A Foreign Policy Adrift?
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Mohannad Sabry is an Egyptian journalist and author who lived in Cairo until 2015. He currently lives in London where he pursues research on Egyptian political, security, and military affairs, and where he is studying in King’s College London’s Defense Studies Department. Sabry is knowledgeable about developments in the Sinai Peninsula, where the Egyptian government has been fighting an insurgency for several years. He is the author of Sinai: Egypt’s Linchpin, Gaza’s Lifeline, and Israel’s Nightmare (2015), which was banned in Egypt soon after publication. Diwan interviewed Sabry in mid-September to get his perspective on Egypt’s role in the recent conflict in Gaza and regional politics in general.
Michael Young: Egypt’s foreign policy role has been eclipsed of late, with much international focus on the Gulf states and Iran. Yet Cairo played a key role recently in defusing the conflict between Israel and Islamic Jihad in Gaza. In light of this, how would you characterize Egypt’s importance at the regional level?
Mohannad Sabry: Many might perceive the recent Egyptian mediation, which led to its helping end the military confrontation between Israel and the Islamic Jihad in Gaza, as an example of the country playing a continuing and major role in the region. However, what it did actually spoke to the contrary. Since the rise of Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi to power in Cairo after the July 2013 coup, Egypt’s role in Gaza and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in general has shrunk to merely intervening in times of hostilities. And even this intervention is now conditioned on Cairo’s willingness to mediate according to its interests rather than because of an impartial desire to limit and end armed hostilities, thereby accomplishing progress in the peace process. While its role in the major issues has been political, the economic and humanitarian dimensions of its interventions have almost ceased to exist.
Gaza’s reconstruction is a prime example of Egypt’s shrinking role today, even with regard to an issue right on its border. At a time when Egypt is expected to be the leading regional power on this crucial issue affecting the lives of close to 2 million people in Gaza, it has been incapable, and possibly is unwilling, to take any effective steps to bring outside actors together to launch the reconstruction of Gaza, let alone lead such an effort.
MY: In a sense, Egypt’s prominence has suffered as a result of regional disengagement by its leading ally, the United States. How has the Egyptian relationship with Washington changed, and how is this being felt in Cairo?
MS: When it comes to Egypt, the United States is neither engaging actively nor disengaging completely. Rather, it is stuck without any clear policy beyond ineffective measures, such as verbal condemnation of Egypt’s human rights record and the temporary withholding of a measly portion of U.S. military aid. The Sisi regime is quite comfortable with this situation.
The pattern of ineffective U.S. measures toward Egypt’s regime over the past eight years, like the continued military aid and applause for Egypt’s interventions in times of violent conflict between Gaza and Israel, has clearly convinced Cairo that the United States will not take any serious stand against Egyptian behavior. That holds even if Egypt jails thousands of innocent civilians, including the country’s most prominent politicians, and no matter how much it violates human rights and stifles the public sphere.
This ineffectiveness of U.S. foreign policy toward Egypt has led the Sisi regime to turn to regional allies, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. It continues to receive regional backing and support from them, regardless of the U.S. position and regardless of how much Egypt’s regional prominence has eroded.
MY: How would you characterize Egypt’s strategy with regard to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? And what are its priorities in addressing the matter?
MS: Since Sisi’s rise to power, Egypt has suffered, and continues to suffer, from the absence of a comprehensive or effective strategy when it comes to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It is clear that Sisi, contrary to late president Hosni Mubarak, doesn’t see the conflict as an issue of importance for Egypt, even if its effects spill over the border into the Sinai Peninsula. The president clearly doesn’t understand that Egypt’s role as a country pushing for peace and lasting stability strengthens its regional and global prominence.
Egypt’s approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has become very short-sighted. It is focused only on Gaza and fueled almost entirely by Cairo’s antagonism toward the Muslim Brotherhood, and by extension Hamas. This approach has lost Cairo the credibility it had built over decades with various Palestinian politicians and factions and has tarnished its reputation as an impartial player.
The result of such a poor, or rather nonexistent, strategy is complete stagnancy. This can be seen in the lack of direct or indirect talks between Palestinians and Israel, whether at the level of the government or factions. It is also visible in regional negligence of the Palestinian issue, despite the wave of normalizations between several Arab states and Israel, as well as the halt of more limited accomplishments, such as prisoner exchanges or the partial lifting of the Gaza blockade.
MY: Hamas has rebuilt its ties with Iran, yet continues to be careful not to enter into a confrontation with Egypt. Can you explain the paradoxes in the Egypt-Hamas relationship?
MS: The relationship between Hamas and Egypt is a unique mix of historical understanding, mutual interest on both the political and security levels, and deeply conflicting views that sometimes rise to a level of animosity, all of which exist in a narrow geographic context that will not change. The one feature of this paradoxical relationship that was entirely disrupted after Sisi’s rise to power is the historical stability of Hamas-Egypt relations, which continued even during repeated Gaza-Israel wars, and led to rare but exceptional breakthroughs, such as the release of Gilad Shalit from Hamas captivity in a 2011 prisoner exchange agreement.
The disruption of this stability in relations was triggered by the Egyptian regime’s declaration of war on Hamas after 2013. Cairo accused Hamas of intentionally violating Egypt’s sovereignty and committing terrorist attacks on its soil, and later sided with Israel in the war of 2014. This severe turbulence in Egypt’s relations with Hamas was again caused by the Egyptian regime’s lack of a comprehensive strategy toward the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, as well as an arrogant, uninformed attitude when dealing with complex issues of regional stability.
Hamas was and continues to be careful not to enter into a confrontation with Cairo, especially since the Sisi regime has learned that its hostile actions against Hamas proved futile. Top figures in the movement who were once accused of being behind the assassination of Egyptian officials, or the massacres of Egyptian soldiers in Sinai, are now back in Cairo as welcomed guests. Nor is Egypt expected to take any steps against Hamas because of its renewed relations with Iran, at least not immediately and certainly not publicly.
MY: Beyond public statements of friendliness, how does Egypt view its relationship with the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates?
MS: Egypt’s relationships with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are simply ones of pure interest. Sisi requires continued financial support from both Gulf states to bail him out of his economic predicament and to guarantee the safety of his rule. Saudi Arabia and the UAE seek to expand their economic presence in Egypt, the most populous country in the region, to guarantee that Egypt’s regional prominence remains limited in order not to sideline them, and to eliminate any possibility of a power change in Egypt that might bring forward a regime not fully subordinate to them.
These dynamics continue to prevail, starting with Sisi’s ceding of the islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia, despite the fact that several courts cast doubt on the legality of the decision. They are also visible through the Egyptian government’s facilitation of the Saudi and Emirati takeovers of major national and public-sector companies and factories through direct deals mostly concluded under murky conditions and at inexplicably low rates.
Despite the extremely beneficial nature of these relationships to all parties involved, especially Sisi who clearly understands that the stability and continuation of his rule relies heavily on the largesse of the Gulf states, they do lack mutual respect and are unpopular among the Egyptian people, as well as the peoples of the Gulf states. Such minimal degrees of loyalty were highlighted in media outlets that published or broadcast recordings of a conversation involving Sisi, when he was defense minister, in which he mocked the Gulf states’ wealth. This caused a wave of public anger by prominent commentators in the Gulf, who didn’t hesitate to condemn Sisi publicly.
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