While enacting some decisive economic reforms, the new Egyptian leadership is trying to reaffirm its position in the chaotic middle-eastern region. Although Egypt has always played a key role in the Arab world, its approach to neighbouring countries has undergone several changes, giving different shades to the Egyptian foreign policy. An ally of the West during the Mubarack era, a supporter of Hamas with Mohamed Morsi, (the Muslim Brotherhood President),  Egypt is now redirecting his policy towards Israel, considering all political Islam equivalent to terror. This is a risky move if we think that banish Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood from the public debate as well as persecuting its members is like preventing political Islam to express itself through legal means, which could cause the empowerment of the most extremist elements.

 Emblematic of the foreign policy change undergone by Egypt is the official visit the new President El-Sisi made to the Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud in Jeddah, on August 10th.  This meeting was the occasion to discuss the several conflicts affecting the Arab world, letting perceive Sisi’s intention to reposition Egypt as a regional power after three years of political turmoil. The two leaderships, tied by strong economic interests, consulted each other over regional conflicts in Libya, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine in order to find a solution to save their oppressed brothers from the Islamist terrorism[1].  Moreover, it should be remembered that Saudi Arabia was the largest financial backer of the President El-Sisi since the ouster of Mohamed Morsi and now Egypt is seeking new economic opportunities by attracting Saudi investments. This is the reason why El-Sisi did not limit his visit to the King Abdullah, but he was eager to meet also a large group of Saudi Arabia businessmen, who finally resulted interested in contributing to the Suez Canal development project.

Both Saudi Arabia and Egypt have some problems in dealing with the radical Islamist groups they have contributed to create in the Seventies with the aim of contrasting the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. These groups include not only Al-Quaeda and its new versions (ISIL) but also Hamas and Hezbollah movement. Concerning the Islamic State militants, Sisi has warned Europe and United States about the real intentions of this group who will come out of Syria and will target Iraq, Jordan and then Saudi Arabia[2]. Moreover the leader of the most populous Arab nation[3] is showing a deep concern that the referendum on the independence of Iraq’s Kurdish region could cause an irreparable division of the country, which might empower even more the ISIL insurgents.

Another troubling issue is how Egypt is dealing with the Libyan crisis.  The international community and Libya itself have asked an Egyptian intervention to stabilize the country, which is drowning deeper and deeper in civil war. Since the ouster of Queddafi in 2011, Libya has been lacerated by the militias who fought together to overthrow the former dictator. These extremist groups have gradually taken the control of governmental bodies, turning the country in a failed State and in a potentially refuge for terrorists. Hence, neighbouring countries have been concerning for the repercussions over their internal security. Among those states Egypt and Algeria seem to be the most touched.  The fear that Libyan domestic factional fighting could spill over the border let the rumour of a possible Egyptian military intervention emerge. More specifically it was the Egypt’s former foreign Minister, Amr Moussa, to talk about the potential “exercise of the right of self-defence”[4] in case the situation in Libya could threaten domestic stability. Although this fear became more concrete with the killing of 21 Egyptian soldiers near the border by armed militias, the Egyptian government has publicly downplayed the likelihood of a military intervention. Besides, in this moment an intervention could be counterproductive, weakening Cairo and destabilizing even more Libya. The economic instability, due to an unbearable energy subsidies program, certainly makes difficult to carry out a military campaign[5] . Nonetheless, Cairo is playing a significant diplomatic role calling for an international push to disarm Libyan militias, regarded as a threat for the entire region. The Ministry Sameh Shukri is now embodying this new tendency in the Egyptian foreign policy, the Egypt’s will to be a leader and a mediator whose decisions can cause repercussions in the Arab world.

However, Egypt’s new role does not concern only conflicts in the region. As the recent visit in Sochi(on the coast of the Black sea) shows, the land of Pharaohs is now looking at boosting ties with its former arms supplier: Russia. The relationship between the two countries has undergone several changes: first the Soviet Union was the main provider of arms; afterwards, the signature of the Camp David accords made possible that the US took over Russian economic aid.  As US- Egypt relations worsened in 2013 with the suspension of Us military aid, Russia and Egypt begun to improve their relationship letting rumours of a new arms deal emerge[6]. Now the two leaderships seem very close, trying to coordinate their foreign policy on international issues such as the various crises in the Middle East. An alignment of their positions could strengthen their power in the region, considering the Russia’s Middle East presence is in decline and Egypt sees his role marginalized in the Arab Israeli conflict by other countries like Turkey and Qatar[7]. Besides, it seems that behind a simple policy coordination there is also the will to strengthen their economic bilateral cooperation in different fields. As Russia has imposed a food embargo against EU and US producers as a reaction against sanctions, Egypt is increasing its exports of agricultural products, having in exchange a stronger cooperation in the military field, possible investments and expertise to explore and extract oil/gas and help to develop clean nuclear energy. In this scenario it is uncertain if this alliance could be strategically significant to balance and deal with the Western pressure on both Egypt and Russia.

What it is true is that Egypt is trying to reacquire a diplomatic role amid regional conflicts and it is also in quest of new allies.

 

Claudia Conticello

Master’s degree in International Relations (LUISS “Guido Carli”)

 


[1] “Sisi, King of Saudi Arabia meet to discuss Middle East crisis” in albawaba news http://www.albawaba.com/news/sisi-king-saudi-arabia-meet-middle-east-crisis-596146

[2] “Egypt’s Sisi says independence for Iraq’s Kurds would be ‘catastrophic’” in Reuters, Jul 6, 2014. http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/07/06/us-egypt-sisi-kurds-idUSKBN0FB0UY20140706

[3] Abdel Fatah al-Sisi

[4] Patrick Kingsley, “ Egypt should consider military action in Libya, says senior statesman”, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/aug/04/egypt-consider-military-action-libya-amr-moussa

[5] Simona Sikimic, “Unidentified plane over Libya re-ignites talk about military intervention”  in MiddleEast Eye August 21 2014, http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/unidentified-plane-over-libya-re-ignites-chatter-about-military-intervention-1913173043

[6] Joel Gulhane,” Al-Sisi, Putin seek stronger ties in Sochi”,indailynewsegypt.com http://www.dailynewsegypt.com/2014/08/12/al-sisi-putin-seek-stronger-ties-sochi/

[7] “Sisi’s visit to Russia is message to the West” in al monitor  http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/politics/2014/08/russia-egypt-relations.html