Cairo plans to step up consultations to secure consensus ahead of the Arab summit scheduled to convene in Amman at the end of this month. Egypt is seeking agreement on three main issues: settling the conflict in Libya by allocating the lion’s share of responsibility to bring order to the Libyan national army under the control of Khalifa Haftar; promoting a political process in Syria that does not undermine the role of state institutions, especially the Syrian army; and formulating a pragmatic approach to the Palestinian question capable of commanding the support of Arab states and the international community.
These key policy goals have appeared in statements made by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri and their spokesmen.
In a statement made by Al-Sisi during a joint press conference with visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel on 2 March, “radical groups [must be denied] any gains” — be it in Libya, Syria or elsewhere.
Al-Sisi made it clear during the press conference — and in statements made during meetings with visiting dignitaries and delegations — that Egypt is committed to cooperating with all friendly countries to promote stability and end illegal migration, a result of the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Libya, to Europe.
During the opening session of the regular spring meeting of Arab foreign ministers Shoukri underlined the same message.
“I think it is safe to say Egypt is making clear what it can do, and what it expects others to do,” says one Egyptian official.
What Egypt is willing to do, he adds, is to engage with all political parties in conflict zones across the region to facilitate political solutions.
Since the beginning of the year Cairo has hosted meetings of political players from Libya and Syria, some of them public, and others, mostly attended by Syrian visitors, private.
“When we say we don’t want to forgo the participation of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad we do so because we think his presence secures the state in Syria. When we receive his delegates we receive them in their capacity as representatives of the Syrian state,” says an Egyptian diplomat.
He added that the support Egypt has offered Haftar is based on the same principle — that a strong national army is the “core of a strong national state”.
Foreign policy-makers in Cairo are far less concerned about the ability of either Al-Assad or Haftar to meet the expectations of those calling for democracy in Libya and Syria than about preserving what is left of state institutions and the territorial integrity of both countries.
“Libya and Syria have suffered huge destruction during the past six years and need reconstruction,” Al-Sisi said during a joint press conference with Merkel last Thursday.
In Amman later this month Al-Sisi is expected to address the situation in Libya first and that in Syria second.
Arab diplomats involved in preparations for the summit argue Al-Sisi could face an uphill battle convincing other states — Algeria and Tunisia in the case of Libya and Saudi Arabia and Qatar in the case of Syria — that even where Islamists command popular support their role in any political settlement must be kept to a minimum.
“While we are open to negotiations on some things here and there I think there is a growing acceptance that the national armies of Libya and Syria must form the core of any deal,” says the Egyptian diplomat.
“Europe, obsessed with reducing the volume of migrants across the Mediterranean, and the US under Donald Trump” are coming to terms with the fact that “a strong national state with a strong national army is the best guarantee for security and stability in the Middle East,” he says.
“On this point the US and Russia are already on board and we are making advances with the Europeans on some issues — lifting the embargo imposed on the armament of the Libyan army for example. In Amman President Al-Sisi will be asking his counterparts to support for the same call with the hope it will be reflected in the summit’s resolutions.”
Al-Sisi is also expected to stress the importance of “finding a way out of the deadlock on the peace process”, with particular emphasis on the Palestinian track.
Al-Sisi had been promoting a new momentum in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations for almost nine months, meeting secretly with the prime minister of Israel, the king of Jordan and the former US secretary of state, though the attempts have been stymied by the refusal of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to suspend the construction of illegal settlements on occupied Palestinian land and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’ refusal to enter another round of negotiations while Israel is annexing Palestinian territory.
In mid-February, during a joint press conference with Netanyahu, incoming US President Trump stated openly that a two-state solution is not necessarily the answer to the Palestinian-Israeli struggle.
While Abbas is unwilling to accept that Trump’s comments mark an unravelling of Washington’s stated position for decades Cairo appears willing to lobby for greater pragmatism.
“Realistically, any talk about the two-state solution is behind us. And while it is up to the coming generation to decide the fate of the Palestinian cause it is not our job to give the Israelis our stamp of approval for the elimination of any hopes of statehood,” says a source from the Palestinian Authority.
In Cairo the narrative is slightly different. Officials say nobody is asking the Palestinian leadership to sign up to the end of the dream of Palestinian statehood but rather to engage in politics with a sense of realism.
In addition to discussing the Palestinian question on the sidelines of the Arab summit Al-Sisi plans to bring up the issue with Trump during a meeting in Washington penciled in for spring.
Shoukri has already raised the subject in both Washington and Brussels and is likely to have reported back to Al-Sisi that both the US and Europe are willing to facilitate any possible Palestinian-Israeli deal despite considerable scepticism in both Washington and Brussels that a deal can be concluded.
Shoukri is also expected to have told Al-Sisi that the US and EU are open to cooperation to promote regional stability and thus halt migrant flows.
Diplomatic sources close to Shoukri’s talks in Washington and Brussels say they expect concentrated consultations in the next few weeks in pursuit of “the shared goal of stability in the Middle East”.
Egyptian diplomats have argued forcefully that greater cooperation between regional forces and international players is necessary to settle key conflicts such as those in Syria and Libya.
At the Arab League on Tuesday Shoukri argued a joint Arab League-UN Security Council mechanism was needed to address regional conflicts. Egyptian diplomats familiar with Cairo’s proposal say it is now expected to be discussed in greater detail, and approved in principle, before being put before the Arab summit in Amman.