The implications of Egypt’s more assertive foreign policy
Egypt was, during the 30 years of Hosni Mubarak’s rule, a dependable ally of the United States. Critics would say it was a client state. It remained close throughout to Saudi Arabia.
Observers have detected signs of change. They suspect President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is articulating a strongly nationalistic policy that puts a premium on Egypt’s freedom of manoeuvre within the region. This policy is underpinned by a strong ideological commitment to anti-Islamism, respect for traditional notions of sovereignty and insistence on Egypt defending what it considers to be its vital interests.
The same observers note that, during the demonstrations that eventually brought down Mubarak, there was a strong popular urge, extending across the political and social spectrum, to restore national dignity. This suggested a switch from Egypt’s long-time reliance on a few close allies, notably the United States. Beyond the feeling in the street, many Egyptians were persuaded that their country’s declining international prestige had encouraged outside powers to covertly destabilise the country.
Since becoming president in 2013, Sisi has sought to promote the idea that Egypt should become great again and thus resume the position of glorious influence it enjoyed for ten years after President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal in 1956. The idea that Egypt has a manifest destiny is very popular among many Egyptians. Interestingly, when Muhammad Morsi was president, his visits to Moscow and Beijing suggested he shared such views.
In the immediate aftermath of Morsi’s ousting, the new regime unsurprisingly focused on winning the battle against the Islamic opposition. Though it tried to improve links with Hamas, Egypt sought to weaken Islamists abroad from Iran to Libya.
Two developments have helped Sisi form a more coherent world view: The International Monetary Fund financial package has helped stabilise the economy at least in the short term and US President Donald Trump has endorsed the regime fully and uncritically since he entered the White House. These two factors have helped Egypt position itself as a regional power, less sectarian than the UAE-Saudi alliance but quite distinct from the Turkey-Qatar axis.
In other words, Sisi and Egypt are going their own way. Consolidating the economic situation of Egypt is obviously key to Sisi’s ambitions as he seeks to project a new image of Egypt’s regional ambitions.
A key question remains, however: What is the purpose of the recent military build-up? The official explanation is that Egypt needs to protect its offshore gas resources and fight terrorism. They are not convincing.
Egypt may be preparing for a geopolitical crisis with Ethiopia over the control of Nile water access. Relations between the two countries deteriorated rapidly in recent months over what Egypt sees as the negative consequences of Ethiopia building a huge dam, which will slow the volume of water Egypt receives, especially as the dam reservoir fills.
Another plausible explanation is that Egypt is seeking to escape dependence on US weapons by diversifying its arms suppliers and maybe even offering Russia a haven for deployment in the region. In the longer run, it may think of fighting a war with Israel.
Certainly, regarding Russia, Sisi’s ambitions dovetail with Moscow’s as the latter seeks to expand its footprint in southern rim Mediterranean countries.
Fighting a war with Israel seems unlikely as both countries have developed their security ties since 2013. Egypt has closed hundreds of tunnels into Gaza used to smuggle weapons and militants and reportedly allowed Israel to conduct drone strikes against Islamic State (ISIS) targets in Sinai. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Sisi had their first public meeting in the United States last September. Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has complicated matters.
The times are changing, however, as Egypt and Russia are finalising an agreement that would allow Russian military jets to use Egyptian airspace and bases. Egypt has refused to be drawn more closely into the Yemen stalemate and sided with Syria’s Bashar Assad rather than support Saudi-backed rebel forces.
More concretely, Sisi and Russian President Vladimir Putin have collaborated to support a shared ally in Libya, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who is based in eastern Libya, across the border from Egypt. Russia has established a small military presence in a remote part of Egypt’s western desert to back Haftar, US sources said. Their support has put both countries at odds with the United States and other Western powers to end the strife plaguing Libya.
Will Egypt’s new foreign policy come unstuck at some point? Will Sisi have to make a hard choice between the United States, which has provided more than $70 billion in aid to Egypt at a rate of more than $1.3 billion annually in recent years?
Trump has diminished the US military and diplomatic footprint in the region and US influence seems to be waning. In the Middle East, the administration has no assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs or ambassadors in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt or Qatar, which could play a part.
Why Egypt is acquiring so many weapons, Russian mostly but also French, is anybody’s guess. Maybe it is trying to play off the two superpowers as Nasser did in the 1950s.
What is not in doubt is that alliances are shifting across the region and Egypt, like Turkey, is reconsidering its close ties with the United States. Egypt is back as a major player in a region whose future is more uncertain than at any time in the past half century.