Egyptian foreign policy: Step-by-step diplomacy

Dina Ezzat , Saturday 13 Feb 2021

Cairo is busy recalibrating its diplomatic choices

President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri
President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri

Libya, Palestinian-Israeli talks, Palestinian reconciliation, Lebanon, and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) have each been addressed in a series of meetings — the Hurghada meeting on the Libyan constitutional track on Tuesday, the extraordinary session of the Arab Council of Foreign Ministers on Monday, with sideline talks conducted by both President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri, the Palestinian factions talks in Cairo, also on Monday, and on Saturday, remotely, the AU summit — to which Egypt was party.

The Hurghada meeting and the bilateral talks that Shoukri held with his Libyan counterpart from the Government of National Accord, Mohamed Taher Saiala, on the sideline of the Arab Foreign Council Meeting, were held as Cairo was coming to terms with the election of a new chair of the Libyan presidential council, Mohamed Younis Menfi, and a new Libyan prime minister, Abdul-Hamid Dhbeiba.

It is no secret that Cairo would have preferred Aguila Saleh and Fathi Bashagha in the top jobs. Saleh, despite on-and-off disagreements with Cairo, is perceived as an ally and Bashagha as a strong minister of interior who, despite ties with Turkey, would have reigned in Libya’s western militias.

President Al-Sisi welcomed the outcome of the elections in a brief statement. In his meeting with Saiala, Shoukri said Egypt is willing to work with the new political interim figures.

“We will have to watch the political bargaining that leads to the formation of the government [supposedly within 21 days] and its approval by the Aguila Saleh-led parliament,” said an Egyptian diplomat. He added that what counts most for Egypt is “a fair and balanced representation” of Libya’s geographic areas and political blocs.

Egypt began to open up to moderate political elements in the west of Libya a few months ago, a process lent impetus by Joe Biden’s arrival at the White House.

“We remain very focused on securing the borders. We will demand security cooperation for sure but otherwise we are open,” said an informed Egyptian official.

Security in Libya, the same official said, is not just about the “very long and challenging” western border of Egypt but extends to the Eastern Mediterranean, the zone of Egypt’s major gas reserves.

Cairo hopes the new US administration will press Ankara to desist from any provocative moves, and according to one Egyptian official Turkey seems to be showing “some sense”. He acknowledged that “on-the-ground in Libya there are communications of sorts” between Egypt and Turkey and “there might be a willingness” on the side of Ankara to hand over three “terrorists” on the Interpol list.

While the behaviour of Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean, not least towards Greece and Cyprus, Egypt’s close economic partners, is a key Egyptian concern, worries over the stability of Lebanon, especially following the assassination of Loukman Salim, an anti-Hizbullah figure, are climbing up Cairo’s diplomatic agenda.

Last week, President Al-Sisi met Lebanon’s designated Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri just as Al-Hariri was coming under pressure to walk out on long and so far inconclusive talks to form a government. The meeting sent a clear message from Cairo to Lebanon’s leading political players that to abort Al-Hariri’s attempts to form a government amounts to playing with fire in a country facing unprecedented economic challenges.

Egypt is working closely with France to give a push to an Al-Hariri government. Both countries agree that a continuation of the political void in Lebanon is very risky. Nor did Cairo seem unduly concerned by Tuesday’s visit to Lebanon by Qatari Foreign Minister Mohamed Al-Thani to push for the composition of a government.

According to an informed official, relations with Qatar shifted from cold to lukewarm reconciliation in January. One sign of the shift is the release of Al-Jazeera Egyptian correspondent Mahmoud Hussein, after four years in detention, earlier this week. Another is that Doha-based football player Mohamed Abu Treika, whose name is included in a legal case including terrorist charges, is expected to find his way back to Egypt sometime this spring, according to the same source, and there is growing speculation of bilateral economic cooperation between the two countries later this year.

Meanwhile, the meeting Cairo hosted on Monday for over 20 figures from across the Palestinian political spectrum may not have resulted in a breakthrough in managing Palestinian general and presidential elections still scheduled for May but “we hope that we can still get things moving,” said one official.

The extraordinary meeting of the Arab Foreign Council that convened in Cairo saw a revival among Arab diplomats of language on the Palestinian cause and a “Palestinian State within the 1967 borders”.  Palestinian political sources speaking from Gaza and Ramallah credited the new position that Egypt has been taking with Jordan on Palestinian rights for the change of tone.

“Clearly the fact that Trump is out of the picture with his notorious deal of the century is a factor. What counts for us now is that Egypt is again standing on the side of Palestinian rights and is trying to help with the situation in Gaza,” said the source from Gaza.

Egyptian officials warn work on the Palestinian file is a long-term project that will take a lot of hard work and mediation before anything materialises.

Hard work is also how concerned officials describe the GERD file as Cairo launches a proactive international diplomatic drive to “explain its position on GERD”.

This week, in a statement to the remotely convened AU summit, President Al-Sisi said Cairo will continue to press for a legally binding deal that recognises Egypt’s water rights.

Egypt has been working for months to explain its position to interlocutors across Africa and elsewhere and draw attention to the possible, and little studied, negative ecological consequences of the dam.

Egypt knows Ethiopia is intent on staging a second filling of the dam, and while it does not view this as the end of a diplomatic process that has been ongoing since 2019 it is eyeing greater international intervention as a possible next move, possibly involving the UN, EU, and the US.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 February , 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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