Ten years will have passed next 25 January since the Egyptian people took to the streets to demand radical political change under the slogan “the people want to change the regime.” What they wanted was the departure of former president Hosni Mubarak and to substitute the political system he had presided over with a more democratic and transparent one. Their concerns and aspirations revolved around domestic politics rather than foreign policy.
However, the history of Egypt’s foreign policy over the last ten years has not been uniform. In this period, Egypt has had three presidents whose rule has spanned the period from 2012 until today in addition to two years of internal political infighting and confrontation under the rule of what was called the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
After 11 February 2011, the date former president Mubarak decided, under US and internal pressures, to leave office, until the contested election of the late Mohamed Morsi as president, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt was consumed with political manoeuvering, and its foreign policy was adrift without any perceptible changes in its traditional patterns of alliances and with special attention paid to the ups and downs in Egyptian-American relations. This was because the US monitored the transitional state in a way that many Egyptians considered to be undue interference in Egyptian domestic politics until the election of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in June 2014.
During these three years, Egyptian leadership in Arab affairs was almost non-existent. It is true that it was a member of what was known at the time as the Friends of Syria Group, whose purpose was to overthrow the Syrian regime and provide assistance to those wishing to do so. It is doubtful that Egypt played a prominent role in providing military assistance to the Syrian rebel groups, but the fact of the matter is that it was not in a position to call the shots within this group, which has now become extinct.
Some would argue that its aims and modus operandi paved the way for the Islamic State (IS) group and Al-Qaeda to establish bases in Syria and exercise complete control over large areas of Syrian territory from 2013 to 2016. These developments had a direct and negative effect on Egyptian national security, since terrorist groups operating in northern Sinai paid allegiance to IS.
On its western frontiers, Egypt hardly had any say in Libyan affairs, a situation that helped the positioning of terrorist groups close to these frontiers to wage terror inside Egypt, thus posing a serious threat to national security. Furthermore, the period from 2012 to 2015 saw Western diplomacy working with some Libyan political forces including the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya towards the establishment of the Government of National Accord and the adoption of a UN Security Council Resolution in December 2015 to set this up. Meanwhile, militias sprung up that have not been friendly towards Egyptian interests.
In the south, the Ethiopians, witnessing the uprisings in Egypt with their accompanying political instability, started building their Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) without prior consultations with the Egyptian authorities. These were deeply involved in managing day-to-day affairs and an economy that was not performing well, to say the least.
Until June 2012, Egypt paid lip service to Arab solidarity, but it did not object nor emit reservations during the Arab Summit in Doha that decided to give the seat of Syria in the Arab League to the Syrian opposition, as primarily recognised by some Gulf countries and the US and the member countries of the Friends of Syria Group. Egypt had not objected to the suspension of Syria’s membership of the Arab League a few months earlier. These two decisions in the presence of Egyptian delegations were not the finest moment in Egypt’s Arab diplomacy.
It was an era of the ascendancy of the Gulf in Arab politics without any counterbalance led by Egypt, for the country at the time was in no position to form an Arab coalition to serve pan-Arab interests. During the year when Morsi ruled Egypt, the country was adopting the priorities of the Muslim Brotherhood in a shift of Egyptian foreign policy towards Qatar and Turkey in addition to the Palestinian group Hamas.
In the meantime, relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE were almost frozen in an apparent attempt to play the Saudis off against the Iranians by giving the impression that Egyptian-Iranian relations were getting warmer. Former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad paid an official visit to Cairo, a first in more than 30 years.
In June 2013, weeks before the massive demonstrations that demanded Morsi’s ouster from power, chanting “No, No, No to the rule of the Guidance Bureau,” the highest executive body in the Muslim Brotherhood, he had asked the Egyptian military to train members of the so-called Free Syrian Army.
Fortunately, it rejected his demand. To make matters worse, Morsi decided to cut off diplomatic relations with Syria after an explicit diktat from Qatar relayed by a certain Youssef Al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian turned Qatari and president of the so-called International Organisation for Muslim Scholars, a front organisation for the Muslim Brothers aided by the Turks and the Qataris.
Breaking off diplomatic relations with Syria, regardless of one’s opinion regarding the Syrian government, was a regrettable manifestation of the absence of Egyptian leadership in Arab councils.
Moreover, Egyptian foreign policy became almost isolated on the international scene. The African Union (AU) suspended Egypt’s membership, the European Union was on the brink of slapping sanctions on the country had it not been for the forceful intervention of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and the US suspended the delivery of military hardware. Our only allies became three Gulf countries, namely Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait, though Jordan came forward and supported the political changes in Egypt.
Russia showed its support, probably seeing an opportunity to woo Egypt towards Moscow by signalling its willingness to provide Cairo with advanced military hardware. In late 2013, Egypt hosted a meeting of the Russian ministers of defence and foreign affairs with their Egyptian counterparts, Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi being minister of defence at the time. In February 2014, he flew to Moscow with foreign minister Nabil Fahmi, and the two men met with their Russian counterparts.
By June 2014, the month when Al-Sisi became the elected president of Egypt, the uneven course of Egyptian foreign policy from 2011 onwards had started witnessing corrections that did not change fundamentally its basic principles. Egypt regained its membership of the AU, and the first foreign visit of the newly-elected president was to Africa to attend an African Union Summit.
The US resumed the delivery of the suspended military shipments, the European Union resorted to business as usual with Egypt, and Cairo, while cementing its traditional alliances, decided to turn eastwards towards China and the Asian tigers. President Al-Sisi was the first Egyptian president to visit Vietnam, as well as Singapore.
March 2015 saw the complete reinstatement of Egyptian foreign policy. It was a moment of success and triumph at the same time. The world was present at an international conference to support the Egyptian economy in Sharm El-Sheikh. Kings, emirs, heads of state and governments and foreign ministers all participated, and many of them took to the floor to show their strong support for Egypt.
The US was represented by former secretary of state John Kerry. He expressed his support for the “new Egypt” with the implicit hope that it would become economically resilient and a force for security, stability and peace in a region that had remained in turmoil since 2011.
Over the last six years, Egyptian foreign policy has regained a certain degree of autonomy and effectiveness in dealing with a myriad of challenges and threats to Egypt’s national security interests. Furthermore, it has successfully repositioned the country in Africa, the Arab world, the Middle East and the Mediterranean to become an active strategic partner for the European powers and the Arab countries in a coalition of powers striving to restore a strategic balance of power among competing anti-status quo actors, namely Turkey and Iran.
Last summer, Egypt, by threatening to resort to military means in order to defend its joint borders with Libya, succeeded in setting in motion a process in parallel with the Berlin Declaration of January 2020 whereby Libya could once again become a stable country at peace within and at peace with its neighbours. This success is due to the fact that Cairo began talking to all stakeholders in Libya including the National Accord Government.
In Syria, Egypt is trying behind the scenes to help Damascus without alienating its strategic partners whether in the Arab world or the West. According to press reports, Egypt is working to help Syria regain its seat at the Arab League. If it succeeds, that would be a sign of the re-engagement of Egypt with its natural strategic environment, that is the Arab world and more particularly the Middle East.
But the Middle East today is no longer the Middle East that failed disastrously to deal with the Arab uprisings ten years ago. It has become a different Middle East with the normalisation agreements between Israel and some Arab countries and the establishment of normal relations with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. The challenge facing Egypt in the new strategic landscape in the Middle East and North Africa is how to work with its partners to reconcile the normalisation agreements between Israel and the Arab countries that decided to normalise with Israel with the implementation of the UN Security Council Resolution of 2003 on the two-state solution.
With a new administration in Washington that believes in multilateralism and with old hands that worked in previous US administrations on the peace process in the Middle East, Egypt could have a peace partner at the White House next January that is willing to work with the Palestinians, the Arabs and the Israelis to consummate the reconciliation between the Arabs, the Palestinians and the Israelis away from the diktats of the Trump administration.
When the reconstruction of Egypt and the modernisation of its economy and its inefficient bureaucracy is complete, Egyptian foreign policy will be in a position to have a say in the order of things in the Middle East and the rest of the Arab world. Moreover, the idea, first promoted by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, of a new coalition in the Middle East comprising Egypt, Jordan and Iraq – and hopefully Syria and Lebanon as well – in the not too-distant future is a strategic option that merits serious consideration.
In the Middle East that is being reshaped dramatically these days, a certain equilibrium in the Israeli-Arab equation is needed.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly