2021 Yearender: Accommodation - The new normal

Dina Ezzat , Monday 27 Dec 2021

Cairo’s foreign policy has been finely calibrated to prevent disagreements from derailing cooperation.

President Al-Sisi and UAE Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed

Between 2014 and 2020, according to the government’s narrative, Egypt had no choice but to view its foreign policy relations in simple terms of black and black. Over the past 12 months, however, that has changed, a shift made possible, says one source, because of the return of political stability following the dramatic transition Egypt passed through in 2013.

“In the beginning we needed very strong allies on whom we could count. We needed the support, and at the same time had to be very mindful of countries that wanted to shake things up for us,” said the source.

Today, he added, Egypt has reached a place where it can navigate its relations with other states and contain disagreements, even on fundamental issues.

TURKEY AND QATAR, SLOW PROGRESS: The year began with Joe Biden’s inauguration as the 46th president of the United States. Biden entered the Oval Office on 20 January with a foreign policy agenda that aimed to complete his predecessor’s downsizing of the US presence in the Middle East.

The differences between the administrations of Donald Trump, who had a strong chemistry with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, and Biden, was bound to impact not only on bilateral relations, but on Egypt’s relations with other regional players who, after Biden’s victory, were forced to recalibrate their ties with Washington.

Turkey, say diplomatic sources, was one of the countries wrongfooted by Trump’s departure from the White House. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had lost a solid ally who had allowed him to push Ankara’s boundaries when it came to managing regional relations.

“Our problem with Turkey was all Turkey’s doing. Erdogan thought he could influence political developments in Egypt to suit his regional agenda. He kept trying, and Egypt kept pushing back, though but we never really encroached on any of his regional interests,” said an official source close to the file. But after Trump left the White House, and Ankara came to understand that Egypt’s post 2013 regime could not be manipulated, Erdogan realised that his attempts to “interfere in Egypt’s internal affairs were not going anywhere”.

Cairo, which had avoided harming economic relations with Turkey despite recalling its ambassador from Ankara in 2013, was ready to engage in a rapprochement with Turkey, beginning with security and intelligence talks on Libya where the two countries were backing rival parties. Low level, unannounced security talks then took place in Ankara and Cairo, followed in spring by a visit to Egypt by Turkey’s assistant foreign minister.

Turkey has accommodated several of Egypt’s demands with regard to the operation of Istanbul-based TV channels critical of the Egyptian regime, while Cairo accommodated some of Turkey’s demands on Egyptian hospitality to Turkish opposition figures. Yet very little real progress has been made.

In the autumn, Egypt’s assistant foreign minister headed a large delegation to Ankara for the second round of talks. Both sides played down the prospects of much progress being made, correctly, it turned out.

 “Things are moving slowly,” said a diplomatic source, “and it might be quite a while before we can talk about the resumption of full diplomatic relations.”

“It can, however, safely be argued that the phase of confrontation and animosity has come to an end and that this year we both embarked on a new phase of meeting somewhere in the middle. There will be ups and downs, but it is hard to think that we will move backward. Both countries have decided it is in their interests to learn how to live with their differences.”

Four years after Cairo joined Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, and Manama in enforcing a boycott on Doha to prompt a change in its foreign policy choices, especially on the Arab front, Qatar is being welcomed in from the cold. While Cairo’s spin is that Doha has come to realise the post-2013 political dispensation in Egypt is here to stay, Doha’s take is that Cairo has come to terms with the fact that it needs to accept Qatar for what it is.

In January this year, a summit in the Saudi city of Al-Ula came to an agreement to end the boycott in return for a Qatari commitment to shift its attitude towards Egypt, UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain, especially with regards to the coverage of the four countries’ domestic affairs by Al Jazeera satellite channel.

Egyptian diplomats say there has been “quite a shift” away from Al Jazeera’s onetime consistently hostile coverage of Egyptian affairs, and that the shift has been accompanied by growing co-operation, not least over managing the situation in Gaza. In May this year, Egypt and Qatar engaged in “significant contacts” to secure an end to Israel’s war on the Strip and start reconstruction. And according to Egyptian government sources, Qatar is working to “significantly expand” its investments in Egypt.

YESTERDAY’S ALLIES, TODAY’S PARTNERS: While Cairo-based foreign diplomats contrast the thaw with Qatar with the clouds that seem to be gathering over Egypt’s relations with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, Egyptian diplomats balk at the comparison. Egypt and Qatar, they say, will continue to have fundamental disagreements about the role of political Islam across the region, something that came to a head following the removal of Mohamed Morsi in June 2013.

Doha, say local sources, has not abandoned its close association with Islamist movements across the region, especially in Libya, and its alliance with Ankara underlines this position. While Abu Dhabi and Riyadh do not entertain the same sympathies, the sources concede that Egypt has some other “issues” with its allies of the past seven years. Points of contention relate mostly to the speed of normalisation with Israel that the UAE has been adopting, and conflicting visions of Red Sea security.

Egyptian diplomatic sources insist that these differences have not compromised the overall volume of Egyptian relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. During the past eight weeks, the same diplomatic sources say, Cairo has been in close contact with both Abu Dhabi and Riyadh over the management of the situation in Sudan, and the three countries consult regularly on developments in Tunisia, Lebanon, and Syria. They also coordinate over the Arab League. In March, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh both supported the Egyptian diplomat and former foreign minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit’s bid for a second term as Arab League secretary-general.

Arab League sources make no bones about the fact that Gulf countries feel their crucial financial role in almost every Arab country qualifies them for a greater say in the pan-Arab organisation and across the Arab world in general. It is against this backdrop, says one source, that one should read the significance of their accommodation of Egypt by supporting Abul-Gheit.

The six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) may have internal disagreements, but there is a consensus among them that their financial clout should translate into greater political influence. According to Washington- and New York-based Arab diplomats, it is something with which the White House agrees.

“The idea in Washington is actually more about ending inter-GCC squabbling. Washington thinks Gulf capitals, which are inevitably close US allies despite some hidden tensions, should be playing a bigger role in promoting regional stability,” said one Washington-based Arab diplomat.