Tuesday,21 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1358, (24 August - 6 September 2017)
Tuesday,21 May, 2019
Issue 1358, (24 August - 6 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The reawakening of Egyptian diplomacy

Egypt has been actively working to secure its interests in the Middle East, protecting its borders and promoting regional stability as part of a broader revival of the country’s diplomacy, writes David Dumke

Much has been written about Egypt in the American press, and to the chagrin of Cairo much of the ink has been devoted to criticism. If the casual observer were to accept this narrative at its face value, he might conclude that Egypt remains on a rudderless course to dictatorship, economic ruin, and potential collapse in the face of extremists. It is true that Egypt’s challenges remain great, and that one can debate how effectively the government has performed. Yet, this depiction overlooks very important developments that are of great significance to both the future of Egypt and the region.

One such omission from the prevailing narrative is the revival of Egyptian diplomacy. Egypt has actively worked to secure its own interests in the Middle East, including protecting its borders and promoting broader regional stability. It has reasserted itself in Africa, pushing for a diplomatic solution with Ethiopia and re-engaging faded partnerships across the continent. Cairo has secured international economic support through aid, loans and investments. And while maintaining its relations with Washington, it has diversified international relationships so as to prevent over-reliance on a single partner.

With the lingering showdown with Qatar persisting and the situation in Yemen continuing to deteriorate, not all of Egypt’s diplomatic efforts have borne fruit. Yet, the renewed activity is notable and portends active Egyptian participation in creating a new Middle East defined largely by the regional players themselves rather than being guided by outside powers. With the era of American hegemony at its end, regional powers, most notably Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, are in a position to fill the leadership void. It may not be easy to accomplish, and likely it will not occur without further hardship, but in the end order will be re-established and new rules drawn. But make no mistake: Egypt’s role will be crucial in determining what comes next.

Egypt has long been the bellwether of regional politics and culture and a critical player in both the Middle East and Africa. In the era of former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Egypt was at its zenith in terms of international power. Cairo was the regional power largely shaping Arab politics but also influencing the post-colonial era. For a time, Egypt successfully played off Cold War rivalries and was capable of exporting its unique Nasserist system. But Egypt ultimately fell prey to Cold War rivalries, which forced its hand first into the Soviet and then into the American orbit.

Through much of the eras of former presidents Anwar Al-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, Egypt continued to play an influential but much more limited role. In the Arab world, Cairo worked in tandem with Washington to promote regional stability: while not preventing conflicts altogether, it limited them from morphing into larger, destabilising ones. In Africa, Egypt largely but did not entirely abandon its influence. Its much-reduced African presence eventually led to an appreciable loss of influence, highlighted by its inability to prevent the separation of Sudan. Later and more ominously, Ethiopia ignored Egyptian concerns about the Grand Renaissance Dam during the brief presidency of Mohamed Morsi.

While Egypt continued to enjoy robust trade and investment from the European Union, its options in terms of foreign and military assistance were limited by the end of the Mubarak era, which correspondingly restrained its diplomatic manoeuvrability. Its relations with Russia never recovered from the Sadat-initiated divorce in the early 1970s, while other strategic international relations frayed. One could argue that its influence within the Arab world reached a nadir during the presidencies of George W Bush and Barack Obama in the US, particularly when it was largely ignored by its American ally.

The fall of Hosni Mubarak and rapid collapse of the Morsi government left Egypt in an unprecedented position of weakness. American support was tepid at best, highlighted by the Obama administration’s decision to impose restrictions on military aid which delayed the delivery of key weaponry and, more crucially, opted to end cash flow financing. If this is carried through by the Trump administration, it could severely limit Egypt’s ability to purchase military hardware.

By design or miscalculation, many in Washington overestimated Egypt’s reliance on American largesse. Aid was never intended to alter Cairo’s behaviour, particularly in managing its domestic affairs. Nor was it meant to define Egypt’s security challenges. But the thought in Washington was that because it provided aid that Egypt needed, it could alter Cairo’s calculations. Or that Cairo’s decisions were so indefensible that the US should no longer support aid. Another rationale held that regardless of Egypt’s decisions, it was high time for the country to sink or swim on its own since the Camp David-era assistance formula was grossly outdated.

Egypt has responded to its many foreign policy challenges, and their domestic implications, out of necessity. If nothing else, it has strengthened its position in its traditional circles of influence. And it has diversified its sources of financial and security support. To be clear, there is truth in the critics’ contention that Egypt is acting with a weak hand. Yet, it should not be forgotten that Egypt, due to its history, size, geography, and cultural heft, always holds immutable trump cards — no pun intended. And Cairo’s revived diplomatic assertiveness has and will continue to pay off.   

The United States should welcome Egypt’s renewed sense of diplomatic purpose. The nature of American leadership is changing. The United States, and for that matter other key international players, will remain influential. But that influence has limitations, requiring an adjustment to new realities. It must be recognised that the region’s future will be shaped by the region itself.


The writer is a veteran analyst of US-Arab relations and teaches political science at the University of Central Florida in the US.

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