Saturday,25 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1121, 8-14 November
Saturday,25 November, 2017
Issue 1121, 8-14 November

Ahram Weekly

Cairo’s new regional role

The changing regional environment means that Egypt should develop a new vision for its diplomacy, writes Abu Bakr Al-Dessouki

Al-Ahram Weekly

For many years, Egypt has stopped playing the effective regional role that it was well-known for in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s and that made it a model for other countries in the region. This role has faded for many reasons, though the former regime enforced this retreat through its defeatist policies based on the rule of individuals and the personalisation of political decisions, reducing the input of foreign-policy decision-making institutions.
Egypt’s foreign ministry — the most prestigious in the Middle East and one of the most prestigious in the world — became a bureaucratic entity as a result. The former regime also relied on inexperienced confidantes, who held inappropriate visions that could not comprehend or accommodate the strengths of Egypt’s character, its strategic position, or its cultural contribution to the region and the world. These deficiencies caused such people to retreat inwards under the slogan of “Egypt First”.
The 25 January Revolution overthrew this regime and established a democratic system that elected a president in a free democratic process that expressed the will of the majority of the people for the first time in Egypt’s modern history. This new president, Mohamed Morsi, took over the reins of power in a civilised manner, and the departure of the former ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) was effected in as smooth and civilised a fashion, after it had done its duty during the transitional phase.
Egypt was able to overcome this difficult period, and it now seems that Egypt’s formerly absent role in foreign affairs will be forgotten and it will regain its former influence as a result of the revolutionary impetus. This will require discussion and research about restoring an effective role for Egypt in the light of a different strategic environment from that in the 1960s and 1970s when Egypt dominated the scene. It will be necessary to understand the changes that have occurred, in order to gauge their influence on Egypt’s chances of recovering its role and the linking of other regional roles with Egypt’s potential role.
Foreign policy does not occur in a vacuum, but takes place within an environment that influences and is influenced by it. This environment is either conducive to playing an influential role, or it is hostile and combative and requires the mobilisation of all energies and the utilisation of all tools in order to protect the country’s vital strategic interests in the regional setting.
In the first decade of this century, the strategic environment surrounding Egypt witnessed several widespread changes. During a roundtable discussion at the Al-Siyassa Al-Dawliya magazine, former Egyptian foreign minister and Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa noted that “there must be a serious and objective study of the conditions surrounding us.”
Indeed, it is necessary to study the regional conditions before discussing the restoration of Egypt’s role. There has been a rise in other regional forces, especially Turkey, Iran, the Gulf states and Ethiopia, as well as Israel. Turkey’s role is based on a true understanding of its goals as a rising economic power and a calm method of diplomacy aiming to settle its overseas problems through a “zero problem” strategy.
At the same time, Turkey has been relying on its “soft power”, such as trade, culture and art. Turkish television dramas have already invaded homes throughout the Arab world.
Nonetheless, there are obstacles limiting Turkey’s vaunted role, including the fact that it is a country that prioritises its national interests and it is the heir of the Ottoman Empire, a state from which the peoples of the region are still suffering. Turkey could, however, cooperate with Egypt, since both countries share the same doctrine and similar systems of governance, as well as a united position on the Palestinian cause and the Syrian crisis.
The visit by Egypt’s president to Turkey at the end of September was perhaps an act that recognised these similarities and aimed to nurture them, serving as confirmation that Egyptian ties with Turkey are moving in the direction of cooperation and integration instead of competition and conflict.
Meanwhile, Iran has been trying to spread its influence and its Shiite doctrine in the Arab region, based on its ideological, economic and military power, as well as on its opposition to the US and animosity towards Israel.
However, Iran’s role is confined by the western sanctions that aim to isolate it and prevent it from joining the world’s nuclear club. It has also shown double standards on the Arab Spring revolutions: while it blessed the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and the demands of the people in Bahrain, it has opposed the Syrian revolution and has done its best to shore up the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, a key Iranian ally in the region. This demonstrates that interests rather than principles govern Iran’s policies.
At the same time, Iran’s Shia doctrine decreases its chances of dominating a region that is mostly Sunni. As a result, it seems that conflict rather than cooperation may be the key feature of ties between Cairo and Tehran, since the Arab states rely on Egypt and Saudi Arabia to confront the Shia tide. Perhaps this also explains the reservations displayed by some Arab states regarding the restoration of Egyptian-Iranian relations. Reviving these ties later may help decrease conflicts of interest, and Egypt may succeed in bringing viewpoints closer between the Gulf states and Iran.
There is also an emerging role to be played by the Arab Gulf states, most notably Saudi Arabia and Qatar, because of their financial power and their desire to play a significant regional role. Relations between Egypt and these countries are based on cooperation, and sometimes competition, but never conflict.
On the African continent, Ethiopia has an emerging role to play after disputes about the Nile’s water have once again erupted among the Nile Basin states.
The Arab region as a whole is awash with challenges, and the Syrian revolution may detonate the entire region, whether through ethnic nationalist or religious and doctrinal conflicts. It may redraw the map of alliances in the Middle East. Internal conflicts remain dominant in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, while the Palestinian cause remains unresolved and the chances of peace are diminishing.
In the light of the Arab Spring revolutions, the regional scene has become somewhat fluid and indistinct, so much so that it has been described as a “regional chaos” rather than a regional order, and the new post-revolutionary regimes are still suffering from political and security instability.
In Africa, the scene has changed completely with the emergence of new powers such as South Africa, Nigeria and Cote d’Ivoire, which have a stronger presence on the continent and on the world stage. Among the Nile Basin states, Sudan has been divided between North and South, and there are also troubles in the east and west of these two countries since western sanctions remain in place. Worse still is the failed-state condition of Somalia. Meanwhile, the interests of competing regional powers have become more intertwined in the Nile Basin countries, meaning that the traditional Egyptian quota of the Nile’s water is now under threat.
One cannot ignore Israel either, which has maintained its role as a regional power with advanced weapons capabilities linked to its strategic alliance with the US. Israel fears that the new rulers of Egypt will turn against it, or become hostile and harm its strategic interests. Ties are prone to see increasing tensions in the light of rising popular demands in Egypt for revising the Camp David Treaty and amending the texts pertaining to Egyptian troop deployment in Sinai.
There is also the possibility of an armed conflict with an Arab state, and Israel is closely monitoring the situation in the region and trying to anticipate developments.
If this is the regional reality surrounding Egypt as we aspire for a newly promising role for the country, we must develop a vision that deals with this reality and define our goals and interests within it.
Egypt’s role will certainly be different from what it was during the rule of former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser in the 1950s and 60s. This era of a central regional state is gone. It will also certainly be different from what it was under the former Mubarak regime.  According to the political science literature, playing a role means the ability to influence regional interactions to serve specific interests. An effective role also relies on having a vision that will employ capabilities in the best way possible. Egypt in the 1950s and 60s had a vision for the region, and it paid a high price for it.
Despite the country’s current economic difficulties, Egypt remains a heavyweight in the region, and its role is accepted worldwide. Thus, the new Egypt must have a clear vision on regional issues that is positive and courageous in dealing with them. It should be proactive and should take the initiative.
In president Mohamed Morsi’s speeches at overseas events such as the Non-Aligned Movement summit and at the Arab League and the UN General Assembly, he mapped out a clearer Egyptian position on regional issues. Morsi’s position is realistic and balanced: he has asserted that Egypt’s security cannot be set aside and that the Palestinian cause is the cause of all the Arabs. He has called on the international community to end the Israeli occupation, to halt its settlement-building programme, and to end attempts to alter the Arab character of Jerusalem.
Morsi has also stressed Egypt’s support for the aspirations of the Syrian people for freedom and democracy, and he has proposed that his “quartet initiative” bringing together regional powers should be the basis for the resolution of the Syrian crisis. The president has reiterated Egypt’s call for the elimination of all weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East without exception, but he has added that it is the right of any country to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.
Speeches alone, however, are not enough. They must be translated into action on the ground, and if they are not they will lose their value and meaning. Egypt must define its interests clearly in this sensitive period, among them protecting the interests of the country and working to assist its expatriates abroad.
Egypt’s diplomacy should also be used as a tool to serve development issues by pursuing markets for trade, employment and investment. It should be more connected to key circles in the Arab and Muslim worlds, as well as in Africa. It should be more on a par with other world powers, and it should be more responsive to the interests of neighbouring states in order to nurture joint interests with them.
Egyptians need to rally around the national principles of the country’s foreign policy, which do not change when the regime does. This will only occur through collective action that is capable of revising Egypt’s foreign policy and deciding on priorities that are more compatible with the aspirations of Egyptians both at home and abroad.

The writer is the editor of Al-Siyassa Al-Dawliya published by Al-Ahram.

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