Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1269, (5 - 11 November 2015)
Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Issue 1269, (5 - 11 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Walking a tightrope

Cairo’s regional policies must strike a balance between multiple players, rival agendas and fast-changing developments on the ground, writes Nevine Khalil

Al-Ahram Weekly

Egypt participates in the US-led campaign against Islamic State (IS); hosts talks between Syrian opposition groups to prepare for dialogue with Bashar Al-Assad’s regime; approves the Russian military campaign in Syria targeting all armed groups fighting Al-Assad; agrees with Iran that the Syrian people must choose their own leader and that Al-Assad doesn’t have to step down immediately; takes part in the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen against Iranian proxies and sits at the table with everyone at the multilateral Vienna talks on Syria.

Egypt may seem to change positions depending on the issue, but such shifts are easily explained by Cairo’s regional priorities: to maintain the integrity of statehood, stamp out terrorism regionally and promote negotiated settlements wherever possible ahead of military intervention.

Egypt is willing to cooperate “as an equal” with others to bring stability to the Arab world by creating a collective security system and stamping out terrorism, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi told the Manama Dialogue on Friday.

“We face a very difficult and complicated regional situation,” said Al-Sisi. “Arab national security is under threat, and the situation demands we maintain what remains of the state and its institutions.”

The two most volatile issues in the region are Syria and Yemen. In both arenas there is a multitude of players and well-funded opposing factions. Trans-border militancy is spreading out of both countries. IS is active in Syria and Iraq, and Yemen has been an Al-Qaeda stronghold for more than a decade.

Analysts and officials agree that Cairo’s position on Syria is dictated by its belief that the integrity of the state, including its institutions and borders, must be maintained. Whether or not Al-Assad remains in power is a side issue now that Syria has become a magnet for militants and a breeding ground for trans-border terrorism.

In Yemen, Cairo supports elected President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi and wants to see the country’s Islamists marginalised. It is also keen to limit Tehran’s influence in Arab countries. Well aware that Egypt’s security and stability cannot be divorced from regional conditions, Cairo is acting on the belief that if one country falls there will be a domino effect across the region.

“Because Egypt is not embroiled in any regional conflicts it is a credible player in Syria and Yemen,” Tarek Fahmi, political science professor at the American University in Cairo, told Al-Ahram Weekly. “It is seeking a balanced approach in its foreign policies.”

“Egypt is pragmatic,” says Hassan Abu Taleb, a political expert at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

“It may appear to shift positions from one issue to the next but Cairo’s policies all aim to protect Egypt’s stability. It joined the US-led coalition to combat transborder IS terrorism on principle; it supports Russia’s campaign in Syria because it agrees that anyone carrying arms against the regime is a militant terrorist,” he says.

“While Cairo is suspicious of Iran’s interference in Arab countries through proxies, it agrees with Tehran that Syrians should choose their leader and that removing Al-Assad is not a priority right now.”

These positions have antagonised friends and foes alike. But that, say observers, is the nature of the game.

“We differ with our friends in the US and Saudi Arabia on Al-Assad but removing him first means IS flags flying over Damascus, which is unacceptable,” a former top Egyptian diplomat told the Weekly.

“The Saudis need to stop focusing on Al-Assad’s removal. What is needed is for a process to be put in place and that is what is happening in Vienna.”

Khaled Okasha, director of the National Centre for Security Studies, agrees that Al-Assad’s fate is not a priority. “Nor should this be problematic for Saudi Arabia, given that Riyadh agrees that Syria’s unity and institutions must be maintained to avoid creating a vacuum like in Iraq.”

There are signs that Riyadh has begun to shift its position in response to the changing dynamics on the ground, says Okasha. But the fact is, he adds, “Saudi Arabia continues to feel encircled by Iran and its allies. Egypt understands this and supports Saudi Arabia in its proxy war with Iran in both Syria and Yemen.”

Iran is interfering everywhere in the region and is directly responsible for terrorism because it supports many regional armed groups, says the senior diplomat.

Were Syria to become a hotbed for transborder terrorists, “it would destabilise the entire Arab world,” Abu Taleb told the Weekly.

He argues that states involved in battling terrorism need to agree on a clear definition of what it is they are fighting against. Cairo’s definition is very broad — “Egypt is absolutely against militants who target the regime,” he says — and includes groups that some states label as moderate.

“We lived through a very difficult moment when there was a clear danger from the inside and the state almost collapsed.”

The Syrian state cannot be allowed to fall into the hands of terrorists, says the former chief diplomat. Preventing it from doing so, he argues, is “our battle and that of anyone else who wants to fight terror.”

The same applies to Yemen. “The Houthis must be weakened and become a junior partner in government, not the dominant player,” he says.

Cairo, which opposes any role for the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen, participated in the Saudi-led coalition to protect the Red Sea and Bab Al-Mandab. “But we continue to support a political solution that upholds the legitimacy of President Hadi,” he adds.

Cairo views the Vienna talks on Syria positively not only because they offer an alternative to conflict and foreign military intervention but because, for the first time, everyone involved and/or directly affected by the Syrian quagmire is present.

“Whatever their positions, the players need to be brought to the table if we are to defuse a crisis that has exhausted the region for years,” says Okasha.

“Expanding the negotiation table has more positives than negatives. Non-inclusive, behind-closed-doors deals are weak and unlikely to hold on the ground. Now there’s an opportunity to develop more ideas and reach a coherent and realistic solution.”

Once the major players agree on principles in Vienna, they will give orders to their proxies on the ground to enforce a deal, says Abu Taleb.

The Vienna talks, insists the former diplomat, offer the best possibility for a comprehensive settlement. Although it will take time, he is optimistic, not least because Russia and the US are sitting at the same table and want to solve the crisis at a time when Russia’s military campaign in Syria is changing the dynamics on the ground.

Whatever the rivalries and conflicting agendas in Vienna, expanding the talks to include more external players involved in Syria can only be good, says Okasha.

“Newcomers such as Egypt, Iran, Jordan and Lebanon all have viable roles and opinions. Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon can make a real difference because of their balanced approach and knowledge of Syria,” he says.

“And we have seen Iran invited to the international table for the first time since signing the nuclear deal. It can only be positive that everyone who can help on the Syrian issue is taking part.”

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