Egypt’s UN Security Council seat is a mixed blessing

Friday 30/10/2015
Diplomatic headache. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry speaks during a United Nations Security Council meeting, last February.

Washington - Egypt’s election to a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council is being touted by Cairo as a reflection of its regional and global status. Although the seat will be a boon to Egypt’s pres­tige, it is likely to complicate Cairo’s relations with other Arab states be­cause of differences over the Syrian crisis and Russia’s role in that coun­try.
For the fifth time since the United Nations’ founding in 1945, Egypt, as of January 1st, will be back on the Security Council for a two-year term. The Egyptian presidential of­fice issued a statement after the vote stating that its ascension to the council “reflects the confidence that the international community has placed in Egypt’s ability to ef­fectively contribute to the inter­national decision-making process” and a recognition of Egypt’s “influ­ential role in promoting peace and stability, both regionally and inter­nationally”.
The statement mentioned that Egypt would use the position to support efforts to “combat inter­national terrorism and extremism and to settle regional issues in line with international law, namely the Palestinian issue and the crises in Libya, Syria and Yemen”.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, speaking October 20th at a conference in Greece, said Presi­dent Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s “initia­tive to correct religious discourse” would be an important aspect of the fight against extremism.
The Syrian crisis, however, is likely to dominate Security Coun­cil matters, complicating Cairo’s relations with other Arab states because, as a leading Arab country, Egypt is expected to not only reflect its own views in the Security Coun­cil but to speak for the Arab world as a whole.
This is where matters can be­come problematic. Egypt does not see eye-to-eye with the Saudis and some other Arab countries in re­gards to Syria. Cairo says the Syrian opposition forces are dominated by extremists and that a collapse of the Assad regime would be a dis­aster, not only for Syria but for the entire region.
While it is supportive of a politi­cal transition for Syria, Cairo says Syrian President Bashar Assad should be part of the process, put­ting it at odds with Saudi Arabia, which demands Assad’s depar­ture. The Saudis have been Egypt’s chief financial benefactors since the ouster of Muhammad Morsi as president in 2013.
Egypt also appears to disagree with Saudi Arabia’s and Qatar’s arming Syrian rebels because it fears such weapons falling into the hands of extremists.
Further complicating matters is Egypt’s support for Russia’s role in Syria, which is opposed by many Arab states. On October 3rd, Shouk­ry said, “Russia’s entrance [into Syria], given its potential and capa­bilities, is… going to have an effect on limiting terrorism in Syria and eradicating it.”
Egypt’s support for Russia’s role in Syria is in part a reflection of the countries’ growing bilateral ties. In June, Egypt and Russia conducted joint naval exercises and Sisi has visited Russia twice in the past two years.
But perhaps more importantly, Egypt’s ties with Russia reflect their joint concern about their nation­als going to Syria to join extremist groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS) and then returning home. Media reports indicate there are several thousand Chechens and other Russian citizens fighting with ISIS.
And there are probably hundreds of Egyptians fighting in Syria as well, some of whom have returned to shore up the capabilities of the Sinai Province terrorist group, which is affiliated with ISIS. In ad­dition, Egypt sees instability in neighbouring Libya being fuelled by ISIS-affiliated groups that have established themselves there after having fought in Syria.
When Egypt takes its seat in the Security Council, it will have to balance its support for Russia’s in­tervention in Syria with the Arab world’s opposition to it. Both Russia and the Arab states will likely scru­tinise Egypt’s votes and speeches on the Syrian conflict. Supporting one side will likely incur the wrath of the other.
With the Israeli-Palestinian situa­tion heating up, raising the spectre of a third intifada, Arab states will likely press Egypt to issue strong condemnations of Israel. This could also put Egypt in a difficult position, as Egyptian-Israeli relations are es­pecially close in the security sphere these days because both countries share an antipathy towards Hamas as well as extremist groups in the Sinai peninsula.
Thus the adage “be careful for what you wish for” may indeed be applicable in Egypt’s return to the Security Council.