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Egypt: Struggling to assert itself in the Middle East

“President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s visit to Germany demonstrated the problems you come up against in defining foreign policy. The president wants first and foremost to be seen as legitimate, something that Hosni Mubarak did not have to worry about”, explains one influential journalist from a government newspaper, who asked to remain anonymous.

Sisi’s recent visit to Germany surprised, amused and even astonished Egyptian opinion, which has been largely indifferent to the media coverage attempting to erase frequent criticism of German journalists and politicians.

Along with many Egyptians, they were shocked to see the leader accompanied by artists literally singing his praises and journalists doing a standing ovation at everything “their” president said at his press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Unsurprisingly, the Chancellor’s statements condemning the death sentence against former President Mohamed Morsi were not translated on Egyptian television.

Many were appalled to hear Sisi declare: “God made me a doctor to diagnose the problem, so I could prescribe the remedy” appalled Egyptian officials in the corridors of the very cautious Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

This desperate search for legitimacy surrounding his rule that was born of a coup d’état on 3 July 2013 (the President had to cancel his participation at the African Union summit in South Africa in June after local organisations filed a complaint against him and requested his arrest) is accompanied by an obsession with the fight against the Muslim Brotherhood, which antagonises even Egypt’s allies.

The honeymoon with Riyadh comes to an end

“We hope to enshrine” the speaker continues, “our vision of a global confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood across the whole region. Now, our ally, Saudi Arabia, has lifted its veto on an operation with the Brotherhood, notably in Yemen and in Syria. With King Salman’s accession to the throne, Riyadh’s priority changed and Iran became the main enemy. The Saudis are aiming to bring order to the ‘Sunni house’, they have resumed talks with Turkey – a regime which constantly denounces Sisi’s illegitimacy, supports al-Islah in Yemen and the Brotherhood in Syria.”

The honeymoon period for Cairo and Riyadh has come to an end, and the Egyptian media is not shy in making digs at the Saudis, whilst being careful to not overstep the mark: the regime is too dependent on the financial boon of the Gulf to be able to break from or even a develop an overly autonomous regional policy.

If we are to believe rumours, on his death bed, King Abdelaziz, the founder of the Saudi regime, is said to have confided in his children that: “The happiness of the Kingdom lies in the misfortune of Yemen.”

Mustafa el-Labbad is the director of the Centre for Regional and Strategic Studies in al-Sharq. Like all centres that are indirectly dependent on the authorities, it is on autopilot, and the organization of any sort of conference has become impossible. He recounts another anecdote: “On his deathbed, Abdelaziz is said that have explained that: “Egypt should be immersed up to its nose; not so much that it drowns, not so little that it can no longer swim.”

“Saudi Arabia” he continues, “doesn’t want Egypt as a partner, even as a second-rate one. It doesn’t want an Arab front, and even less so the military force advocated by Egypt. The Saudi decision to attack Yemen was taken two days before the Arab Summit, and Egypt was informed of it a few hours before it was launched.”

Indeed, the first reaction of the Egyptian Minister for Foreign Affairs was to publish a statement asserting Cairo would not be involved. A few hours later, Sisi confirmed his country would be cooperating fully with the Riyadh-led coalition.

The dangers of Yemen

The Yemeni question embodies the contradictions in Cairo’s foreign policy. Not a single official, journalist or citizen wishes to see Egyptian involvement, all of them fear the kind of downward spiral that would lead their country to being involved against its will.
The memory of the war led by President Gamal Abdel Nasser in support of the young republican regime (1962-1970), which cost the lives of 26,000 Egyptian soldiers still haunts peoples’ memories, and first and foremost those of the army. “We have coordinated our efforts with Pakistan, the Emirates and Oman so that the Saudis do not go too far,” explained the researcher Tewfik Aclimandos.

Egypt comes down in favour or negotiations, especially as the result of the coalition’s military operations is limited – prevent the destruction of the little infrastructure Yemen possesses, and alleviate an alarming humanitarian situation denounced by the International Red Cross set against a backdrop of bizarre international indifference.

Egypt refused to send out its troops and contented itself with the deployment of a few battleships on the Bab-el-Mandeb strait, which is already closely watched over by American and French marines.

“If Pakistan was able to take refuge behind its parliament’s decision, in order to justify its refusal to send troops, Sisi doesn’t even have that pretext as there’s no longer a parliament in Egypt. And the Saudi’s won’t forget it,” concludes Labbad.

Are they looking for an alternative solution to the “doctor sent by God”?

Whatever the reason, even the United Arab Emirates, a country that is considered the most sympathetic to Egypt’s vision of a global struggle against the Muslim Brotherhood, appears to be hesitating.

As reported by the very well-informed journalist Dina Ezzat, “a high-ranking Egyptian official went to Abu Dhabi in order to complain that Ahmed Shafik, Morsi’s unfortunate opponent in the second round of the 2012 presidential election, was continuing to pursue political activities in the capital.”

On 14 June, he announced he was stepping down from the presidency of his party, but it was unlikely this would put the lie to the notion he is waiting in the wings, should Sisi fail.

 

Changing the way the waters of the Nile are shared out

“We are witnessing a general shake-up of the region” explains one journalist from al-Ahram, “in both internal and geopolitical terms. In one or two decades, it will look completely different. But Egypt is too weak to influence the course of events, and contents itself with concentrating its efforts on its immediate environment, with mixed results.”

Mohamed Megahed Elzayat, of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies and a member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, said that “in collaboration with Ethiopia and Sudan, we reached an interim agreement in 2015, which although vague, encouraged more relaxed relations with our neighbours in the south.”

This text was celebrated as a victory for President Sisi. Less diplomatic in his reading, an official close to the dossier pointed out the subtlety: “The President managed to sell an agreement to public opinion which, in concrete terms, ratifies a new way of dividing up the waters of the Nile and calls into question a treaty dating from 1929.

Ethiopia, backed by the US, is asserting itself as a regional power and the construction of the Renaissance dam on the Nile is establishing the regime’s legitimacy. We demanded that construction stop immediately, as it is contrary to the agreements that govern the sharing of the waters of the Nile, but we had to back down.”

Sisi’s speech to the Ethiopian parliament, followed by his visit in May to Sudan for the inauguration of Omar al-Bashir after his re-election as president gave the impression that relations between the three countries had been re-established, despite the fact that the dam will store 12 billion cubic metres of water each year to the detriment of Egypt. “Though the water shortages will not take effect for ten years,” the source conceded.

The Libya problem

Libya is another crucial factor. “We support the legitimate government, explained one diplomat. The West says a balanced approach is needed, but on one hand we have the legitimate government, in Tobruk, and on the other, the west of the country is occupied, particularly Tripoli, by militias some of which are linked to international terrorism and have won the support of foreign States.”
Qatar is of course one of those states in question, but its name is not mentioned. Of course, any illusions about General Khalifa Haftar, who triggered a military rebellion and was selected by the Tobruk government (recognized by the international community) have long since evaporated.

His army, recounts Aclimandos “has more officers than soldiers”. But Cairo remains reluctant to deal with the Tripoli government, which includes the Muslim Brotherhood, despite the fact that all the other governments, from Europe and the Gulf, have done so. The diplomat insists his country “supports the efforts of Bernardino Leon, the UN mediator, but he should not make too many concessions to the so-called government in Tripoli.”

On 25 May, there was a meeting of representatives of Libyan tribesmen. It met with little success, as only those who were favourable to the Tobruk government accepted the invitation. Unsurprisingly, the meeting ended in the complete refusal to engage in discussion with the Islamists and the Brotherhood, which was likened to a terrorist organization.

Ten thousand rebels in the Sinai

The last of the priorities in the region for Cairo is Gaza, and above all the Sinai. On repeated occasions since taking power, the army has declared it had ended the insurrection of the group Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, which has become a subsidiary of the Islamic State Group (IS) under the name Wilayat Sinai (Sinai Province).

However, the Egyptian press agency Mena admitted on 27 May that over the first five months of the year, 643 people had been killed, including 177 civilians and members of the security forces. The media reports “terrorist attacks” in the region on a daily basis.

Appalled at the recent news passed on to him by officials, one journalist who knows the Sinai well said Wilayat Sinai had about 10,000 to 12,000 guerrilla soldiers, and though they are brought together by range of motivations – ideology, but also the desire to avenge the abuses of the armed forces or the lure of the profit from the various types of trafficking that has always existed in this remote region, neglected by the central government – they are determined and know the terrain well.

For the Egyptian media, which sometimes borders on anti-Palestinian racism, the instability in the Sinai is mainly due to the support Hamas provides to the IS. Despite this, few journalists or researchers share this Manichaean reading of the situation.

Furthermore, the government has not cut ties completely, as demonstrated by the court ruling at the end of May going back on the decision to declare Hamas a terrorist organisation.

A siege on two fronts

One journalist and expert on the region sums up the general feeling. “Of course jihadist groups have fall back positions in Gaza, and officials in al-Qassam Brigades are undoubtedly aware of this; but these militias are autonomous, and are not necessarily accountable for the political orientation. Another complicating factor, is that Hamas is facing a Salafist jihadist challenge, encouraged by the non-reconstruction of Gaza since the Israeli attacks in the summer of 2014 and the impossibility of putting in place a government of national unity.”
Though the Rafah crossing (the only one that allows people to circulate between Gaza and Egypt) was open for a few days in June, it has remained essentially closed for a year. Some officials are even worried about the possibility of Hamas itself breaking up and jihadist groups take control in this territory, under the pressure of an Israeli-Egyptian siege.

While one Egyptian diplomatic source claims that there is no longer any contact at all with Hamas, it may be that the army and the intelligence services, which have directly managed the Palestinian issue for more than twenty years, maintain some channels of communication, especially as in the eyes of the Gulf monarchies, Hamas has reinforced its standing in supporting the Saudi operation in Yemen.

In the newly-built 6 October city, about 30km from the centre of Cairo, Maasoum Marzouk, a retired ambassador, welcomes us in the cafe of a sprawling shopping centre. His agenda is that of a generation whose hopes were dashed time and time again, but who want to pursue the battle for the ideals of his youth.

In 1968, he participated in the student protests demanding the sentencing of officers responsible for the June 1967 defeat. He joined the army and participated in the commando raids to reconquer the Sinai in October 1973.

Entering the world of diplomacy, he never hid his criticism of Anwar el-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak’s foreign policy, and advises Hamdeen Sabbahi, the Nasserite leader.

“Between 1991 and 2011, we were in the shadow of Saudi Arabia. Today, we still cannot lead an independent policy. It would be in Egypt’s interests to open dialogue with Tehran, but Riyadh won’t allow this.”

He concludes: “Foreign policy is a reflection of domestic policy. If we are domestically on unstable territory, which is the case, we cannot have any kind of foreign policy.”

It is not just the political terrain that is unstable. In the shopping centre’s park, water and light games attract a swarm of children. This year, two million more Egyptians will be born into a country which doesn’t have a government capable of guaranteeing their future.

 

By Alain Gresh

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