Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1322, (1 - 7 December 2016)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1322, (1 - 7 December 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Egypt’s new foreign policy challenges

The sidelining of the Arab-Israeli conflict constitutes a challenge to Egypt’s foreign policy role, which was predicated on being a stabilising regional force, writes Ibrahim Nawar

Al-Ahram Weekly

Egypt’s foreign policy makers are facing new realities. The most difficult is the regional shift in the Middle East in favour of Iran and its allies. But this is only one of many. Others include the threat of proliferation of terrorism in the region, especially in North African countries after the possible defeat of Daesh (Islamic State group) in Iraq. Hundreds of Arab and foreign fighters will seek escape routes to Libya, Tunisia and Egypt. In addition, the Palestinian question has been sidelined by regional events and Arab Gulf states are struggling to cope with lower oil prices and rising costs of living. As Egypt’s foreign policy makers are trying to retain some regional role for the country, they are facing a hard test.

For a long time, Egypt was locked in an exclusive strategic relationship with the United States. Late Egyptian president Anwar Al-Sadat was the one who decided on that. He tore up the Treaty of Friendship and Strategic Cooperation with the Soviet Union prior to the October 1973 War and declared that Washington held a 99 per cent stake of the Middle East game between Arabs and Israelis. Sadat believed in US power and that the US administration was able to end the Israeli occupation of Arab land taken during the 1967 War.

More than 49 years after the end of the war, Israel is still occupying Palestinian and Syrian land captured in June 1967. Israel managed to sign peace accords with both Egypt and Jordan, but these accords did not guarantee Israel the kind of peace it wanted. Egypt was the war hero and the peace champion. Without its active role in either there is a stalemate in war or in peace. The question now is: Will Egypt continue its strategic relation with the United States while regional and international events have sidelined the Palestinian issue that created the need for that role?

Any answer to the question should take into account that the US is still a very powerful force in the region. It has two of its navy fleets, the 5th and 6th fleets stationed in the region and it is the de facto military protector of the Arab Gulf states. It is also the main source of Egyptian army weapons and one of the main economic aid providers to the country. Meanwhile, the US’s role and influence in the region are diminishing. Its military power has been challenged and seems less able to resist pressure. US allies in the region are weaker than ever, except Israel and Kurdistan. Even Europe is less qualified to assist US waning power in the region while Europeans are mostly busy trying to sort out their own problems, two of which have their origins in the Middle East: Terrorism and illegal immigration.

The answer to the question posed is not easy and straight forward; it also needs a lot of courage and decisiveness. Egypt should look to diversify its sphere of alliances and forge good and fruitful strategic relations with other great powers without agitating its relation with one of them. After all, the pole of power and civilisation is shifting east towards China and India. Remember that the Cold War made the strategic alliance with the Soviet Union possible and that the Arab-Israeli conflict made a strategic alliance with the United States a necessity. Now the Cold War is history and the Arab-Israeli conflict is on the sidelines. So what now?

In my view, this is the core issue —strategic alliances. This will determine other issues. Closer relations and cooperation with China, India and Russia will provide new foundations for Egyptian foreign policy. With this, Iran will become a secondary issue.

The relation with Iran is very important for the stability of the region, and if you know Iran you will realise that the country is divided between two forces: One is the conservatives led by religious hardliners and the Revolutionary Guard Corps. They hold militant views about the world, seek to export the Iranian version of the Islamic revolution, and expand Iran’s regional influence in what they call “The Greater Persian Gulf”. The second are moderates and pragmatists that almost gained the upper hand in running the internal affairs of the country and leading foreign policy generally. The Supreme Leader is trying to strike a delicate balance between these two forces. Conflict in the region would get worse so long as it is based on sectarian politics. Although it is very difficult to move such conflict to a political ground and to settle it peacefully, someone, somewhere has to do the job. Egyptian foreign policy makers should give it a try. It is not going to be easy, but it is a must.

Approaching Arab-Iranian conflict on the basis of mutual political interests, cooperation and respect would open the way for a correct political logic to take root, instead of sectarian euphoria in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen. Arab leaders should accept the need for political, economic, social and cultural modernisation. Societal forces should be allowed to emerge organically and give life to a new Arab political system able to deal with the rest of the region and the whole world normally.

The trouble here is a resistance against long overdue political change in the Arab world. There is a strong traditional camp in the Egyptian establishment that believes in a solution based on bringing the old Arab system back to life. This camp thinks that failed regimes in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen can be re-established and continue. This mentality has to change and this camp should have no influence on the making of Egypt’s foreign policy.

Solving the Iranian issue will help settle conflicts elsewhere and provide stability over time in countries torn up by sectarian conflicts, mainly in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen. Arab Muslims, Sunni and Shia, Christians, Jews and non-Arabs living in the region must find the right formula to live together in harmony in the 21st century and beyond. Egypt’s foreign policy has a role to play. It has to set an example, promote it and seek regional approval through active, high-quality diplomacy.

Egypt will definitely need the help of others in the region and outside to fight terrorism on its soil and nearby, especially near its western borders. Fighting terrorism in Egypt is of course a prime responsibly for the Egyptian army and security forces. But as terrorism is an international and regional phenomenon, Egypt will have to cooperate with many of its neighbours and international great powers. Egyptian foreign policy makers should be on the front line ahead of crises, not lagging behind. This is a way to mobilise all potential regional and international resources for the fight.

A new Egyptian foreign policy is currently needed, able to actively respond to challenges posed by new realities. This foreign policy should be clear, built on a solid basis, viable and sustainable. The relation with Saudi Arabia is still suffering as a result of the vote at the Security Council in favour of the Russian proposal on Syria. That should teach Egypt’s foreign policy makers a lesson: Implicit support for Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, closer contacts with Iraq or with Yemen may stir havoc in Egypt’s relations with Saudi Arabia and some other Arab Gulf states.

In the end, Egyptian foreign policy should engage positively with Egyptian national interests in directions, including with Ethiopia.

The writer is former senior political affairs officer at the UNDPA.

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