Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1238, (19 - 25 March 2015)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1238, (19 - 25 March 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Back to Sharm

Hot on the heels of the Economic Development Conference, Egypt is now gearing up for the Arab summit. Dina Ezzat reports

Back to Sharm
Back to Sharm
Al-Ahram Weekly

President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi will return to Sharm El-Sheikh less than two weeks after the close of the Egypt Economic Development Conference (EEDC) hoping for more of the same, a mix of political and economic support that will help cement Egypt’s post-Morsi political process.

Al-Sisi, who will chair the annual Arab summit at the Red Sea resort, hopes to use the top-level Arab meeting to promote Egypt as a lynchpin of regional, Mediterranean and international stability.

The official narrative regarding the EEDC is clear: the conference erased any lingering questions not just over the popular support that Egypt’s regime commands, but over the legitimacy of the regime in the eyes of the world.

As a consequence, the international community appears ready to offer Cairo the economic support it needs, though it will do so at different speeds.

“It might be hesitant to begin with but it is certain to pick up,” says a leading Egyptian businessman.

“The world now knows that Al-Sisi’s is the only address in town and that will remain the case for the remainder of his first term in office. They know that he is a man to count on to promote regional stability and combat radical militant Islamism,” says an Egyptian ambassador in a leading Western capital.

“It was very clear what happened in Sharm El-Sheikh. We heard the world saying it will not allow Egypt to fail and will provide sufficient economic support to keep things moving. And this support is likely to grow when stability is secured and Egypt regains its essential regional role,” says a Foreign Ministry source.

He added that the world will be watching the Arab summit closely to see how far Cairo can go in shaping the regional body’s agenda.

On the fringes of the EEDC Al-Sisi met with the heads of several Western delegations to discuss three pressing regional issues — Libya, Syria and Gulf security. Cairo, say Egyptian sources, will press for action on the same three issues during the Arab summit.

On Libya, Cairo is planning to promote a variant of an idea that is gaining ground in some Western capitals — the sending of UN-sponsored, but not necessarily blue-helmeted, troops to Libya to support the national unity government that Bernadino Leon, the UN envoy to Libya, says is almost ready.

Cairo now appears happy to lobby for a national unity government, as long as the Egypt-UAE-supported Tobruk/Khalifa Haftar faction is in control, and support it with a mix of international and Arab forces on the ground.

“It’s probably safe to say that Cairo has finally accepted that it cannot exclude all Islamists. It now wants to see the factio

it supports have the biggest share in the national unity government. This might work out given that we all acknowledge the Tobruk parliament as legitimate, even if not particularly representative,” said a UN negotiating source.

On Syria, Egypt has been working to assemble a largely non-Islamist, but representative, Syrian opposition front. It will use the next Arab summit to promote the line it was pushing in the run-up to the EEDC: a settlement in which the regime of Bashar Al-Assad, accused by the Syrian opposition and by independent human rights and legal organisations of killing 200,000 Syrians, and Syrian Islamists, have the smallest shares.

Egyptian diplomats claim support for this formula is picking up. “Western officials now openly acknowledge that the Assad regime, though not necessarily Assad himself, has to be included in any talks on Syria’s future. This is a clear indication that what we have been saying over the past few months is gaining ground,” said an Egyptian diplomatic source. He added that it is too early to speak of a deal on Syria being discussed at this month’s Arab summit.

“What we can expect are serious Arab consultations during which Al-Sisi, who used the fringes of the EEDC to discuss regional political matters with concerned world leaders, will be able to push for an approach to Syria that takes into consideration reality on the ground.”

Though Egyptian officials caution against hopes of an imminent breakthrough in either Syria or Libya, Cairo is determined to be a major player in shaping the breakthroughs when they do arrive.

A less anarchic Libya would mean fewer militants and arms entering Egypt and consequently more security, a necessary condition for investors to act on the memoranda of understanding signed during the EEDC. And the same applies, though to a lesser extent, to Syria.

Egyptian officials believe that wider regional Egyptian influence will promote greater international confidence in Egypt, encouraging governments to provide the economic support promised during the EEDC sooner rather than later.

It is because the Egyptian government knows its legitimacy must be underwritten by economic growth, and such growth will be facilitated by the international community recognizing that Cairo has regained its leading regional role, that the president — “despite the apprehension of some of his aides,” according to one highly informed source — is pushing the idea of establishing a collective Arab military force.

Egyptian and foreign diplomatic sources who attended Al-Sisi’s EEDC fringe meetings say the proposal attracted many questions, not least on how possible such a force really was. Al-Sisi, they say, was optimistic, arguing that a collective Arab military force could play a crucial role to promote stability across the region, and especially in the Gulf.

Arab diplomats in Cairo agree that the new monarch in Saudi Arabia, and the increasing likelihood of a nuclear deal between Tehran and the West, has changed the status quo in the Gulf. The spread of radical Islamic militant groups, including the Islamic State (IS) group, is another factor that cannot be dismissed in deciding the future of Gulf security.

Saudi fear of the re-integration of its arch-regional enemy Iran lies behind their support for a collective Arab force, with some sources saying the whole idea was first mooted by Riyadh.

Certainly, Saudi has reason enough to be concerned. Yemen is now on the verge of being fully controlled by the Iranian-backed Houthis, and across the border in Iraq both IS and Iran hold sway.

The possibilities of forming an Arab force will be the focus of a series of one-on-one meetings Al-Sisi is planning for the eve of the inauguration of the Arab summit in Sharm El-Sheikh on 28 March.

Whatever materialises from this agenda, say Egyptian diplomatic sources, will reinforce the political achievements already made during the EEDC.

“The Egyptian officials I have been talking to since the Sharm El-Sheikh conference all tell me that the public reception of the conference is clear proof that what Egyptians most desire is economic prosperity, which can be secured by augmenting Egypt’s international and regional influence,” says a Cairo-based Western ambassador.

It is an agenda with little space for discussion of the fate of Egypt’s long overdue parliamentary elections or institutional reforms, let alone human rights.

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