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Egypt's regional foreign policy: Strategic makeover

Cairo is engaged in major diplomatic efforts on a number of fronts

Dina Ezzat , Wednesday 5 May 2021
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File photo: Foreign ministers Sameh Shoukry and Mevlut Cavusoglu of Turkey at an Organization of Islamic Cooperation summit on April 14, 2016 (photo: AFP)
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A meeting between Egyptian and Turkish diplomats has been scheduled this week. The assistant foreign ministers of both countries plan to meet in Cairo. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu announced the plan in a sign of rapprochement between the two countries which have been at loggerheads for seven years.

The Turkish announcement, according to Egyptian official sources, was agreed with Cairo. “Every single step is discussed thoroughly and both sides are being very careful about what they say. This is a very delicate situation,” said one.

According to this source, the meeting of assistant foreign ministers follows a year of at first indirect, and then direct, communications focused on avoiding a confrontation in Libya. “Managing our conflicting interests in Libya was essential — nothing could have moved forward without managing Libya first,” he said.

He explained that at a certain point late last year both countries realised that their political and security interests would be best served by working out a formula satisfactory to both sides. He added that once the Libya conflict was being managed “the Turkish side showed willingness to move further with the bilateral relations.”

According to other official sources, Turkey had already signalled a willingness to talk but for Cairo fixing Libya was a prerequisite.

Neutralising animosities and revisiting alliances are at the heart of Cairo’s new diplomatic thrust. It began on two parallel tracks, according to the official narrative, the first involving the Arab Gulf reconciliation late last year.

Egypt did not contest the decision of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain, Cairo’s closest allies since 2013, to move beyond their political dispute with Qatar, and to some extent Turkey, over the support Doha and Ankara had offered Islamist groups. Instead, Cairo took note of the way things were being done and reconsidered its calculations.

At the same time, sources say Egypt’s position on Libya was gradually diverging from that of the UAE, and its position on Syria from that of Saudi Arabia. Cairo had recognised the limits of counting on any one political or military group in Libya to bring stability to its North African neighbour, and thought it less and less likely that regime change could happen in Syria.

Egypt had also declined requests from both Arab Gulf countries for a more “on the ground” Egyptian involvement in managing the situation in Yemen. And tellingly, neither Gulf state had come forward to use its political and economic weight to press Ethiopia to abandon its intransigence in the negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

Egypt, say sources, was also sceptical over the fast-tracking of normalisation with Israel that was being spearheaded by Arab Gulf states in the absence of Israeli pledges to start a process of political negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. While Cairo understood Arab Gulf frustration at the “unrealistic” choices of the Palestinian Authority it remained convinced that “dropping the Palestinian cause” was not something to which it could subscribe.

These two parallel paths were coupled with significant political changes on the regional and international levels. Joe Biden became president of the US, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was beginning to understand that his attempts to expand Ankara’s influence across the Middle East were going nowhere.

“Erdogan was left without any real friends and it was becoming quite taxing, especially after Biden was elected,” commented a Cairo-based European diplomat. Unlike Donald Trump, the new US president was not willing to look the other way while Erdogan made military deals with Russia.

Clearly, the diplomat added, a change in Erdogan’s regional strategy is something from which Egypt could benefit, and not just in relation to the situation in Libya.

Egyptian officials agree that a key element for any possible Egyptian-Turkish rapprochement is for Turkey to curb the activities of Islamist militias across North Africa and the Middle East, and Cairo was pleased to see Erdogan limit the political space allowed to leaders of political Islam who have been based in Turkey for the past seven years.

On Monday, ahead of the arrival of the Turkish diplomatic delegation to Egypt, Turkish Trade Minister Mehmet Mus also said his country wanted closer economic ties with Egypt.

Despite the positive signs, Egyptian sources warn against exaggerated optimism. Diplomatic relations, downgraded from the ambassadorial to chargé d’affaires level in 2013, are unlikely to be upgraded in days or weeks.

“We are opening up but we are very cautious. There is so much to monitor, not just around the Mediterranean but also in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel and Sahara areas where Turkey has been seeking to exercise influence in the past few years,” said one official source.

Cairo is keeping a very close eye on the situation in the Horn of Africa, not just because of the GERD crisis but also because of the area’s strategic significance. It is a region, official sources say, where the diplomatic agendas of Egypt and some of its Arab Gulf allies are potentially at odds.

The case of Sudan is often used as an example by Egyptian sources. Egypt has worked hard to build a close alliance with Sudan, on GERD and on other issues of mutual interests for the two downstream Nile countries. At the same time some Arab Gulf capitals, according to Cairo-based Western diplomatic sources, have been trying to pull Sudan closer to Ethiopia at the expense of the Cairo-Khartoum alliance.

In the words of an informed Sudanese diplomat, the “new formula of cooperation” that Sudan and Egypt have carefully and slowly crafted over the past year, “has proven to be solid”.

“I think it would be unrealistic to say that we are going to compromise our relations with the Arab Gulf countries whose support for us is crucial but we have an interest to upgrade cooperation with Egypt,” he said.

Nor does Cairo plan to compromise its own relations with Arab Gulf allies. “It’s just not on the table, from our side or theirs. The focus is on balancing our conflicting agendas,” said one Egyptian official.

Obviously, he added, the direction of relations the new US administration will pursue with key regional capitals, including Tehran, will inform the new dynamic that is emerging.

“And equally obvious,” he concluded, “is that we will adjust accordingly.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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