As the Middle East seems ever more embroiled in the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and as world powers continue to jockey for influence, Egypt has often been portrayed in various analyses as beholden to its various supporters.
This week Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Cairo and met with Sisi to work toward finalizing a $30 billion deal for Russia to build a nuclear power plant and discuss resuming flights between Cairo and Moscow. The previous week, an announced agreement with Moscow to cooperate on military issues and to allow Russia to establish a military presence in Egypt elicited descriptions of Russia as expanding its influence over the country. These agreements further demonstrate the fact that Egypt has managed to maintain a high degree of autonomy on regional issues despite receiving tens of billions of dollars from Gulf countries and billions more from the United States. Cairo seeks to retain a lead role as potential negotiator in the region’s conflicts, shown in its recent reaction to controversy over the resignation of Lebanon’s prime minister in which it struck a notably different tone from Riyadh. Forfeiting such a position would further damage Cairo’s already waning role as a capital of influence. Egypt has instead shown that it does not fully align itself with anyone, no matter how much funding they provide.
After Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s resignation from Riyadh, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi gave an interview in which he refused to take sides, calling for caution for the sake of preserving what little stability was left in the region. Sisi dispatched Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry on a regional tour of Arab capitals to carry his message and work to deescalate the crisis. Those who imagined Egypt to be in Saudi Arabia’s pocket may have been surprised by Cairo’s refusal to line up behind Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, but given Egypt’s modern history, an independent foreign policy no matter the patronage it receives should not come as a shock. After the Saudis, Emiratis, and Kuwaitis had given Egypt tens of billions of dollars to prop up the government, and while it continued to receive its $1.3 billion military assistance package from the U.S., Sisi still made a point in the early days of his presidency of courting Putin to signal independence—this despite Russia’s foreign policy in Syria being directly at odds with Egypt’s Gulf allies and the high level of tension between the U.S. and Russia at the time. The Egyptian government has also wisely refused to all but symbolically participate in the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen.
The moves underline Egypt’s intent to maintain negotiating power, and that Iran does not appear to be a significant security concern for Egypt. While Egypt has taken issue with Hezbollah in the past, particularly in response to its popular fight with Israel, Cairo now finds Hezbollah fighting on behalf of its preferred side in Syria. Egypt’s main external concern is Libya, where Iran does not play a meaningful role, and while Iran provides some support to Hamas, the Egyptian authorities have been rebuilding relations with the group and likely perceive their collapse in Gaza to be a security threat in and of itself. Rebuilding ties with Hamas has been undertaken to improve border security as part of an effort to stem the insurgency on the Sinai Peninsula. Funding from Iran helps keep Hamas capable enough to provide such security cooperation. Moreover, as a nod to Cairo, Hamas has publicly renounced its ties to the Muslim Brotherhood despite being created by the group during the first Palestinian Intifada.
In Syria, it has been clear for some time that Egyptian officials sympathize with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. His claim to be fighting a war against foreign-backed terrorists trying to destabilize the country links neatly with their own narratives about Egypt’s “war on terror.” Muhammad Morsi, whose overthrow was backed by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, was unflaggingly anti-Assad. Sisi, on the other hand, has said that the Syrian army was “best positioned to combat terrorism and restore stability.” Egypt even went so far as to vote for a United Nations resolution on Syria proposed by Russia that was opposed by Europe, the U.S., and its Gulf allies (and vetoed by the U.S.). Despite being a symbolic vote on a dead-on-arrival resolution, it appeared nonetheless to have been an effort by Cairo to indicate it remains free to determine its own foreign policy regardless of patronage.
Egypt has historically been adept at playing multiple sides to its own benefit. Former President Gamal Abdel Nasser in his first few years in office juggled the courtship from the U.S. and the Soviet Union in his pursuit of modernizing Egypt’s armed forces and its arsenal. While the Soviet Union eventually became the chief arms supplier of Egypt under Nasser, Nasser established the United Arab Republic in 1958 to prevent Syria from becoming a full-fledged Soviet satellite in the region. President Anwar Sadat signed a friendship agreement with the Soviet Union soon after taking office, expelled Soviet military advisers before the 1973 war, briefly repaired relations with the U.S.S.R. during the war, then swapped his allegiance to the Americans while pursuing a peace treaty with Israel.
Critics of this argument will reasonably note that Cairo has at times made concessions to patrons that are rather extraordinary, particularly transferring the islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia. However, while this concession was exceptional, it was in pursuit of a highly valuable agreement in which nearly all of Egypt’s energy imports would be financed at low interest rates through Saudi Arabia for five years. This arrangement removes a large amount of pressure on Egypt’s hard currency reserves which it has been building up as part of its IMF aid package and currency float. Egypt appears to hope that by the time the agreement has finished its natural gas production will be at a level to cover its hard currency needs. The shipments were suspended when the fate of the islands became unclear and have since resumed.
Egypt also cooperated with the Saudi-led move to isolate Qatar earlier this year. However, Egypt had its own motivations for doing so: it has long clashed with Qatar over the country’s backing for the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar-based media outlets’ forceful criticism of Egypt. Unlike Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E., Egypt chose not to expel Qatari nationals, presumably out of fear that Qatar would do the same to hundreds of thousands of Egyptians who work in Qatar. There is also little to suggest that Egypt is as concerned with the expansion of Iranian influence in the region as are Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E., for whom Iran is a principal foreign policy concern.
Somewhat remarkably, Egypt’s record has had a very limited impact on its patrons’ willingness to continue their support, and when they do waver, Cairo does not hesitate to court and negotiate with replacements—at times, even their regional or global competitors—as it did when the U.S. started to slow the flow of arms following the violent post-coup crackdown in 2013. In avoiding war in Yemen or escalation in Lebanon, this has served Egypt positively. In its refusal to heed the advice of partners and amend its counter-insurgency strategy or its pattern of rights abuses, this tendency has served it negatively.
Since the uprising in 2011, Egypt’s regional role has been notably muted compared to years past. Egypt may be economically damaged and internally conflicted but, for the time being, it will continue its long tradition of resisting fully submitting to the influence of foreign partners. Beyond not having a significant impact on support from its partners, this independence may help Cairo reassert its role in the region today as a leading negotiator. It remains to be seen what impact these steps will have, but they do, on their surface, reflect the country’s effort to restore its traditional role in regional diplomacy.