In one of the last diplomatic events held in Washington this year, US President Joe Biden hosted the second US-Africa Summit from 13 to 15 December in the US capital to examine possible ways to upgrade American cooperation with the continent, especially with some key partners — old and new.
On the sidelines of the summit, Biden had a brief encounter with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. This was their third encounter for the year. Biden and Al-Sisi met for the first time in July this year in the Saudi Red Sea city of Jeddah on the sidelines of encounters that the American president held with top Saudi and other Arab officials. In November they met for the second time for a bilateral meeting in the Red Sea city of Sharm El-Sheikh on the sidelines of COP27 that Egypt hosted.
With three meetings, brief as they might be, in the span of five months, it has become clear that apprehension is no longer in the lexicon of bilateral relations between Egypt and its now five decades-old ties with its top Western ally. For Egyptian diplomacy, this is one of the key breakthroughs secured in 2022. Egypt did not wish for tense relations with Washington but it also did not want to go too far in accommodating pressing requests from the Biden administration on matters that Cairo qualifies as “strict internal affairs”, including issues of democracy and human rights.
Speaking on background basis, informed diplomats acknowledge that the current state of affairs between Cairo and Washington is far from being an “Anwar Sadat-Jimmy Carter” moment. Nor is it a headache-free transactional relationship like the one Cairo was happy to have with the previous administration of Donald Trump.
However, they argue that the current relationship is not undermining the core of strategic cooperation between the two allies, especially when it comes to military and security. They say that on these fronts, things are quite stable.
They add that there is actually a clear understanding on key political issues, including stability of the Middle East, promoting Palestinian-Israeli détente and the battle against militant Islamist groups in the Middle East, east of Africa, and the Sahel and Sahara regions. Moreover, they say that Egypt has solid US support in its water security “if there is any threat” when it comes to the dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), the mega dam that Ethiopia is building and has been filling unilaterally, over the Blue Nile, the main source of water for Egypt, a country that suffers serious water poverty.
This year, President Al-Sisi personally received several top American military figures and a host of US Congress delegations. After almost every single meeting, the spokesman for the president issued a statement underlining the significance of Egyptian-American relations. In the early weeks of this year, the US announced a considerably big arms deal with Egypt despite the continued suspension of a segment of annual US military aid to Egypt.
Today, Egyptian diplomats say that beyond the always controversial issues of governance and human rights, the US is certainly eying Egypt’s close and expanding partnership with Russia and China — the two countries that the Biden administration is most mindful of. They add that while keen to further its cooperation and to iron out differences with the US, Egypt’s diplomatic choices are becoming increasingly guided by evolving regional and international contexts that allow for closer cooperation with the two countries that the US is now very wary of: Russia and China.
After all, they explain, with its Pivot to Asia policy, the US has for over a decade put this part of the world on the sidelines of its diplomatic focus. In the meantime, with human rights as an inevitable element of US foreign policy, Washington has found itself in a series of confrontations with several Arab Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia. These parallel developments in the past 15 odd years have prompted several Arab states, including the traditional allies in the Gulf, to start looking for potential allies. As one Egyptian diplomat stressed, the purpose of this exercise is not about a desire on the part of Arab Gulf countries “to replace the US because it is silly to think that the Gulf countries could do without the US, especially on the security front. But it is rather about inducing some balance in relations with the US that remains the top partner for all Arab Gulf states.”
Pivot to China started taking over several Arab countries — both the oil rich states who wish to expand economic and information technology cooperation with China, and the developing countries who are happy to pursue strict transactional economic cooperation with a partner who does not want to discuss democracy and human rights. The Arab-China Summit that Riyadh hosted in the first week of December showed that an inevitable new momentum in cooperation with China is coming.
The pursuit of closer cooperation with China and Russia is not at all new to Egyptian foreign policy. It is something that Egyptian diplomacy has been investing in for over 15 years when Cairo decided that the US was going too far in over-emphasising governance issues. However, during the past three years it gained new momentum. This is in part due to the positions that the Biden administration underlined vis-à-vis the democracy file. It is also due to the actual changing international dynamics in which the lone superpower world order that came into effect upon the end of the Cold War seems to be increasingly replaced with a multi-polar system, as many Egyptian diplomats believe.
For Egypt, a more pluralistic world order seems to be offering a chance to expand partnerships, especially in the pursuit of bigger opportunities for economic cooperation.
The economy, Egyptian government sources agree, is the number one priority for Egyptian foreign policy during 2022. With the compounded adverse impact on the Egyptian economy following over two years of the pandemic and a subsequent 10 months of the Russian war on Ukraine, Egypt has landed upon serious economic challenges, both in terms of food and fuel prices and also in terms of supplies of investments and tourism.
This, government sources explained, meant that Egypt had to prioritise the economy, even when it was forced to take some political risks. According to one of these sources and interpreted likewise by several others, the cautious position that Cairo adopted throughout the Russian war on Ukraine when it refrained, like almost every other Arab country, from siding against Russia, is not just about Egypt sending a message to the US administration over Cairo’s frustration with its continued pressure on matters of human rights. It is equally, the source said, about Egypt wanting to maintain good ties with Russia that is promising economic cooperation of many sorts, including a Russian deal to build a peaceful nuclear reactor in the north of Egypt.
Again, the same sources reiterate that while Cairo took “a safe but not very big” distance from the position of the US on the Russian war on Ukraine, it also had to be mindful of the impact of this position on its close ties with the EU which have seen quite an improvement this year compared to the past six years. The creation of a balance between the different partners — China and Russia on one side and the US and the EU on the other — was the basic scheme of Egyptian diplomacy. This is essentially designed to serve a pressing economic agenda. But it equally serves the purpose of sending political messages to Western partners who know that they always need Cairo for the role it is playing to curb undocumented migration from the south to the north of the Mediterranean and for its role and expertise in combating Islamist militant groups.
With the same mindset of prioritising the economy, Egypt moved forward to improve relations with Qatar after having overcome a nearly five-year rift. Exchange of phone calls and visits between officials in Cairo and Doha, including at the leadership level, certainly gained momentum throughout this year. In the last quarter alone, Qatar has come with a $1 billion rescue package deposited in the Central Bank of Egypt to help Cairo overcome declining revenues of foreign currency due to the impact of the war on Ukraine, both on the bill of food and fuel imports and on the flow of investment and tourism. Qatar is also considering mega investments in Egypt that will kick off early next year.
Meanwhile, Qatar has been one of the key mediators that helped secure a breakthrough in Egyptian-Turkish relations that had been going through a slow process of détente until President Al-Sisi and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan had their first handshake in Doha in November this year on the sidelines of the opening of the Qatar World Cup. Qatar, sources say, is considering mega economic projects that it would work on with both Egypt and Turkey.
Egyptian diplomats insist that short of agreements on key political disputes, the economic pressure that Egypt has to deal with as a result of the Russian war on Ukraine, which hit two years after the pandemic imposed its own slowdown, would not have been enough to allow for the breakthrough of relations with both Qatar and Turkey. The two have agreed to put a cap on the support they had provided to leading quarters of political Islam that had been challenging the Egyptian regime since it took office in the summer of 2014. In the case of Turkey, they add, it was essential for Ankara to agree to end all attempts at imposing political and economic hegemony over Libya, Egypt’s direct Western neighbour.
Before the year came to an end, Egypt announced a unilateral demarcation of its maritime borders with Libya. This, informed diplomatic sources say, sends a clear message to Ankara and its allied government in Tripoli about Cairo’s commitment to put its feet on the ground when it comes to its strategic interests.
The same diplomats argue that equally Turkey is motivated by economic interests. Turkey, they point out, is also under significant economic pressure. Meanwhile, they add, Qatar has much political leverage to gain once it secures closer cooperation with the two regional players, Egypt and Turkey.
Egyptian government officials reject the argument that the end of collective Egyptian-Saudi-Emirati hostility towards Qatar and Turkey has ended the close alliance that Cairo had during the better part of eight years with both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. They insist that the profile of the relationship between Cairo and both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi somehow shifted in view of the declining tide of political Islam that the three countries were united in confronting. Egypt, they say, is still hoping for economic cooperation with both Saudi Arabia and the Emirates.
Equally, the same officials say, Egypt is not planning to undermine the close cooperation it has secured with both Cyprus and Greece, especially within the framework of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, in view of the developments of relations with Turkey. Throughout the year, every time there was a development in relations with Turkey, Egypt would reassure its other Mediterranean partners that it is still committed to cooperation.