The dilemmas of Egyptian foreign policy

Nael M Shama , Wednesday 11 Jun 2014

Foreign policy successes and failures in the past have been the kingmakers and breakers of Egypt's leaders. What strategy will El-Sisi embrace as he attempts to return Egypt to a leading regional role?

Although Egypt is a political powerhouse in the Middle East, its foreign policy hardly reflects that. Under its longtime president Hosni Mubarak, Egypt receded into a long phase of quietism and withdrawal. Mubarak is gone, but "Mubarakism without Mubarak" has persisted, even under the short-lived rule of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi. As soon as he steps into the presidency, Egypt's new ruler, Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, will find himself on the horns of multiple foreign policy dilemmas. The way he tackles them will shape the substance, orientation and purpose of Egypt's foreign policy in the near future.

Resources and aspirations

Egypt traditionally sees itself as the natural leader of the Arab world. In his manifesto "The Philosophy of the Revolution," former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser (ruled 1954-1970) rambled about a leading role in the region that is "wandering aimlessly about seeking an actor to play it." This role, he added, "should at last settle down, weary and worn out, on our frontiers, beckoning us to move, to dress up for it and to perform it since there is nobody else who could do so." The foreign policy of Nasser's successor, Anwar El-Sadat, particularly the go-it-alone peace deal with Israel, led to Egypt's ostracisation in the region. But Sadat was confident that Egypt's isolation in its sphere of influence was only temporary, and that Arabs were bound to follow in its footsteps. Although Mubarak was not interested in the flamboyance of leadership, preferring instead to be a distant, bureaucratic president of a status quo state, he still clung to a vital Egyptian involvement in the Palestinian problem.

The recent rise of El-Sisi in Egyptian politics revived nationalist sentiments and ambitions after decades of dormancy. Fostered by state institutions and the pro-regime mass media, ostensibly as a bulwark against Islamism, these nationalist sentiments bred a wave of great expectations. In Egypt's cafes and on television shows analogies are frequently drawn between El-Sisi and Nasser, the leader whose reign witnessed the most dynamic and change-oriented Egyptian foreign policy in modern times. Great hopes are pinned on El-Sisi's leadership. He will be another Nasser, his supporters wish, taking on the mantle of leadership, defying international powers and restoring Egypt's wounded prestige in the world.

But times have massively changed. Capitalising on political determination and the availability of resources, Nasser could, with relative ease, fund revolutionary movements in Africa, provide support for Arab states against Israel and lead the developing world, under the umbrella of the Non-Aligned Movement, against the plots of superpowers. His electrifying charisma added an element of inspiration and magic to his foreign policy. For more than 10 years (1956-1967), the role Nasser had envisaged as a young officer rested indeed on Egypt's shores.

Egypt's dire economic situation today inhibits its ability to play the same role. Three years of political turmoil took a great toll on its economy, slowing down economic growth and foreign investment flows and reducing tourism and export earnings. In foreign affairs, the economic crisis increased Egypt's vulnerability and deepened its dependence on Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE, who together provided more than $20 billion in various forms of assistance to Egypt since Morsi's ouster. As a result, Egypt's foreign policy has been increasingly wedded to the interests of Gulf states, with less autonomy and a narrow margin of manoeuvrability being the outcome.

The change in Egypt's stance toward the Syrian conflict is proof of this. Morsi had vocally supported the Syrian "revolution." He severed diplomatic ties with Syria's regime during a rally in which hardline Islamists called for "jihad" against Bashar Al-Assad. But a few weeks after the coup, Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy announced that Egypt was re-evaluating its relationship with Syria, adding that Morsi's decision to cut diplomatic ties with Damascus would be "re-examined." In the following months, Cairo's policy on Syria came closer to that endorsed by its Gulf allies, indicating a policy that is "shaped by donors."

El-Sisi must find a creative answer to this predicament: How to reconcile needed economic aid from donors with an independent foreign policy? Without aid, Egypt's ailing economy will continue to suffer, but for a populist president like El-Sisi, dependency on — or worse, acquiescence to — the small oil sheikhdoms will come at a huge cost: diminished popularity and reminiscence of the notorious days of Mubarak, not Nasser.

Authoritarianism and the outside world

The ouster of Morsi and the subsequent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood unleashed all the demons of the authoritarian state that had been dormant since Mubarak's overthrow in 2011. In the name of combating terrorism and restoring the "prestige" of the state, thousands have been killed and arrested in the span of a few months, an Orwellian protest law was issued, and dissent has been quashed using all possible means. Such draconian measures cannot take place in today's globalised, interconnected world — which attaches great importance to liberties and human rights issues — without international ramifications.

Indeed, widespread human rights abuses in Egypt elicited major responses from various international players. The African Union, for instance, suspended Egypt's membership days after Morsi's removal in July 2013. As a result, Egypt (along with international pariahs Zimbabwe and Sudan) was in January excluded from attending the high-profile US-Africa Leaders Summit, which will take place in Washington in August. Also, a joint declaration was issued in March by 27 member states of the UN Human Rights Council, expressing concern over Egypt's excessive use of force against protestors and asking the Egyptian authorities to hold those responsible for the abuses to account. In the same vein, the outcry of the international media over the trial of the journalists of Al-Jazeera's Cairo office continues unabated, causing embarrassment for the Egyptian government in major world capitals.

El-Sisi will soon be caught between internal and external allies. A large segment of his power base rejects any conciliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, and advocates continuing — or even escalating — the crackdown on dissidents, Islamists and revolutionary youth alike. Moreover, any attempt to reform state institutions, especially the gigantic security apparatus, will be resisted by a state that has become too old and too corrupt to change its notorious ways. On the other hand, blatant authoritarianism at home will continue to strain Egypt's relations with the outside world, especially the United States and European countries, undermining foreign aid, investment and Egypt's international reputation.

Few allies, many antagonists

Egypt has few allies in the region: the Gulf states. With the exception of Qatar, which dances to a different drum, these states have an abundance of petrodollars and harbour an abundance of antipathy towards Islamist movements — the perfect allies of today's Egypt. Conversely, because of their support for the Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey, Qatar and Hamas are seen in Cairo as barefaced adversaries. Egypt's relations with neighbouring Libya and Sudan are cordial, but fraught with tension. Sudan did not toe the line of Egypt over Ethiopia's Renaissance Dam, which Egypt regards as a menace to its share of Nile water. The inability of Libya's government to curb arms trafficking across the border, and to control Islamic militias that are hostile to Egypt's regime, and the latter's reluctance to extradite members of Gaddafi's regime who live in Egypt are causes of friction in Egyptian-Libyan ties. Egypt's formal diplomatic relations with Iran have been severed since 1980 and their restoration is nowhere on the horizon.

Egypt therefore is semi-isolated in the region where it is centered, the Middle East. Proximate powers such as Libya, Qatar, Sudan and Hamas — and, in the wider region, Turkey, Iran and Ethiopia — are not allies. They all fall within the scope of hostile, unfriendly or, at best, neutral states. In response to this inimical milieu, the strategy of the post-Morsi regime has rested on escalation. Cairo expelled the Turkish ambassador in November, recalled its ambassador to Doha in January, and an Egyptian court labeled Hamas a terrorist organisation in March. Media assaults on Ankara, Doha and Hamas have verged on hysteria, reflecting how distant reconciliation is.

However, not only cannot a strategy that is premised on confrontation survive, especially for a pivotal country with leadership aspirations, but it could also be very detrimental. For instance, suffocating Hamas for too long might drive its radical elements to forge ties with the Islamist insurgents in Sinai. Also, Egypt will not be able to mediate between the belligerent Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, or between Israel and the Palestinians if it continues to boycott Hamas. Moreover, the legitimacy of Egypt's new president will be undercut if he is seen at home as colluding with Israel against the besieged and poverty-stricken Palestinians. Likewise, a protracted state of tension with two regional powers like Turkey and Iran is neither constructive nor conducive to regional stability.

Which strategic formula will El-Sisi embrace to confront these threats, break out of this isolation, and restore Egypt's stature in the region? Escalation may undermine Egypt's national security and ignite a new Arab Cold War, to whose ill winds no state would be immune, but inaction could be costly, too. So will El-Sisi manage to strike a balance between both courses of action, with skill, intellect and prescience?

Foreign policy victories and failures were kingmakers and breakers in Egypt. The nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company and the "Crossing" in 1973 made Nasser and Sadat national heroes. In contrast, the 1967 defeat heralded Nasser's political demise, and Sadat's separate peace with Israel 10 years later precipitated his assassination. Undoubtedly, El-Sisi will soon be put to serious tests. Will his foreign policy be his crowning glory or his knockout punch?

The writer is a political researcher and author of Egyptian Foreign Policy from Mubarak to Morsi. He can be followed on Twitter @nael_shama

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