Egypt seeks to ease regional tensions

November 19, 2017
Wary of conflict. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry leaves his plane upon arrival in Muscat, on November 1. (AFP)

Cairo- Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry completed a whirlwind tour of Arab and Gulf countries to try to restore calm after the prime minister of Lebanon resigned from office while in Saudi Arabia.

Shoukry conducted a three-day tour in which he met with leaders in Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia. The Egyptian Foreign Min­istry said the tour took place as part of consultations between Egypt and Arab allies on regional development and “especially in the shadow of de­velopments in Lebanon’s political arena.”

The trip came after Saad Hariri re­signed as Lebanese prime minister on November 4, citing Iranian in­terference in his country through its proxy Hezbollah, significantly rais­ing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had earlier reiterated Cairo’s support for Riyadh, which is seek­ing to counteract what it has termed Tehran’s interference in the Arab world.

“I have said it once and I will say it again, Gulf national secu­rity is Egyptian national security. I have faith in the wise and firm leadership of Saudi Arabia,” Sisi said at the World Youth Forum in Sharm el-Sheikh.

He indicated that Cairo would prefer tensions to ease because the Middle East is already facing numer­ous challenges. “I am always against war… Our point of view when it comes to new troubles with either Iran or Hezbollah or any other issue is that we have to deal with great care so as not to add to the chal­lenges and troubles of the region,” Sisi said.

During the last stop on his tour, Shoukry met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz in Riyadh, where he reit­erated Cairo’s commitment to Saudi and Arab Gulf security. While official statements only confirmed that the two had discussed the Lebanon cri­sis, Egyptian media claimed Shouk­ry urged an easing of tensions.

“Egypt does not see what is hap­pening in this region through a sectarian prism,” said Mohamed al- Orabi, Egypt’s former foreign min­ister and a member of parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee. “This is why it cannot allow Sunni-Shia hostilities to morph into a regional war that jeopardises Arab national security.”

Tensions between Riyadh and Tehran have never been higher. Saudi Arabia has accused Iran of “direct military aggression” and an “act of war” for allegedly supplying Yemen’s Houthi rebels with a ballis­tic missile that was intercepted No­vember 4 over Riyadh. The Houthis claimed the missile was “Yemeni-produced” but military analysts said it was unlikely the rebels would be able to produce such a weapon.

Bahrain later linked an explosion at a major oil pipeline to Iran, raising tensions between Gulf states and Tehran.

“Terrorist acts witnessed by the country in the recent period were carried out through direct contacts and instructions from Iran,” Bah­raini Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid bin Abdullah al-Khalifa said. The Iranian Foreign Ministry rejected the accusations as “false talk.”

Despite the strong public state­ments supporting Riyadh and ac­cusing Tehran, Cairo appears wary of further escalation, particularly given its potential sectarian dimen­sions.

“Look at the demographic maps in most of the countries of the region — Bahrain, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon — and you will easily see what a sec­tarian war could do to these coun­tries if it erupts,” Orabi said.

“At the same time, a sectarian war would only benefit Israel, which would be happy to see Hezbollah destroyed, Iran weakened and Arab countries in an endless state of war.”

Egypt is aware that an escalation would harm its weakened economy before major economic reforms have begun to pay dividends. Any regional conflict would affect trade via the Suez Canal, which remains a major source of income for Cairo.

“Egypt worked tooth and nail in the past years to ensure that region­al tensions would not affect navi­gation in the Red Sea,” said Gamal Bayoumi, a former Egyptian assis­tant foreign minister. “However, an escalation of tensions in the region will render all this work worthless.”

The same fears apply to Egypt’s tourism sector, which is beginning to see signs of life after months of downturn following flight suspen­sions after the bombing of a Russian passenger plane over Sinai in Octo­ber 2015.

Despite differences of opinion be­tween Cairo and Riyadh on tensions in the region as well as on Syria and other issues, analysts said there was little prospect those could lead to a long-term rift between the two al­lies.

“Both Egypt and Saudi Arabia need each other,” said Abdel Monem Said, former head of the local think-tank Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. “This is why different views in both countries should not be allowed to spoil their strong ties.”