The parameters of change in Egypt’s foreign policy

Emad Gad , Monday 13 Jun 2011

In place of the old policies which were designed to safeguard the regime's interests, new approaches to the Palestinian question and other regional issues are being drawn up that will reflect Egypt's new voice

After the ouster of Hosni Mubarak and the formation of Essam Sharaf’s cabinet which brought in Nabil El-Arabi as foreign minister, there has been much talk about core changes in Egypt’s foreign policy. These analyses are based on statements by El-Arabi regarding Egypt’s readiness to restore relations with Iran, and readings of statements by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warning about alterations in Egypt’s foreign policies, as well as signs of these modifications.

Meanwhile, several factors came together to form a picture that is being promoted as an example of the deep nature of these changes in Egyptian foreign policy, as if Egypt has joined the “opposing axis” or is on its way to join the ranks of “snubbed” countries or the camp hostile to the West, such as Iran. These factors include Egypt’s request to revise the price of natural gas exported to Israel, Cairo’s sponsorship of the reconciliation process between Fatah and Hamas and the decision to permanently open the Rafah border crossing starting on 28 May.

A closer look at these claims reveals that these are deliberate statements intended to group elements together to prove actual and expected changes in Egypt’s foreign policy. Let us first deconstruct these elements and discuss Egypt’s foreign policy during Mubarak’s era. Mubarak manipulated Egypt’s foreign policy in the last five years to create a succession scenario for his son Gamal. To this end, he used the results of the Palestinian 2006 parliamentary elections – which brought in Hamas as a majority – to send messages to the West, and the US in particular, asserting that any honest and transparent elections will bring Islamists into power. The people of Egypt are not “mature” enough to exercise democracy, he argued, and allowing political Islam to take over the helm would harm the interests of the West and dissolve the peace treaty with Israel.

Israel’s war against Lebanon also broke out in 2006, and private Egyptian newspapers distributed photos of Hassan Nasrallah, which gave Mubarak another card to play in the plot of succession by saying that Egyptian public opinion is fanatical and could usher in figures who oppose the West and Israel. Therefore, it would be best not to demand democracy or human rights in Egypt until the people become more seasoned.

After that, Mubarak arrived at a pact with the US whereby he was left to his own devices regarding domestic issues, since he knew his people best, particularly how to control them and safeguard US interests and the peace treaty with Israel. In return, Egypt would apply any regional policies dictated by Washington, which indirectly means Israel.

Once Mubarak was removed from power this pact collapsed, and Egyptian foreign policy was liberated from the limitations of the succession project and adopted the policies of a major regional power with a dignity and independence which commands respect and appreciation. Cairo began implementing foreign policies which serve Egypt’s interests, not the interests of the succession scenario and was no longer hostage to it. This is the actual change has that occurred in Egypt’s foreign policy, namely liberation from a pact to sell Egypt’s regional role to serve the succession scenario.

In terms of relations with Israel, this has not officially changed at the core; the main change here is the aspiration of the Egyptian people for a foreign policy that befits revolutionary Egypt an expression of the dignity of an exceptional people. This was met with an expected hostile campaign by Israel, similar to ones which occured whenever the ruler of Egypt changes; it happened when Sadat left and it was especially acute after the overthrow of a regime which was described as “a strategic asset” for Israel.

The issue of Egyptian natural gas going to Israel is a matter of corruption and wasting Egyptian resources. The Egyptian Ministry of Petroleum sold Egypt’s natural gas to the East Mediterranean Gas Company (EMG) owned by Hussein Salem, who managed Mubarak’s finances, and we don’t know at what price the gas was bought or sold to Israel. Egypt’s demand to revise the price of gas exports is legitimate and is not a hostile move against Israel. I doubt Egypt would refuse to sell natural gas to Israel at world prices.

As for Palestinian national reconciliation, change occurred for all parties. Egypt was liberated from the pact of selling Egypt’s regional role for services in the succession project; meanwhile the positions of Hamas and Fatah were transformed after the spirit of Tahrir Square swept through Gaza and Ramallah where demonstrators chanted: “The people demand an end to divisions”. These are the slogans of Tahrir Square which carried a discreet threat to the rulers there, and confirmed the aspirations of the Palestinian people for freedom, democracy and ending divisions.

Hamas revised its position when the head of its Political Bureau refused Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s request to condemn anti-regime protests, which are sponsored by the Muslim Brotherhood there. Mishaal refused to denounce his group’s parent-movement and had to find another home for Hamas’s Political Bureau away from Damascus, which has stopped protecting the bureau and its members.

Fatah and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also altered their position after years of extending his hand in peace to Israel, and was repaid by humiliation and derision for being a weak president who does not have control over the Gaza Strip. Everyone changed, which made the conclusion of the Egyptian proposal possible as it stands. The parties agreed to sign and postponed many problematic issues until the interim period although there is no guarantee they will be resolved.

The natural outcome of this is permanently re-opening the Rafah border crossing, which had been open from 2005 until Hamas took over power in Gaza in June, 2007. In the period that followed, it was open two days a weeks to allow Palestinians through since it is a crossing for individuals not trucks. Abu Mazen no longer objects to opening the border crossing as part of the reconciliation process, and in return for Hamas’s agreement to reconcile and let the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) control negotiations with Israel until a political settlement is reached according to international legitimacy.

This settlement would be proposed to the Palestinian parliament or the Palestinian people in a referendum. Several European countries, such as France, Germany and Britain, understood the deal and welcomed the reconciliation agreement. Washington did not strongly object but asked for more time to look into the matter before commenting, which is a positive sign.

As for Egyptian-Iranian relations, these are too complicated to restore in a short period, because the boycott is not only in Cairo’s hands but is also based on complex ties since the Iranian revolution in 1979. There are dozens of unresolved issues which require a long time to settle, mostly regarding the dynamic of interaction between two regional powers. Revolutionary Egypt’s decision to expel an Iranian diplomat is an example of the deep complications in bilateral relations.

Yes, there are core changes in Egypt’s foreign policy, namely an end to selling Egypt’s regional role for the benefit of the succession scenario. Accordingly, a new foreign policy was drawn to represent a major regional power which wants to restore its influential role based on its capabilities and the implications of such a role. Anyone who understands this transformation will be able to maintain their ties with Egypt, and anyone who does not or insists on misunderstanding will continue to talk about root changes in Egypt’s foreign policy and jeopardise their bilateral relationship with revolutionary Egypt.

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