Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 December 2009 - 6 January 2010
Issue No. 979
New Decade's special edition
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Hassan Nafaa

The problem with foreign policy

A fundamental and urgent switch of its foreign policy course is a must for Egypt to find its voice again, argues Hassan Nafaa *

Egypt's foreign policy has always been a function of its geographic and historical needs, and these needs have not changed much over the years. Geography makes us reliant on the waters of a river that starts way south of our borders. And history tells us that invaders who threaten us tend to come from the general direction of Palestine and Syria.

On these two pieces of information, much of our foreign policy has traditionally rested. We need to keep the Nile waters coming, which makes us wary of any changes on our southern flank. And for security reasons, we need to keep an eye on developments in Palestine and Syria. The Nile Basin and the Levant have always been central to Egypt's foreign policy, regardless of who is in power.

Today, however, Egypt's foreign policy seems to have unravelled. We're no longer protecting our vital interests on the southern and northeast flanks. Something is wrong with the formulation of Egyptian policy. We seem to have lost track of our most basic historical and geographical needs.

It is true that the Nile is still flowing through our southern borders. It is also true that there are no signs of an imminent foreign invasion through the northeast borders. But it is fair to say that quite real dangers are heading our way from those two sides. And we seem to have lost our ability to influence the course of events around us.

Sudan is now threatened with disintegration. It is about to fall apart into several mini-states. Meanwhile, the Nile's riparian countries want to change agreements governing the allocation of the river's waters. They may be doing so because of their own interests, because of their growing need for water. They may also be doing what Israel has told them to do. Israel has always been trying to strangle Egypt and blackmail it, in the hope of gaining concessions in the Middle East conflict.

On the northeast front, the situation is just as bad. Thirty years after Egypt signed a unilateral peace agreement with Israel, peace is nowhere to be seen. The Palestinian national movement is in shambles, and the authority that was created by the Oslo Accords has failed to find a just settlement of the Palestinian problem. Gaza is controlled by a political power that the Egyptian government dislikes, for it reminds it of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood.

The peace treaty that Egypt signed with Israel placed no conditions on Israel's behaviour towards other parties of the conflict. But the same peace treaty made it incumbent on Egypt to stay neutral. As a result, official Egypt seems not only unable to control the course of events but also quite biased to Israel. This became particularly clear during Israel's war on Lebanon in the summer of 2006, and again during the Gaza war in 2008/09.

When Egypt is unable to control events in its vicinity, it loses much of its influence in the larger circles of its diplomacy; namely, the Arab, African and Islamic circles. Egypt's ability to lead the Arab world, whether alone or in coordination with Syria and Saudi Arabia, is much weakened. Under Hosni Mubarak, Egypt has neglected Africa. Now our influence in Africa is less than that of South Africa, Libya, or even strife-torn Algeria.

In the Islamic world, Egypt has less leverage than Saudi Arabia, Iran, or even Turkey. The lack of an Egyptian role has left a vacuum that three non-Arab countries -- Israel, Iran, and Turkey -- are now competing to fill. This cannot be allowed to go on for much longer.

A full revision of Egypt's foreign policy is needed. We must identify the malfunction that led to the deterioration of Egypt's role and status. We must restore much-needed harmony between Egypt's foreign policy and its geo-strategic requisites.

It is perhaps useful to recall the main features of Egypt's foreign policies since World War II, a time when geo-strategic needs were properly taken into account: Egypt dealt with the Zionist scheme as a major threat to the security of the entire Arab world; Egypt approached the Palestinian issue as an Arab and Islamic cause that cannot be acted upon in a unilateral basis; Egypt stayed away from international camps, opting for non-alignment as a way of protecting its independence.

On the basis of these principles, Egypt launched important initiatives in the aftermath of World War II. It co-founded the Arab League and hosted its headquarters in Cairo. It took part in the first Arab- Israeli war in 1948. It laid the foundation of the non- alignment policy by abstaining from a vote on the war the US waged on North Korea with a mandate from the UN Security Council in 1950. Egypt also proposed a draft resolution, passed by the Arab League Council in 1950, to impose sanctions on any Arab country that signs a unilateral deal with Israel and to expel such a country from the Arab League. And it drafted and approved the treaty on joint defence and Arab economic cooperation.

The above initiatives remained the main guide of Egyptian foreign policy until the 1973 War, regardless of who was in power. It was only after the 1973 War that president Anwar El-Sadat changed all that. Promising to make the 1973 War the last of wars, Sadat pursued a peaceful settlement with Israel with the help of the US, which he said owned "99 per cent of the cards" of the game. In 1977, Sadat went to Jerusalem and addressed the Knesset, and the rest is history.

Sadat based his new policy on the assumption that Israel was psychologically ready for a settlement based on withdrawal to the 1967 borders and a fair solution of the refugees' problem. He believed that the US wanted to see such a settlement materialise, even if it had to put pressure on Israel to do so. He was also willing, if a comprehensive settlement couldn't be reached in one step to start working on the Egyptian track alone. Sadat was also convinced that the Arab world would have no option but to join the peace process sooner or later.

Subsequent events proved all of the above assumptions wrong. As a result: Egypt ended up signing a separate peace deal with Israel, one that other Arab countries denounced; Egypt was estranged from the Arab world for nearly 10 years, during which the Arab League moved its headquarters to Tunisia; Egypt's political life became so strained that Sadat ordered the arrest of the country's top nationalist figures in September 1981; Sadat was assassinated on 6 October 1981 in one of the bloodiest scenes in Egyptian history.

When it became clear that Egyptian foreign policy was no longer tenable, attempts were made to correct its course. As soon as he took office, President Mubarak reacted to overwhelming public sentiment by freezing the normalisation process and using the dispute over Taba as a means of cooling off the peace process with Israel. He sought to mend ties with the Soviet Union in order to restore balance in the country's relations with the two superpowers. Mubarak also used the Iraq-Iran War to alleviate tensions with Arab countries, which paved the way for the return of the Arab League to Cairo in the late 1980s.

But these "corrective" steps Mubarak engineered lacked a cohesive vision of foreign policy. Tactically they may have been right, for Egypt was able to use certain regional and international events to relieve external and internal pressures. But these steps were not solid enough to survive the first real crisis. And when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, Egypt didn't quite know what to do.

Egypt managed the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait with the mentality of a country that seeks tactical benefits rather than adheres to a strategic vision. Egypt thus wasted an opportunity to restore its leading role in the region. We came out of the war with a lot of financial and political gains, but we lost on the strategic level. Soon afterwards, Israel used our lack of purpose to abort the Madrid Conference.

The Arab fold in which Egypt was re-accepted was weak and torn. Egypt had lost the ability to lead the way to a comprehensive peace. It offered scant leadership in politics and no assistance whatsoever to the resistance. As a result of this failure, Egypt's role was stunted. Lebanon's Hizbullah succeeded in forcing the Israelis to withdraw unconditionally from South Lebanon. Egypt sat that one out, but kept putting pressure on Arab countries to accept Israel's terms for peace.

Egypt offered little leadership during Bill Clinton's failed mediation in 2000. And when Washington spoiled for a fight after the 9/11 events, we withdrew deep into our shell, allowing the US to invade and destroy Iraq at will.

As Gamal Mubarak emerged on the political scene, Egypt's leadership became more interested in power transfer than in rehabilitating its regional leadership. Before long, warmth returned to Egyptian-Israeli relations. Egypt released the Israeli spy Azzam Azzam before he served his full sentence. It signed the Qualified Industrial Zones (QIZ) agreement with Israel. And it began selling natural gas to Israel at cut prices.

The return of warmth to Egyptian-Israeli relations brought about no improvement in Israel's behaviour. On the contrary, Israel became more aggressive, waging two major wars in less than two years, one against Lebanon in 2006 and the other against Gaza in 2008. Egypt blamed the first war on Hizbullah and the second on Hamas. In fact, Egypt seems to back the Israeli and American view that the main threat to the region comes from Iran and "terrorist" groups, and not from Israel.

In the coming few years, Egypt is likely to face potential threats to its national security, such as: the disintegration of several Arab countries under the weight of ethnic, tribal, religious and nationalist conflicts -- Sudan being a case in point; the complete collapse of the peace process, particularly on the Palestinian track, and Israel's success in imposing a solution on its own terms (such a solution may involve settling great numbers of Palestinian refugees in Sinai on the ostensible pretext of development and reconstruction); the influence of Iran, Turkey and Israel is likely to grow steadily, allowing them to play more influential role in the region.

If allowed to continue, the current course of Egyptian foreign policy would undermine our national interests. Unless Egypt's political leadership is willing to confront the existing challenges and break free from US hegemony, its status in the Arab and regional systems is likely to erode further.

This doesn't need to be the case. With enough political will, we may once again find our voice. Here is what we need to do:

- We need to see Israel as the main threat to the security of Egypt and the Arab world. We need to confront the Israeli threat through all possible means, including support for and guidance of the efforts of national resistance. And we need to reunite the Palestinian national movement and rebuild the Palestine Liberation Organisation and make it a better representative of the Palestinian people.

- We also need to put the Arab house in order and seek an Arab consensus on a formula for integration that may promote the common interests of all Arab countries. Furthermore, we need to open a new page in relations with Iran, an effort that should start with the restoration of relations to the ambassador level.

- Egypt should also boost its cooperation with Turkey and find a way of starting an Arab-Turkish- Iranian dialogue on how best to sort out the problems of security in the region.

It would be hard, however, for Egypt to embrace such a change in its foreign policy unless a change takes place in its current political system. There is a certain drive for political reform, one that is likely to pick up pace over the next two years, reaching a crescendo with the presidential elections of October 2011. We're also going to have crucial legislative elections in late 2010. The outcome of these elections will decide the scope of change in Egypt's foreign policy. On this outcome rests our future ability to meet our challenges and step up to our responsibilities.

* Professor of political science at Cairo University and former secretary-general of the Arab Thought Forum, Amman, Jordan.

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