Egyptian foreign policy sustained a considerable level of activity in 2016. The dynamism was reflected in the many visits abroad undertaken by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi — 14 in all last year, to Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Rwanda, India, China, Sudan, Portugal, Equatorial Guinea, the UAE, Uganda, as well as to the US to attend the opening session of the UN General Assembly in New York in September 2016.
These bring the president’s foreign visits up to a total of 44 since taking office. As both President Al-Sisi and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri have pointed out on numerous occasions, the purpose of these visits is to establish “balanced” international relations and promote “Egypt’s openness to all”.
In addition to the foregoing, we should underscore what is perhaps the most important dimension of Egyptian foreign policy: Egypt’s membership in the UN Security Council. In this capacity — theoretically at least — Egypt has an opportunity to act, within the framework of that body, whether through voting, proposing initiatives or sponsoring resolution bills, in a manner conducive to Egyptian interests. Last year Egypt dedicated particular attention to resolutions pertaining to the Syrian conflict. For example, Egypt supported the Russian and French resolutions that were put to a vote in the Security Council on 9 October 2016 since they were consistent with the Egyptian vision on that conflict and how to resolve it.
Egypt currently chairs the Security Council’s counter-terrorism committee, which was established to follow through on Security Council Resolution 1373 of 2001 pertaining to combatting the financing of terrorist groups and individuals. Also, in May 2016, Egypt participated in discussions, sponsored by the UN Security Council, on how to combat the dissemination of terrorist and extremist thought via the internet.
As the foregoing indicates, Egypt has no problem in terms of its ability to act abroad. It has a long-established and highly-competent diplomatic corps with a wealth of experience. However, the problem resides in the ability to accommodate to new general realities in regional and international relations, the various dimensions of which have become increasingly clear over the past year, and to manage them in a manner that works to promote Egypt’s strategic interests in a very fluid and unstable regional environment.
These realities are the following:
- Other countries are neither friend nor foe, but “frenemies”. In the course of the transformations that the Arab region has been undergoing for some time, it has become difficult to classify countries as either friends or enemies. Because of the many grey areas in these countries’ foreign relations, other countries are more in the nature of “frenemies” — friends and enemies at the same time. In Egypt’s case, this applies to countries that share its foreign policy views on certain issues but differ with it on other issues. Sometimes differences may gain the upper hand and discord might lead to conflict of varying degrees of intensity which, in turn, might be manifested in actions ranging from the suspension of aid to the withdrawal of ambassadors.
Applying this concept in foreign policy yields two results. One is more modest expectations of what other countries can offer Egypt in the forthcoming period in terms of economic cooperation, security relations or political coordination on certain issues. In other words, expectations are shaped not by Egypt’s hopes but by an objective assessment of what other countries will or will not do to meet its hopes. The second result is the awareness that collaborating with others requires something in return. That cost may be too high or it may be manageable but the collaboration will certainly not come free-of-charge.
The US perhaps best illustrates a country that is neither a complete friend nor a complete enemy to Egypt. For example, there are circles within the decision-making establishment in Washington that are hostile to the regime in Egypt, that harbour reservations regarding the political future of the Muslim Brotherhood, and demand the reinstatement of that organisation in the political arena. Those circles also have certain stances with regard to the rights of Egyptian Christians and are pressuring to make military and economic aid to Egypt contingent on progress in this area. These circles succeeded in altering the White House’s policies toward Egypt in the aftermath of the 30 June 2013 Revolution.
On the other hand, Egypt is aware of the need to sustain as “stress-free” relations as possible with the US, as well as the importance of continued economic and military aid, not to mention ongoing US investments. At the end of 2015, US investments in Egypt accounted for 33.2 per cent of its investments in the whole of Africa. Egypt is the second largest recipient of US investment in the Middle East after the UAE.
That mixture in the nature of the US means that Egypt should develop an appropriate blend of policies to deal as effectively as possible with the “frenemy”. Simultaneously, it should check its expectations with regard to the forthcoming US administration’s policies toward Egypt.
- Handling crises by “breaking them down” into manageable parts. The major conflicts that are currently raging in this region are extremely complex and multifaceted. They also engage a large number of regional and international actors, each bent on the pursuit of certain interests but not capable of resolving the conflicts on their own. The Syrian conflict best illustrates this point. Whether with regard to support for military operations against Islamic State (IS) or support for opposition groups, outside stakeholders from Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar and Iraq to Russia, the US and France are all playing roles in the conflict.
As for the questions related to a solution to the Syrian conflict, they extend beyond the role of Bashar Al-Assad and the interim government to include the makeup of that government, the opposition groups that have a right or do not have a right to participate, the future of IS and Al-Nusra Front, the fate of foreign fighters in each of these organisations, the proliferation of arms in Syria, the future of the Syrian army, reconstruction, the nature of the Syrian state (unitary, federal or confederal), the return and resettlement of Syrian refugees, and a host of other questions.
In view of these complexities, Egypt foreign policy would be more effective if it tried to play influential roles on particular issues to which it attaches particular importance in any of the current conflicts. After identifying these issues, Cairo can then work to collaborate with a limited number of Arab and Western nations that share its perceptions and priorities on these issues. In the case of the Syrian conflict, for example, Egyptian diplomacy should look beyond the goal of participating in the meetings and conferences dedicated to a political solution to promoting specific ideas on matters of particular concern to Egypt such as the form of the Syrian state, the future of the Syrian army and the future relationship of the state and army with militant opposition groups. It is noteworthy in this regard that during his visit to Portugal in November 2016, President Al-Sisi spoke of his support for Arab national armies, including the Syrian army.
- The proliferation of tactical alliances. Middle East nations have become much more pragmatic in their management of foreign relations, including their relations with countries that they regard as sources of threat. The “either with us or against us” logic has receded in favour of strategies based on the notion of tactical alliances, which are focused on specific issues and involve a minimum degree of consensus. This development renders it unrealistic to view this region as divided into rigid camps or axes, as had been the case in the 1950s when governments or national leaderships were categorised as “revolutionary” versus “conservative” or “progressive” versus “reactionary” or “appeasers” versus “rejectionists”. Such sharp dualisms no longer serve to understand the today’s patterns of interplay in the region which are highly intricate, especially in view of the now prevalent nature of alliances which are fluid, issue-linked and unlikely to make a great impact on larger regional issues or to bring partners much closer together on their areas of difference.
An example of this is to be found in Turkish-Saudi rapprochement in 2015 in spite of their differences over post-30 June Egypt. That rapprochement did very little to alter Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s stance toward Egypt. However, in 2015, Turkey declared its support for the operations that the Saudi-led Arab coalition has been carrying out in Yemen since March 2015 and it joined the Islamic coalition that Saudi Arabia formed in 2015, taking part in military manoeuvres that were organised in this framework.
In addition, Ankara initially coordinated closely with Riyadh on the question of the future of the Syrian conflict on which issue their views overlapped considerably to the extent that there were reports that the two countries were discussing a joint ground invasion at one time. Yet, in spite of that rapprochement, Turkey has more recently shifted toward closer coordination with Iran and Russia over the Syrian question. The meeting in Moscow on 20 December 2016 between the foreign and defence ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey marked Ankara’s effective swing to an axis that espouses an approach to the Syrian conflict that is entirely different to that of Riyadh. Still, despite this shift, Ankara sustained its opposition to Hizbullah. During that 20 December meeting, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu insisted that support for Hizbullah had to stop on the grounds that it was a terrorist organisation, to which his Iranian counterpart responded that the term “terrorist organisations” as used in their agreement referred to those identified by the UN Security Council, namely IS and Al-Nusra Front (now Fatah Al-Sham).
The higher efficacy of tactical alliances together with their more temporary nature, in view of their linkage to specific issues and the absence of official institutional frameworks, make them an attractive alternative to the more influential countries in the region. This is all the more so as they do not impose a great political burden and do not entail major compromises in order to work together on a specific issue, contrary to the case with more conventional institutionalised alliances such as the Arab League.
Accordingly, from the Egyptian perspective, the conventional approach, which comprises all Arab countries and/or action through the Arab League as the institutionalised framework for any coalition, requires hammering out accords with a great number of countries and entails the likelihood that these accords will come laden with ideological commitments and heavy political costs especially given the narrow areas of agreement between Arab countries at present. The Joint Arab Force project that Egypt proposed illustrates the above and underscores the need to think in a different way. Egypt’s determination to pursue that initiative through the Arab League was one reason why the idea never got off the drawing board.
In like manner, the costs of joining any of the other conventional coalitions in the region may be too high. This applies in particular to the sectarian oriented axes shaped by Sunni-Shia divides that feature so prominently in the conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Iraq and that are aggravated by the policies of certain Arab states. Such alliances are all the more unattractive to Egypt in view of the considerable differences between it and a number of other stakeholders that it currently supports, such as Saudi Arabia.
On the whole, the task of acting in ways to promote Egyptian strategic interests in the forthcoming period without sustaining huge material costs and without having to make irreversible concessions and, simultaneously, of pursuing a foreign policy that does not anger others is a very formidable challenge. It will help Egyptian foreign policy architects overcome this challenge if they take the new international relations realities above to heart. This may enable Egypt to free itself of some of the restrictions that have encumbered it due to internal complications or to the transformations taking place in the region and, simultaneously, to take advantage of the “limited” opportunities available under the current conditions in the region.
The writer is a senior researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.