This week, as part of an ambitious diplomatic scheme to rework inter-Arab relations, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi made a rare visit of an Egyptian head of state to Iraq. “It is the first visit to Baghdad by an Egyptian president in 30 years,” the statement issued by the press office of President Al-Sisi noted.
Al-Sisi arrived in Baghdad to take part in a joint summit with his Iraqi counterpart, in the company of the Iraqi prime minister, and King Abdullah of Jordan, arguably one of Egypt’s closest Arab allies today. The three-way summit of the leaders of Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan is not the first between the heads of these three states. During the past two years, the three have been slowly but surely building a new “coalition of the willing”, designed to create room for economic and security coordination, largely at Cairo’s initiative.
Despite worry over Covid-19 the three leaders met in August 2020 in the Jordanian capital. And according to Egypt’s top diplomat Sameh Shoukri, they plan to soon convene again in Cairo.
“We are talking about two things that are happening in parallel. First, we are talking about the economic opportunities available to Egypt and Jordan in the reconstruction of Iraq. Second, we are talking about how Egypt and Jordan can support Iraq, traditionally one of the more important Arab countries but which, during the last couple of decades, has been prey to other countries’ attempts to build their hegemony, especially Iran and Turkey,” said an informed government source.
“This is why it was important for President Al-Sisi to go to Iraq despite the fact the security logistics were tough to manage.”
Egypt, he added, is not going to Iraq to pick up a fight with either Iran or Turkey but rather to work with Jordan in emphasising the Arab presence there.
Al-Sisi’s participation in the three-way summit in Baghdad this week, according to Mohamed Ibrahim, deputy director of the influential Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies, “sends a significant message about Egypt’s commitment to be there for Arab countries”.
According to government sources, the message is not directed exclusively to the region’s non-Arab neighbours, but is also being sent to those Arab capitals pushing for Israel to get a free ride across the Arab region despite the absence of a fair and sustainable political settlement to the Palestinian cause.
“We have promoted peace with Israel since the signing of the Egyptian peace treaty in 1979. But to allow Israel to cut through the Arab region without offering Palestinians even the basics of statehood is something else altogether,” said one source.
According to Ibrahim, Egypt is as heavily involved in trying to re-start negotiations that could pave the way towards a peaceful settlement of the Palestinian cause as ever. “If we don’t do this, we risk instability,” he explained.
Government officials say Egypt has been engaged in intense communication with both Israel and the Palestinians since Cairo managed to mediate an end to Israel’s 11-day war on Gaza. “There has been an intense exchange of visits during the past weeks and they will continue,” said one. He added that the goal of current communications is to start a reconstruction operation in Gaza which requires coordination between the Palestinian Authority, Israel, and donors.
It is an issue over which Cairo is closely coordinating with Doha. Only this week, explained the official, Egypt managed to get Israel to agree to allow fuel to be delivered to Gaza’s power plant. It was Qatar that paid for the fuel, and Egypt that secured Israeli permission for its delivery.
Egyptian officials argue the new rapport with Doha is an extension of Cairo’s approach towards Baghdad: it is designed to serve economic and security objectives. Avoiding an eruption of anger in Gaza over tough living conditions, they argue, is a prime Egyptian objective given the shared border Egypt has with the Strip.
Meanwhile, new diplomatic postings were announced last week. Egypt is sending a new ambassador, Amr Al-Sherbini, to head its diplomatic missions in the Qatari capital, ending four years of limited diplomatic ties between the two countries.
In June 2017, along with three Arab Gulf states — Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain — Egypt imposed a diplomatic and economic embargo on Qatar, accusing it of financing activities that harmed their domestic security.
“Today, Egypt is turning a new page with Qatar after having settled its security concerns,” said Ibrahim.
This new page, according to Egyptian officials, will include “significant” economic cooperation.
During a visit to Doha earlier this month, Foreign Minister Samir Shoukri handed Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani an invitation from President Al-Sisi to visit Egypt. While the date for the trip has yet to be fixed it should happen sooner rather than later, say government officials.
The rapprochement with Doha could help push forward slowly improving Egyptian-Turkish relations. According to a concerned official, “Qatar’s close alliance with Turkey, and improving relations with Egypt, will help improve relations between Cairo and Ankara.”
According to officials managing the Libya file, however, it is unrealistic to expect a major breakthrough in relations with Turkey as long as Ankara remains determined to keep Islamist militias and military troops in Libya.
During his participation in the Berlin II Conference on Libya earlier this month, Shoukri insisted that it is not enough for Turkey to pull out the militias but it must also pull out its own troops in line with relevant UN Security Council resolutions.
Egypt has also invested heavily in upgrading relations with Libya. In June alone, there have been four high-level visits between officials of the two countries aimed at trying to formulate a working plan for the agreements and memoranda of understanding Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli signed in Tripoli during a trip in April.
In the coming few days, Libyan Prime Minister Abdel-Hamid Dbeibeh is expected to visit Cairo to pursue more cooperation.
Economic and security cooperation will be high on the agenda. While Egypt does not expect to get the lion’s share of business in the reconstruction of Libya it will participate in sufficient mega projects to allow the return of the close to three million Egyptian expatriate workers forced out of jobs during the peak of political and security tensions in Libya.
Egypt, say officials, is now perceived as “a stabilising factor in Libya” as it works to stop potential military confrontations between Khalifa Haftar and the LNA in the east, and military groups in the west.
“I think it is fair to say that as far as Egypt is concerned there is a need to redefine the objectives of inter-Arab relations in a way that is a lot more pragmatic,” argued Ibrahim. “The time has come for a different concept of Arab relations.” It is not that pan-Arabism is being consigned to the past, just that its definition is crying out for upgrading to meet the interests and challenges of Arab countries.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly