Tuesday,24 April, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1375, (4-10 January 2018)
Tuesday,24 April, 2018
Issue 1375, (4-10 January 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Reduced expectations

As 2018 begins Cairo faces a host of foreign policy challenges, writes Dina Ezzat

 

Cairo is likely to have mixed feelings about the “until further notice” delay of US Vice President Mike Pence’s Middle East visit.

Pence intended to visit the region before Christmas but rescheduled the trip to mid-January. The initial delay was announced after Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, the grand imam of Al-Azhar and the patriarch of the Coptic Church refused to meet with Pence in protest at US President Donald Trump’s decision to acknowledge Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the US Embassy there from Tel Aviv.

On Monday night, as predicted by diplomats concerned, the Trump administration is now reconsidering its plan to launch a Palestinian Israeli peace plan.

“I don’t think anyone seriously expects Trump to announce plans for peace talks anytime soon. The mood is very tense following the Jerusalem announcement and it is hard to see Abbas entering into negotiations under the current circumstances,” said a well-informed regional diplomat.

For Cairo this is bad news. Egyptian diplomats, who lobbied international support for a firm but non-confrontational rebuttal of Trump’s decision through the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly, now face the likely scenario of any comprehensive peace deal sponsored by the Trump administration being placed on the back burner.


Trump

After meeting with Trump first as a presidential candidate and later as president of the US, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi stressed in press statements that Trump was committed to finding a comprehensive solution to the Palestinian question. Since August 2015 Al-Sisi has also actively encouraged international and regional players to formulate a plan that could lay the ground for a final peace deal.

Foreign diplomats in Cairo say that ahead of the Trump declaration Al-Sisi was telling visiting international dignitaries work on a peace deal was progressing and good news from the Middle East could be expected.

In an attempt to build the confidence necessary for Abbas to enter into talks, Cairo had invested a great deal in engineering a reconciliation between Hamas that has been running Gaza since 2007, and Fatah that controls the Palestinian Authority. Today, with the White House seemingly reluctant to pursue a peace deal, Cairo faces the challenge posed by the growing frustrations of Palestinians, especially those living under harsh conditions in Gaza. A concerned Egyptian official said Cairo is keeping a very close eye on the situation in Gaza — “we are not anticipating the outbreak of havoc anytime soon but we know this is something we have to be worried about.”

And without the promise of peace Cairo has little incentive to invest the political capital necessary to salvage the fragile Palestinian reconciliation process it managed to painstakingly assemble during the autumn.

“It does look a bit weak. Hamas and Fatah do not seem to be able to work together; they don’t want to really give what it takes for the reconciliation to be truly secure,” says the same Egyptian official.

Abortive Palestinian-Israeli negotiations would strip Cairo of the diplomatic victory it had hoped to win by helping secure what has been dubbed “the deal of the century”.

According to Foreign Ministry sources, Cairo is not willing to give up without a fight. It is conducting high level talks to explore possible approaches, “even without the visit of Pence, because ultimately it is Jared Kushner”, Trump’s son-in-law, who is working on the file.

“We will see, though I guess we are talking the end of February or early March, not much earlier unfortunately before we see things starting to move,” said one Foreign Ministry source who asked for his name to be withheld.

But Cairo is not entirely unhappy about Pence’s visit being placed on hold. Sources say Egyptian officials were uncomfortable with the prospect of Pence visiting immediately after the Trump announcement. Egyptian diplomats did not relish the thought of welcoming a senior US official in the face of clear public dismay over Washington’s Middle East policies.

That initial unease has now increased on two fronts: first by the public threats made by the US president and the US permanent representative to the UN about the intention of Washington to “punish” countries that opposed the US Embassy being moved to Jerusalem and, second, by a negative pre-holiday hearing in the US Congress on the conditions facing Egypt’s Copts.

Cairo, which saw an unprecedented cut in US military aid to Egypt in 2017, is now aware another cut may be in the works.

According to an informed Egyptian official there is no certainty about a further reduction but it is being talked of in Washington, and “even in the White House which has been quite supportive of the regime in Cairo”, unlike the State Department or the Capitol.  

A resurgence in tensions in relations with the US was the last thing Egypt had hoped would happen as it faces the challenging prospect of negotiating with Ethiopia over Addis Ababa’s plans to finish the construction of the Great Renaissance Dam and begin filling its reservoir, a process that will deprive Egypt, which is already suffering a water shortage, of a significant portion of its annual share of Nile water.

Visiting Addis Ababa late last month Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri announced Cairo’s wish to include the World Bank as a party in negotiations with Ethiopia and Sudan. The latter has sided almost completely with Ethiopia against a backdrop of growing tensions between Cairo and Khartoum over the border zone of Halayeb and Shalatin and over recent advanced strategic cooperation agreements signed between Sudan’s President Omar Al-Bashir and Egypt’s regional bête noire, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey.

A source working on the management of the conflict with Ethiopia said Cairo was hoping Washington would be supportive of Egypt’s position “and it might still be to a degree, but we are not sure really”.

These foreign policy challenges come a few months ahead of presidential elections in Egypt.

President Al-Sisi had not yet said he will run for a second term but few doubt he will stand.

Given the limited attention Trump paid the Middle East in his National Security Plan there is very little reason for Cairo to hope for meaningful US intervention on any of the pressing foreign policy issues it faces, either through the remainder of Al-Sisi’s present term, or during his second term should he be re-elected.

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