Egypt needs to review policies, tactics
DUBAI - Egyptian leaders have for the past two years largely depended on valuable financial and political support from Arab Gulf states to get their country back on its feet and help their Arab allies confront threats from Iran and terrorist groups in the region. But plans have not yet gone the way they were intended placing a big question mark on future relations between Cairo and its Arab Gulf allies.
Egyptian authorities have been waging a fierce campaign against Islamist forces on all fronts in the country, without a clear end in sight. Ever since the Muslim Brotherhood rule was brought to an end in an uprising in July 2013 that was followed by the election of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as president, Egypt has plunged into political turmoil agitated by attacks by terrorists associated with the Islamic State (ISIS).
Gulf Arab states supported the downfall of the brotherhood and invested billions of dollars in Egypt to help the new leadership resolve acute economic problems and restore stability. But the country’s political, security and economic troubles persist.
The main purpose of the Gulf Arab investment, which has reportedly reached about $20 billion, is to see Egypt return to the international scene as a regional powerhouse to help the Arabs level the balance with Iran, which has used its Shia militia allies to spread its influence in the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia appears to be intent on creating a collaboration of Sunni states to torpedo Iran’s expansionist schemes. The hoped-for Saudi alliance includes Turkey and Egypt, which have strained relations over Cairo’s prosecution of Muslim Brotherhood leadership.
Ankara has been critical of the overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and gave refuge to many of the movement’s leaders. Egyptian-Turkish relations quickly deteriorated.
The situation in Egypt seems to be worsening. ISIS-affiliated groups inflict heavy losses in frequent attacks against Egyptian military and security forces in parts of the country, especially the Sinai peninsula.
The ongoing public trials and frequent death sentences against brotherhood leaders and members have helped sustain the pervasive internal political divisions in Egypt which is also weighing heavily on an already struggling economy.
Moreover, Cairo’s insistence on the full eradication and persecution of the brotherhood has blocked Saudi efforts to normalise Egyptian-Turkish ties and undermined its efforts to create a powerful unified Sunni alliance.
According to well-informed official sources, Arab Gulf states are becoming impatient with Cairo and are pressing to see a return in investment.
“Arab Gulf leaders are increasingly worried that Sisi and his government have thus far failed to restore national unity and effectively fight the terrorists,” one Gulf source said.
“It is time Sisi sought a political solution to the power struggle with the brotherhood in order to restore stability to the country and pave the way for the birth of a powerful alliance of Sunni states in the region.”
Observers point to the fact that in the 2012 elections, in which Muslim Brotherhood candidate Muhammad Morsi was elected president, some 15 million people voted for him.
That means there are more than 10 million Brotherhood members or sympathisers in the country and they cannot be simply wiped out or ignored in the political process. “They must be allowed to play some role in a contained manner to ease the tension in Egypt,” one Egyptian analyst said.
As for the war against ISIS, the Egyptian military seems adamant on employing old tactics based on a massive crackdown on militants.
“Modern-day counter-insurgency requires sophisticated intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance which will allow the military to closely monitor the terrorists and stay one step ahead of them,” said an Egyptian defence analyst and former special forces officer. “The Egyptian military must make better use of electronic data gathering and signal intelligence to track down and hit the terrorists. Continued excessive reliance on human intelligence is no longer feasible.”
He told The Arab Weekly that the Egyptian military and security agencies still have to learn how to coordinate and communicate with each other to effectively fight ISIS. He noted that in some instances “the terrorists would hit an army check point and a nearby base for a security service would not move to the rescue because it would be unaware of the attack or could hear the shooting but would not know where due to lack of communication.”
Egypt is facing many threats internally and externally. It needs all the help it can get from Arab allies to crush the terrorists, achieve national reconciliation and ease economic hardship. It will be some time before Cairo is in a good enough shape to reassume its role as the main Arab power and a regional centre of gravity.
Until then Egypt’s best interests are served in maintaining a strong strategic relationship with its Gulf Arab allies who know quite well they cannot beat Iranian schemes or win the war on terrorism without Egypt on their side.