Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 September 2011
Issue No. 1064
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Egypt's partial foreign policy revival

Hopes have faded that Egyptian foreign policy is different now than before the revolution, while the ruling military council insists such questions be left for an elected government, writes El-Sayed Amin Shalabi

After 25 January, political experts felt certain that Egypt's foreign policy and regional and international behaviour would not be the same as it had been before the revolution. The revolution created a new reality, setting the course towards the establishment of a democratic system and constitutional institutions that would promote civic freedoms and respect for the will of the people in all their diverse backgrounds and outlooks. This would inevitably be reflected in Egypt's foreign policy and the steps it takes to enhance its regional and international status.

The prevailing impression before the revolution was that Egypt's regional role had diminished as the result of policies that appeared excessively conciliatory to the US and lenient towards Israeli behaviour in the region. Therefore, analysts anticipated that in the post-revolutionary phase Egyptian foreign policy would aim to reassert Egypt's independence and the autonomy of its will. Their prediction soon became reality when Nabil El-Arabi assumed the foreign affairs portfolio and unveiled a new foreign policy outlook that was borne out in positions that departed markedly from those of the previous regime. One of his first actions was to reopen the Rafah Crossing with Gaza, thereby declaring Egypt's rejection of the principle of the blockade that he held contravened international law and international humanitarian law. He also opened a new leaf in Egypt's relations with Iran, brought a more even- handed approach towards the Palestinian factions, facilitating their arrival at a reconciliation agreement, and inaugurated a shift in policy towards Africa and Nile Basin states. A series of official exchanges backed by visits by people's delegations followed through on the new foreign policy orientations and injected Egyptian foreign policy with a fresh and invigorating spirit. There was a general sense that the Egypt that was arising from the 25 January Revolution was firmly on course towards the revival of its regional role.

Unfortunately, the assessment and the attendant optimism began to fade as some analysts determined that Egypt's post-revolutionary foreign policy was turning out to be not all that different from before, a conclusion based on the Egyptian government's reactions towards a number of regional issues. Foremost among them were the popular uprisings in Libya, Yemen and Syria. One would have expected revolutionary Egypt to have been among the first countries to come out in favour of these movements that were pushing for the same aims as the Egyptian revolution. Yet the government continued to waver and to avoid an unequivocal declaration of support. It also backtracked on what appeared to be an orientation towards the re-establishment of full diplomatic relations with Iran. It claimed that such a decision should be left until after upcoming parliamentary elections. Yet, the most disturbing and most significant sign was to be found in the official reaction towards the encroachment of Israeli forces into Egyptian territory and their killing of five -- now six -- Egyptian servicemen. At the very least one would have expected Egypt to withdraw its ambassador from Tel Aviv. Even under the previous regime, Egypt took this action twice, once in response to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the Sabra and Shatila massacres in 1982 and the second time in order to protest Israeli actions against the Palestinian Intifada in 2000. Although the government had initially announced that it would recall its ambassador to Israel, it did not follow through on this. The official explanation of the reversal was that it was in deference to the US envoy who intervened in order to prevent an escalation in tensions in Egyptian- Israeli relations.

It could be that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the persons in control in this phase are being extra cautious and keen to avoid foreign policy actions that could be risky for Egypt at a time when it is still unstable and vulnerable. SCAF is operating on the principle that its chief mission is to lead Egypt safely through this transitional phase preparatory to handing it over to an elected civil authority that can then take the definitive transformative foreign policy decisions and assume the responsibility for carrying them through.

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