Wednesday,18 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1311, (8 - 21 September 2016)
Wednesday,18 July, 2018
Issue 1311, (8 - 21 September 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Egypt’s pivot to Asia

Driven to diversify its foreign relations, Egypt’s tentative pivot towards Asia should become a central plank of Egyptian foreign policy for decades to come, writes Hussein Haridy

Al-Ahram Weekly

Ever since President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi came to power, Egyptian relations with Asian powers have seen significant advances reminiscent of Egyptian-Asian relations in the 1950s and 1960s, during the era of President Gamal Abdel-Nasser. It is no coincidence that history is almost repeating itself. Back then, relations with both China and India were very strong, and the two Asian powers had stood by Egypt in turbulent times. Their unlimited and unconditional support provided Egypt with a reservoir of strength much needed to meet and withstand a multitude of outside pressures. Although the world today is different from that of the Cold War, history has pushed Egypt once again, in less than 40 years, to rebalance its foreign policy and pivot towards both China and India.

Needless to say, neither Egypt of today nor India and China are the same. The three countries have seen tremendous changes, internally and in their external relations in a globalised world. And the differential of power and influence among the three powers has undergone important changes. In the 1950s and 1960s, Egypt was much more advanced than today, and the gap between Egypt, on the one hand, and India and China on the other was so narrow that Egypt was almost on par with India in terms of economic development, and maybe more advanced than China. Today, the situation has been reversed to the detriment of Egypt.

Against this historical background, President Al-Sisi went to India and China in the period from 1-5 September. He paid a state visit to India 1-3 September, and then went to China to participate in the G20 Summit from 4-5 September, as a guest. The invitation to attend this summit had been extended to the president of Egypt during the official visit of the president of China to Cairo earlier this year. It was the third time for Al-Sisi to travel to China in the last two years, and the second time for the Egyptian president to visit India. The frequency of the visits is testimony to the growing importance of both India and China for Egyptian foreign policy for decades to come, and how these two emerging great Asian powers see Egypt and its role in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

After 40 years of conducting both a Western-oriented and US-centred foreign policy, Egypt has been engaged, in the last two years, in reassessing its priorities in light of the changes that the country has witnessed in the last five years in general, and after the June 2013 Revolution in particular. The majority of Egyptians resented, prior to January 2011, the excessive reliance of Cairo on the United States, which some Egyptians had compared to relations that had existed long ago between Great Britain and Egypt before the July Revolution. They also harkened back to the days when Egypt had been a leader among Third World countries, and a recognised leader and force in the Non-Aligned Movement. For a majority of Egyptians, a greater balance in Egyptian foreign relations was overdue.

Another factor that explains the pivot to Asia and the Egyptian desire to rebalance its relations with the outside world is the fact that the United States, in the last five years, has intervened in Egyptian domestic affairs with little regard, if any, to the nationalist sentiments of the Egyptian people. It is difficult for them to forget what Hillary Clinton told Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the former minister of defence and head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, in June 2012 when she was still secretary of state — that the Armed Forces must go back to their barracks and leave power for civilians. They actually did. This time for the Muslim Brotherhood. In less than a year, Egyptians toppled the Brotherhood from power. The Americans did not like that and, accordingly, subjected Egypt to a set of sanctions, let alone the hostile campaign unleashed by influential American media against the June Revolution and Al-Sisi himself. Officially and publicly they refrained from calling this revolution a coup d’etat. But the tension was palpable. Luckily, this situation has been reversed and Egyptian-American relations have improved remarkably. But a lesson has been learned by Egyptians. One direct and a positive result of this sad chapter in our relations with the United States, and the West in general, is going back to basics in Egypt’s foreign relations. Our relations with both Africa and Asia must be the centre of our foreign relations. These two rising continents are destined to become the centre of world politics in the decades to come. Some would argue that they have become so already.

Be that as it may, there is no other alternative for Egypt in a fast changing world and in a turbulent Middle East but to pivot to Asia, and it is almost an absolute necessity to reopen and maintain excellent relations with both India and China. To strengthen our bilateral relations with both in all fields, particularly in the fields of hard power, will be an important multiplier for the role of Egypt in the Middle East and across Africa and Asia, and hence on the world stage. The act of deepening our relations with India and China should not be seen as departing from alliances already in place. Nor should the pivot be understood as directed against third parties in the Muslim world, like Pakistan, for instance. A delicate question in this respect will be Egyptian-Indian cooperation in the fight against terrorism. That cooperation would entail sharing intelligence information on terrorist and extremist groups operating within Pakistan and in Afghanistan. Our Pakistani friends should not be alarmed by such cooperation. Of course, in a perfect world we would have called for trilateral cooperation among Egypt, India and Pakistan in combatting terrorism, especially in South Asia. But the world being as it is, it is something for a distant tomorrow. Still, Egypt should cooperate with both in this respect, separately.

Relations with India and China and other Asian powers must play a central role in Egyptian foreign policy in the years to come. Our pivot to Asia should not be based on economic or trade aspects. Our approach to Asia should be more strategic, encompassing all fields of cooperation. Moreover, India and China are both members in the emerging power group of nations called BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). I would argue that our relations with this group of nations should become a top priority for Egyptian foreign relations. India and China could help us tremendously in this endeavour. It is up to us to build on the results of the visits of the Egyptian president to India and China earlier this month. I really do hope that this pivot to Asia will be sustainable and lasting.

The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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