Tuesday,21 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1273, (3 - 9 December 2015)
Tuesday,21 May, 2019
Issue 1273, (3 - 9 December 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Foreign policy questions

Will Egypt revise its foreign policy priorities in light of economic and regional considerations? Dina Ezzat seeks an answer

Al-Ahram Weekly

It is a matter of weeks — maybe just four to six, according to informed government officials — before Egypt moves beyond the “aviation crisis” that has engulfed it following the downing of a plane carrying Russian tourists returning from Sharm El-Sheikh.

Egypt and the UK have tentatively agreed a new security protocol to allow for the resumption of British flights to the southern Sinai resort.

“We are talking late January or maybe earlier. We are still waiting to finalise details with the British security team that has been inspecting security measures at the airport,” said a government source.

The same source added that the resumption of the Russian flights could take a little longer.

“The tourism sector has sustained colossal damage over the Christmas/New Year season but we have ambitious plans to make up for the losses. We are working on a set of packages that will hopefully double the number of tourists visiting Egypt during the Easter holidays,” said a source at the Ministry of Tourism.

Yet, as government and Western diplomatic sources argue, it will take more than enhanced airport security to reassure tourism companies and their clients.

“The real issue is that people need to think of Egypt as a stable and safe country. Even if they are just flying into Sharm El-Sheikh or Hurgadah and flying home again, they need to have an image of Egypt as a stable country,” said a European diplomat based in Cairo.

“TV images” of angry demonstrators protesting against police brutality in Luxor, an obvious tourist destination, hardly helps project the desired image of stability, she points out.

“This is what we used to tell our Egyptian interlocutors at the Foreign Ministry. We would argue that it is far from reassuring to see hundreds of people sentenced to death on alleged terror charges without due process,” said the diplomat.

Responses offered by the Foreign Ministry, and by Egyptian officials during foreign visits, which focussed on the “complexity of the legal system” with regard to death sentences, are not very helpful, she said.

“When Egyptian ambassadors and spokesmen come out with this kind of argument it does not register with the average European tourist who might be planning a holiday in Sharm.”

Nor, she added, do the same arguments — that these mass death sentences can be appealed — “carry much weight with our governments back in Europe.”

“In many cases they do influence travel advisories. What we really need to hear from our friends at the Foreign Ministry is that Egypt is working on eliminating the reasons for instability, though of course we all know the issue of terror is too complex to be resolved in just a few weeks.”

Before the tragic crash of the Russian plane and fears that it was brought down by a terror attack, Egyptian diplomats were expressing satisfaction over what they said was the successful re-positioning of Egypt following the ouster of Mohamed Morsi in the summer of 2013.

“We were almost getting back to normal — of course I cannot say that we were fully back to normal because it takes a while, but let me say that I think we we’re on the right path — only to find that now we are facing new questions,” said an Egyptian diplomatic source in a major Western capital.

There is a clear realisation in leading capitals that Egypt enjoys a degree of stability that is increasingly rare in the region and it would be a grave mistake to take a leap in the unknown and rock the boat, say Egyptian diplomats based abroad.

They add that moving beyond the current question marks is an essential prelude to pressing Egyptian interests, and that includes improving the economy as much as pushing Cairo’s views on regional issues, particularly in Syria and Libya.

In recent weeks, say Foreign Ministry sources, there has been a thorough review of what needs to be done to re-position foreign policy to serve these interests.

“We are not talking about reshuffling our foreign policy. We are simply reconsidering our national security priorities in view of the changing situation in the region and trying to decide what to do next,” said one Foreign Ministry source.

Gathering momentum behind the war on terror remains a top priority for Cairo and Egypt has recently shown more openness to “listen to and, when purposeful, accommodate” some of the views offered about how to handle the situation in Sinai. Cooperation in this respect is already underway with the US, Russia and some Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries, say sources.

But the war on terror is inextricably bound up with the situations in Syria and Libya, both of which act as hubs that recruit new terrorists and then export them to nieghbouring states.

Egyptian security sources say Cairo is sharing its concerns over infiltration across the border with Libya and the arrival of militants from Syria with Western interlocutors.

Cairo has long been critical of the lack of international focus on Libya. It is also frustrated by continued haggling between the West and Russia over the fate of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, which Cairo believes is playing into the hands of Islamic State, allowing the terror group the time and space to build new strongholds.

Cairo’s view that the Assad regime is integral to any transition in Syria, and that the transition could last up to 18 months, has been gaining ground, say Foreign Ministry sources.

More and more capitals are willing to accept that the immediate ouster of Assad would lead to the total collapse of Syria’s institutions. It is not a line, however, that is welcomed in Riyadh.

Concerned Egyptian diplomats say recent “unease” in relations between Cairo and Riyadh does not threaten an otherwise strong alliance and that Cairo is keen to “reach understandings” with Saudi Arabia over the situation with Syria and its potential fallout in Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon and, right next to Egypt, over Libya, Cairo’s worst nightmare.

The process of re-positioning, say the same sources, will help win international support for what Cairo has identified as its most urgent priorities — attracting more foreign investment and pressuring Addis Ababa to be more accommodating of Egyptian concerns over the impact of the Grand Renaissance Dam tat Ethiopia is constructing on the Nile.

Cairo is fully aware — and has been told in so many words — that Gulf aid will come to an end this year. It is also aware that the Ethiopian government is in apparent agreement with other Nile Basin countries, including Sudan, that the dam project will continue. Without international support on both fronts, hard times lie ahead.

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