President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi flew to Baghdad on 28 August to take part in the Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership. It was the highest level of Egyptian representation in Iraq for almost three decades.
The one-day conference offered regional leaders an opportunity to discuss ways to support Iraq and address the challenges facing, and the future prospects of, the region.
President Al-Sisi’s address reflected the degree to which Egypt looks forward to supporting Iraq in its efforts to regain its status and influence in the Arab region after falling prey to the regional agendas of others.
One significant aspect of the Egyptian discourse at the Baghdad summit was Egypt’s supportive response to the Iraqi desire to reinforce its national sovereignty and end foreign intervention in the country.
Egypt understands that Iraq needs to strengthen its ability to counter threats, including terrorism. Egypt wants to help Iraq build its future which, done properly, will strengthen Arab national and regional security.
The energetic resumption of Egyptian-Iraqi bilateral relations is far from being unilaterally driven. As President Al-Sisi put it, there is a “sincere desire” on both sides which reflects a shared political will. Not only was this spirit evident in the level of Egyptian attendance in Baghdad, it could also be seen in the agreements and protocols concluded bilaterally, and within the context of the new tripartite Egyptian-Iraqi-Jordanian mechanism for cooperation.
The agreements and protocols also attest to how much Egypt’s recent development experience can offer friends and allies in the region.
Egypt’s presence and discourse in Baghdad provides an insight into how Egypt views its role vis-à-vis other players. Cairo does not seek to steer others but rather play a leading role in the framework of a multiparty partnership. This reflects Cairo’s awareness of Iraqi aspirations, especially in terms of its desire to develop a strategic balance in its relations with Arab and non-Arab regional powers in a manner consistent with Iraqi interests and Iraq’s historical, cultural and civilisational history.
President Al-Sisi underscored this in his speech when he referred to Iraq as “a bastion of Arabism” and hailed Iraqis as “the great people who possess civilisation and history”.
Battles over Iraq’s identity have wreaked enormous attrition on Iraqi society; indeed, they have at times threatened the very integrity of the state, and are an issue that can no longer be shirked. Iraq cannot achieve stability and revive its regional role if it remains alienated from its roots and vulnerable to polarising divisions imposed by others.
In his focus on the “maintenance of regional security”, Al-Sisi underscored what has become a core foreign policy goal. Cairo has worked intensively to reduce conflicts and crises across the region.
Some countries, such as Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, have been particularly hard hit by foreign interventions. Particularly pernicious are the interventions by non-Arab regional powers which include the deployment of mercenaries, direct occupation of Arab territory, and the building of military bases.
The president directed messages to non-Arab regional powers, urging them to honour the principles of good neighbourliness, respect Iraqi sovereignty and the choices made by the Iraqi people, and to refrain from any intervention in Iraqi domestic affairs whether through direct military action, support of terrorist organisations, or by using Iraq as a transit for militias and mercenaries to other countries.
Baghdad has already taken action to put an end to such phenomena, energetically promoting conflict resolution efforts. It has acted as a mediator to reduce tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia over Yemen, and distanced itself from Iranian attempts to use Iraq to promote Tehran’s agenda in Syria.
Observers framed the tripartite mechanism that emerged from the conference — what Al-Sisi referred to as “a translation of the concept of Arab cooperation” — in terms of an Arab versus non-Arab regional dialectic. It is possible to see it within another framework: as an Arab advance into the Arab absence in Iraq.
The new mechanism includes 15 agreements covering energy, agriculture, and other crucial economic areas.
That Egypt fully supports the Iraqi government was conveyed by the high-level Egyptian presence at the conference. President Al-Sisi lauded Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi’s political, security and economic reform efforts. Iraq has achieved qualitative progress under Al-Kadhimi, despite many obstacles at home and abroad, a fact that presents Iraq with an opportunity and a challenge. Despite the government’s strengthening of state institutions, economic reform, fight against corruption and reordering of foreign policy priorities, it remains an interim government tasked with preparing for elections on 10 October.
It is impossible to tell, as yet, what kind of government the elections will produce. Will it continue along the same path or adopt other priorities? Al-Sisi directly addressed the Iraqi people in his speech, urging them to choose the candidates they feel best represent them and their aspirations for a stable, prosperous and influential Iraq.
President Al-Sisi offered Iraq support in its counter-terrorism operations. Iraq has, in the past, locked horns with and repelled terrorist organisations such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Systematising and institutionalising security coordination was one of the main reasons for President Al-Sisi’s participation in the conference and, before this, for Iraqi Defence Minister Juma Anad’s visit to Cairo on 7 August.
Al-Sisi also drew attention to a number of other threats, referencing both climate change and water scarcity. These problems are transnational, and multifaceted in their social, economic and environmental repercussions.
The conference also proved useful at a general inter-Arab level. President Al-Sisi had the opportunity to meet with other Arab heads-of-state, not least the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Ahmed. The meeting occurred several days after the arrival of the Qatari ambassador to Cairo.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly