Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1264, (1 - 7 October 2015)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1264, (1 - 7 October 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Pressing Cairo’s agenda

A busy week in New York saw Egypt score points at the UN. Nevine Khalil keeps tally

Al-Ahram Weekly

President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s schedule at the 70th UN General Assembly session this week was jam-packed: two speeches at the UN, sideline meetings with world leaders, talks with economic organisations and high-profile coverage in the US media.

Egypt scored a number of goals. It joined the new contact group on Syria, built momentum behind Cairo’s bid for a non-permanent Security Council seat, cast a spotlight on the threat terrorism poses to the Middle East, showcased Egypt’s economic achievements over the past year and focused attention on the problems surrounding the construction of the Renaissance Dam.

Al-Sisi went to last year’s 69th General Assembly to introduce himself and the new Egypt to the world. A year later “he returned as the established president of Egypt with credentials that are fully accepted and recognised,” says Hussein Haridy, a former assistant to the foreign minister.

“Al-Sisi is [back at the UN] updating everyone on the progress Egypt has made and reminding them that Egyptians are fighting the self-declared Islamic State,” explained Steven Cook, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Abdel-Moneim Said, director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies, says that while the focus last year was on Al-Sisi’s icebreaking meeting with US President Barack Obama and normalising relations between Egypt and the US “this year Cairo’s aim was to deliver the message that Egypt is on track with its economic and political roadmap”.

Even though Al-Sisi stayed “on message”, Cook told Al-Ahram Weekly, it is not clear who the president is trying to influence.

“There are few people who have not made up their minds about Al-Sisi and Egypt,” says Cook. “Many want to get back to business as usual and others want to hold Egypt to the principles of 25 January and 30 June.”

Other US pundits believe the West is willing to back an exclusively security relationship with countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia because of miscalculations over what would happen after the Arab Spring. Few Western capitals had anticipated that the vacuum would be filled by Al-Qaeda and ISIS.

US-Egyptian relations still appear cool and Cairo’s determination to expand its international partnerships to include Russia, China, Germany and France, from each of which it is seeking greater economic and military cooperation, hardly seems designed to boost the temperature.

In an interview with the Associated Press (AP) Al-Sisi himself noted that though relations with the United States are “strategic and stable… the last two years were a real test of endurance and strength”.

Haridy believes relations are firmly on track. “Since Al-Sisi and Obama met last year many issues have been resolved and military assistance has been reinstated until at least 2018,” he says.

Cook is less positive, arguing that there remains “a sense of drift and no one is quite sure what this bilateral relationship is all about”.

On Monday, following Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s meeting on the sidelines of the General Assembly, Egypt was selected to join the international contact group on Syria. The group will also include Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said these “most influential outside players” will meet in October after the formation of four working groups on Syria in Geneva, and will work in coordination with Staffan de Mistura, the UN’s envoy to Syria.

“It is decision time on Syria,” says Haridy. “Egypt has been included in the contact group because it is a stabilising force and plays a role no other member can.”

Haridy believes nothing less than the future of the Middle East was at stake when Obama and Putin met at the UN summit and it was “very important that President Al-Sisi was around to present Egypt’s perspective”.

Al-Sisi’s presence in New York, Al-Haridy argues, will also have promoted Egypt’s chances of winning a 2016-2017 non-permanent seat on the Security Council, something for which Cairo has been lobbying hard.

Al-Sisi certainly received his share of media attention, allowing the president “to clearly state Egypt’s official positions and counter the fierce media campaign orchestrated by some sections of the media in the US”, according to Haridy.

It has taken two years to turn around Western views of what happened in Egypt on 30 June, 2013, says Said, but at last “there has been a great improvement and attacks in the media have subsided. Now it is US think tanks that are leading the criticism.”

On Syria Al-Sisi told CNN he hopes “the state does not fall completely into the hands of terrorists and extremists”.

In an interview on Monday, Al-Sisi underlined the dangers of allowing the Syrian army to collapse and its arsenal to fall into the hands of terrorists.

“I don’t want to see the country dismantled… this will have a direct impact on the security and stability of the whole region,” he said.

A day earlier Al-Sisi told AP that regional security is “very vulnerable” and “a great amount of understanding and cooperation” is needed to prevent states “sliding into a vicious cycle of failure”.

Asked whether he was satisfied with the amount of military aid Egypt is receiving to fight terrorism, Al-Sisi told CNN that more equipment was needed because “the weapons needed to counter terrorism” are different to those used in conventional combat.

To AP Al-Sisi reiterated Cairo’s line that there is no battle between the government and the Muslim Brotherhood. “The real problem,” he said, “is between the Egyptian people and the Muslim Brotherhood”.

Egyptians, he added, “are not able to forgive and forget” their suffering under a year of Brotherhood rule.

The dangers posed by terrorism were the main focus of Al-Sisi’s speech to the UN General Assembly on Monday, though he also highlighted the plight of Palestinians and the ongoing assault on Al-Aqsa mosque.

The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by Al-Sisi focusing on Egypt’s economic reforms, its plans to impose a value-added tax, cut fuel subsidies and amend property tax law. The government is ready “to forge ahead with long-overdue and contentious reforms that prior governments had known were necessary but did not carry out” he wrote.

On Friday Al-Sisi told the Sustainable Development Summit that by 2030 Egypt aims to have eradicated hunger and to be in a position to offer quality education to all its citizens.

Al-Sisi met with World Bank President Jim Yong Kim to discuss megaprojects already underway in Egypt towards which the World Bank could contribute. The World Bank currently runs 26 projects in Egypt, valued at $5.4 billion. He also met with Klaus Schwab, director of the World Economic Forum (WEF), Cairo’s partner for the regional economic forum scheduled in Sharm El-Sheikh in May, 2016.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Germany’s Angela Merkel, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn were among other world leaders with whom Al-Sisi held meetings.

On Tuesday Al-Sisi attended a summit on countering violent extremism headed by Barack Obama.

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