle East. Still, peace between the two countries and the normalisation of relations between Israel and the Gulf countries, plus Egypt’s southern neighbour Sudan, poses a challenge for Egypt.
How should Egypt deal and interact with Arab and regional powers in the medium and long run?
The United States has been pushing through diplomatic channels for regional cooperation between Israel and Arab countries, particularly Sunni Arabs. The Obama administration and the Trump White House have brought the idea forward, and the latter set up in cooperation with Poland what is called the Warsaw Process, where the two sides would cooperate in various fields where Israel has an edge.
The difference between the Obama approach to this Arab-Israeli cooperation and the Warsaw Process is the fact that former thought of it as a step that would take place after the implementation of the two-state solution to the Palestinian question. The Trump administration preferred to put the cart before the horse and sidestepped the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in starting regional cooperation where Israel will be an active member, if not the leading voice.
From an Egyptian perspective, it is hard to believe that Cairo would embrace this idea of advanced and comprehensive Arab-Israeli cooperation before carrying out the two-state solution. On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine Egypt getting involved in plans of regional cooperation where it will not have a say. In other words, no Egyptian leadership would live with playing secondary roles in regional cooperation, particularly in areas that deal with security and stability across the region.
Another obstacle from the standpoint of Egypt’s national security interests is the pattern of alliances that would come in the post-September Middle East. I mean by “alliances” in this context military and security alliances. I personally highly doubt that Egypt would someday entertain the idea of entering into a region-wide security alliance if Israel is part of it.
Needless to say, some Arab countries will not be lukewarm to a security alliance with Israel without Egypt’s presence. Hence, I would expect that future US administrations with their Arab partners and allies could exert pressure on Cairo to become a member in such an alliance. I believe that it would serve Egyptians interests to withstand such pressure, for there will not be any popular backing within Egypt that would support that pattern of alliance.
With relations between the Gulf and Israel normalised and cooperation with Israel growing in the years to come, Egyptian-Gulf relations would undergo changes and present alliances between Cairo and some Gulf capitals would witness a certain cooling off. That should not worry us. On the contrary, Egyptian foreign policy stands to gain from backing away from present-day alliances that have not proved that they serve our national security interests in an optimal way. We have paid a price in Libya in the last year and a half. Luckily, in the last two months we have witnessed a much-needed reassessment in this regard. Next month Cairo will host the second round of the Libyan political dialogue, according to a statement by the United Nations mission in Libya. Tunisia hosted the first round two weeks ago.
Egypt in the years to come would be best served if it adopts an independent foreign policy away from entangling alliances with Arab or regional powers. It should follow the example of Great Britain when it had acted as the “balancer” on the European continent for 400 years.
Keeping away from entangling alliances would enhance the role and influence of Egypt in the new strategic environment in the Middle East. And this role and influence will become greater and sustainable, time-wise, if we succeed in unleashing the full potential of the Egyptian economy and reducing significantly our foreign debt as well as public debt, both of which have reached alarming levels.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly