Calling for diplomacy

Gamal Essam El-Din , Tuesday 1 Mar 2022

Political commentators in Egypt are divided in their response to the war in Ukraine, reports Gamal Essam El-Din

Calling for diplomacy
The Arab League Council meeting on Monday

Political figures in Egypt are divided in their reactions to the Russia-Ukraine war. Some argue that Russia had no alternative to invading its smaller southern neighbour to prevent NATO expansion, while others argue that the attempt to crush Ukraine’s freedom will cost Russian President Vladimir Putin dear.

On 24 February, the Foreign Ministry released a statement that read: “Egypt is following with deep concern successive developments regarding the situation in Ukraine, and affirms the importance of upholding dialogue and diplomatic solutions, as well as endeavours that would hasten the political settlement of the crisis.”

Two days later it “called for an emergency Arab League meeting at delegate level to discuss developments in Ukraine.”

The Arab League Council permanent representatives met on Monday, calling for diplomacy to prevail and offering to assist in diplomatic mediation.

The tone of Egypt’s official reaction is shared by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, said Abdallah Al-Sinnawi, a political commentator.

The three countries maintain good relations with the US and Russia, and Egypt is reliant on Russia and Ukraine for wheat imports and tourist arrivals, he added.

“Relations between all three countries and the United States have not been at their best since Joe Biden was elected president in January 2021. Indeed, the relations between Biden and the leaders of Egypt and Saudi Arabia in particular are far cooler than they were with his predecessor Donald Trump.”

In contrast, points out Al-Sinnawi, the leaders of most Arab countries, including Egypt, have developed good relations with Russia in recent years.

“Russia was the first country to support Egypt’s revolution in 2013, moved to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation in 2014, and was the first to congratulate Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi on his election as president of Egypt in June 2014,” says Al-Sinnawi. Randa Slim, a political analyst with the Washington-based Middle East Institute, notes that Arab capitals “fear the implications of the conflict for regional security and due to the prevailing perception across the region that the West has double standards when it comes to Arab lives and Arab lands — a point driven home by the stark difference in how European countries are welcoming Ukrainian refugees compared to how most of them treated Syrian refugees.”

Slim also argues that “Western indignation over Russia’s occupation of Ukrainian lands is a painful reminder to Arabs of European inaction and US support of the decades-long Israeli occupation of Palestine.”

Gamal Zahran, a professor of political science at Suez Canal University, believes Arab peoples, politicians, and thinkers see little but Western double standards when they compare Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 with America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003.

“Not only did America ignore the United Nations when it invaded Iraq in 2003, it also led regime change in Libya, and hit Syria in 2011. Arab peoples naturally ask why America gave itself the right to invade Iraq, ignoring international condemnation, while it condemns Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”

Mustafa Al-Feki, political thinker and director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, draws a parallel between what happened in Cuba in 1962, and what is happening in Ukraine in 2022.

“In 1961-62, former US president John Kennedy authorised a clandestine invasion of nearby Cuba by a brigade of Cuban exiles supported by the CIA, and in reaction the then Soviet President Nikita Khurshchev decided to send medium-range nuclear missiles to Cuba to protect its revolutionary regime.

“We have a similar situation now: Russia under President Putin has strong fears that Ukraine will join NATO, posing a direct threat to Russian national security.”

Al-Feki believes that most Arab peoples’ reactions to the war in Ukraine is at best tepid.

“Arab forces loyal to Iran in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq are anti-American and so unlikely to object to the Russian invasion. In moderate Arab countries people view the war as a conflict of interests between Russia and the West, and though they may have something to lose from this war, they certainly have nothing to gain.”

Al-Feki makes no secret of his admiration of Putin. “He is a man with a unique character and an iron will to restore Russia’s prestige and influence in the world,” he says. Al-Feki does, however, “worry about Putin because he wants to turn Russia into a superpower vis-à-vis America again, and this could cost him and his country a lot”.

Al-Feki argues that US-led NATO should stop provoking Putin who only wants to secure the borders with Russia’s neighbours.

Mohamed Al-Sayed Said, an Al-Ahram political analyst, believes Putin was dragged into the war in Ukraine. “I think that the US and its Western allies pushed Putin into this war to clip the wings of Russia through tough sanctions and international isolation,” he argues.

In contrast, Abdel-Moneim Said, a member of the Senate and a prominent political thinker and strategist, said in a TV interview on 27 February that America should support Ukraine in both word and deed.

“Supporting Ukraine with only lip service will not be good for the United States,” said Said. “Victory for Russia and Putin in Ukraine will undermine the United States and its Western allies. The conflict in Ukraine is a serious test of America’s support for countries seeking democracy and freedom.”

The Russia-Ukraine conflict will have grave economic consequences, Said continued. “Most countries will suffer because of this war. Egypt and Arab countries should see this war as an opportunity to depend on themselves in meeting their needs,” he argued. “For example, we should cultivate more land with wheat as this is a strategic crop which could compromise our internal security.”

A version of this article appears in print in the 3 March, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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