Sunday,19 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1397, (7 - 20 June 2018)
Sunday,19 May, 2019
Issue 1397, (7 - 20 June 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Egypt in a changing region

Regional transformations and changing power dynamics have led to a rethinking of Egypt’s strategic role, writes Ziad A Akl​

The current moment is witnessing many transformations in the power equations and strategic alliances of the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA). 

On the one hand, the ruptures the region witnessed in 2011, whether leading to regime change or to a series of reforms, created new strategic realities for the ruling elites, as well as to new national interests such as the need to counter terrorism or rebuild state institutions. On the other hand, conflict zones that have emerged in multiple places in the region have caused various vulnerabilities and have opened the door to more influential roles for tribal, sectarian and religious cleavages. 

The fusion of these two factors over the years since 2011 has produced strategic changes in various places. Whether in conflict or non-conflict zones, the MENA region is witnessing a systematic process of reformulating elite alliances. At the same time, political succession issues have come to the fore in Algeria and Saudi Arabia. The emerging roles of potential successors have been becoming more tangible, particularly with regard to establishing regional and international alliances. 

Zones of conflict in the region have not seen any significant advances towards political settlements, whether in Libya, Syria or Yemen. Finally, there has been the growing influence of foreign powers in regional affairs, such as the Iranian influence in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, and the role Russia has been playing in Syria and Libya. There have also been reformulations in the terms of the alliance between the US and the Gulf countries.

These regional transformations and changing power dynamics have challenged Egypt’s strategic role. Since 2011, Egypt has been going through a phase of internal change and one that has delayed strategic issues directly relating to core interests, particularly in the period from 2011 to 2013. During his first term in office, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi maintained most of the Egyptian state’s institutional policies towards the regional countries, particularly Libya, Palestine, Israel and the Gulf. Previously instilled Egyptian interests were all maintained without radical changes in the principles of regional policies. 

Indeed, post-revolutionary internal imbalances were at the top of Al-Sisi’s list of priorities during his first term, specifically to counter the wave of terrorism and radicalisation that struck Egyptian society after the 30 June Revolution, as well as other files that had to do with the revival of religious discourse, infrastructure mega-projects and political stability. Egypt at that time maintained an institutional foreign policy based on the idea of securing its interests. However, as Al-Sisi now enters his second term as president with such changing regional power dynamics in the background, the role of Egypt and the way it secures its regional interests need to be revised. 

Working for the political settlement of zones of conflict in the region is Egypt’s main aim in its increasingly influential regional role at the current moment. According to Egypt’s strategic interests, Libya is the zone in which Egypt is most interested in seeing a political settlement materialise. Egypt is an integral actor regionally and internationally in Libya, whether with regard to intra-regional alliances or proposing international intervention. Its leading role is a crucial dimension of extending its regional influence, especially in North Africa and the Southern Mediterranean. 

Libya may be the only country in which Egypt’s strategic interests have created a different pattern of engagement to those it has adopted in other conflict zones such as Syria or Yemen. 

Egypt has not wished to become directly engaged in the same way in other areas in the region. Either in conflict zones like Syria or Yemen, or in contentious files like Iraq, Iran and Lebanon, Egypt has maintained an institutional approach in foreign policy that prioritises international consensus and legitimacy. Even in the Palestinian case, which bears specific political and national security significance to Egypt, there has been no direct involvement through individual actions within Egyptian policy. 

Due to the recent transformations in the region, Egypt’s regional policies could be analysed in a two-fold manner. On the one hand, there are regional issues that constitute core interests for the Egyptian state, and on the other there are those that have to do with Egypt’s role within changing regional alliances and power dynamics. The core interests are engaged through direct involvement, such as in the Egyptian air strikes on the city of Derna in Libya, for example. The non-core regional interests are dealt with indirectly through a pattern of engagement that works on political coordination rather than direct involvement. 

What needs to be said is that there are a multitude of transformations taking place in the Middle East and North Africa at the moment. Accordingly, Egypt will have to adjust its pattern of engagement with various issues. This is another way of saying that Egyptian regional policy at present adapts itself to the specifics of each issue, a definite sign of a flexible diplomacy in the coming period.

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