Hindering Egypt from the outside
Egypt has successfully negotiated a challenging transition from the instability that accompanied the January 25th revolution (which toppled president Hosni Mubarak in 2011) and the failed experiment in Muslim Brotherhood rule under president Mohammed Morsi. The internal instability and economic paralysis have begun to recede and Egypt has successfully restored relations with the major global powers.
In spite of this, Egypt continues to be the subject of attempts to breathe new life into old disputes and disagreements as a means of sabotaging relations with its regional partners.
A number of perennial issues have been dusted off by those with an interest in perpetuating uncertainty around the new order in Egypt. The question of human rights along with territorial disputes between Egypt and some of its neighbours have been employed as a means of frustrating the improvements achieved by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt’s external relations.
In terms of human rights, intense criticism has been levelled at the judiciary for the number of death sentences passed in the case of Islamist radicals. Media in Qatar and Turkey, in particular, propagate a narrative that the Egyptian legal process lacks probity. There has also been a huge exaggeration of the scale of opposition and demonstrations condemning the sentences.
Ironically, while the ousted president Muhammad Morsi is under a theoretical death sentence, members of the Egyptian judiciary have received a real one, shot to death by terrorists and targeted by the Muslim Brotherhood.
By propagating the issue of human rights, regional powers hope to prevent the upholding of sentences passed and the issuing of new ones as there are hundreds of Islamist extremists awaiting sentence in the courts. The sentencing of Morsi, in particular, caused problems in relations with Germany.
The second issue is that of the Jaghbub oasis in Libya, an oasis the ownership of which is disputed by Egypt.
Drawing attention to this long-running issue now is an attempt to turn Libyans against the legitimate government in the east of the country, under whose practical control the oasis falls, by framing its good relations with Egypt as a form of national betrayal. Such a move may well force the Internationally-recognised Libyan government in Tobruk to prove its patriotism by clarifying its position on the oasis and expending political capital on sideshows, increasing tensions with Egypt at a time when the two are invested in cooperation and good relations.
Suddenly, as relations between Egypt and the Sudanese government of president Omar al-Bashir have begun to improve, the issue of the Hala’ib Triangle has been brought back from the dead.
The triangle is disputed area under Egyptian control on the border between Sudan and Egypt. By bringing attention to this moribund dispute and attacking al-Bashir for not responding to “Egyptian provocations” the Sudanese media might run with the issue, sparking a war of words between the two countries.
Sudan is directly involved in a number of regional issues of strategic importance to Egypt, such as the distribution of Nile water. Al-Bashir played a crucial role in a recent detente between Egypt and Ethiopia, which had tested relations by building the huge Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile.
Internally, there are two apparently incongruous Egyptian factions that stand to benefit from the hindrance of Egypt’s external relations. The first of these is the Muslim Brotherhood, which is heavily invested in convincing both internal and international public opinion that the Sisi government is unstable. The movement is implicated in daily terrorism and the spreading of rumours designed to foster uncertainty and confusion about the government.
For the Brotherhood, talk of external failure and internal collapse help to convince the demoralised supporters of the movement to stay the course, whether behind prison bars or in terrorist cells dedicated to committing acts of violence.
The second faction consists of the remnants of the regime of Hosni Mubarak who openly show support for Sisi but, behind closed doors, are deeply suspicious of the president’s intentions.
As a result, they do not want the president to enjoy complete political security. Their interests, however, dictate not going too far in this destabilisation for fear that the Muslim Brotherhood, and not they, will benefit from it.
Attempts to poison the atmosphere between Egypt and its international partners might succeed in causing anxiety about the future but they cannot lead to the kind of earthquake hoped for by their instigators.
Relations between states are governed to a large extent by mutual interests that go beyond narrow calculation and cannot be derailed by media incitement.