Sunday,19 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1203, (26 June - 2 July 2014)
Sunday,19 August, 2018
Issue 1203, (26 June - 2 July 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Beyond the borders

Foreign policy challenges are make or break for President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, writes Dina Ezzat

Al-Ahram Weekly

President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi is today scheduled to address the African Union (AU) summit in the capital of Equatorial Guinea.

Heading the Egyptian delegation, Al-Sisi will be welcomed by members of the Pan-African organisation that suspended Egypt’s membership following the ouster of Mohamed Morsi on 3 July last year. Intensive diplomatic efforts, supported by sympathetic Arab and Arab-African countries, notably Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Algeria, led to Egypt’s suspension being cancelled earlier this month.

Al-Sisi is expected to tell the AU summit that Egypt is committed to pursuing democracy and development and to strengthening its ties with all African countries on the basis of common interests. In a series of face to face meetings scheduled with delegation heads he will pursue more detailed discussions on bilateral ties, including with Ethiopia. Cairo and Addis Ababa are at loggerheads over Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

According to one presidential official who helped prepare Al-Sisi’s talking points, the aim is to break the ice and “restart Egyptian-African relations after they floundered due to the reluctance of [ousted President Hosni] Mubarak to give due attention to Africa, and then got lost in the political complications that followed the 25 January Revolution”.

African diplomats in Cairo say they are glad to see Al-Sisi make a point of heading his country’s delegation to the African summit but stress it will take more than the presence of the head of state to rekindle Africa’s faith in Egypt.

“Let us be frank. We have a long history with Egypt and we remember the role Egypt played in helping the liberation movement in Africa in the last century. But we also faced disdain from Egypt under Mubarak. He really looked down upon us. We need to be sure where we are going,” said one ambassador of a West African country.

Re-engaging with Africa is a top foreign policy priority for Cairo. A paper the Foreign Ministry presented to the president’s office following Al-Sisi’s inauguration foregrounded opportunities for economic and political cooperation.

“Closer relations with Africa, especially the countries of the Nile Basin, would allow us to overcome growing apprehension over our share of Nile water.  There are also opportunities for agricultural cooperation that could help with the crucial challenge of food security,” said a Foreign Ministry source. “We already have formats for dialogue and consultations with some countries. We need to upgrade those and work on other forms of institutionalised cooperation.”

The reach-out to Africa will not be easy. It will include high level exchange of visits and an expansion of cooperation alongside accommodation of African concerns and wishes.

“For too long we had the mindset that African countries owe us for Egypt’s support of African liberation movement in the 1950s and 1960s. We really overdid it. Now it is time for a new beginning. Intensive efforts are needed to consolidate relations with Africa,” said the Foreign Ministry source.

Later in the summer Al-Sisi will head the Egyptian delegation to another African congregation: the African-America summit. US Secretary of State John Kerry invited Al-Sisi to take part in the meeting earlier this week.

It offers a venue to discuss two matters of keen interest to many African states and Washington: facing up to Islamist groups and expanding trade cooperation between African countries and the US.

“We have several ideas to share on both fronts. We are certainly very concerned about the influence radical militant terror groups have in Africa,” says a senior official.

The situation on the borders between Libya and Algeria, between Libya and Mali and on the southern borders of Mauritania is causing alarm among Egyptian security agencies.

“It is no secret that we are suffering from the influence and presence of radical Islamic groups in Libya and elsewhere,” said the official. Arms and militants crossing from Libya into Egypt make their way to Sinai. “The presence of extremists in and around Libya is causing problems for the whole of North Africa. Algeria is worried and so is Morocco.”

Diplomatic sources anticipate intensive consultations in the coming week between Egypt and Algeria on ways to combat radical militant groups. According to an Algerian source both Saudi Arabia and the US are likely to be party to the discussions.

During a press conference held by Foreign Minister Sameh Shokri and Kerry earlier this week battling terror in Sinai emerged as one area of concord. Kerry told reporters that Washington would soon be sending Egypt a long overdue order of Apache helicopters to help Egypt combat terrorists in Sinai “in cooperation with Israel”.

Kerry, whose meeting with Al-Sisi was the first by a senior member of the Obama administration since Al-Sisi was inaugurated, also said that as part of its support for Egypt the US administration would seek to reverse any reduction in  annual US military and economic aid.

Containing radical militant groups — especially given developments in Syria and Iraq — is a major concern in Washington “and it was clearly reflected in the talks that Kerry held here”, says an Egyptian diplomat who took part in some of the discussions during the visit.

“This is one reason why the US is trying to turn a new page with Egypt.”

Advances made by the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS) were a key item on the agenda of Kerry’s talks in Cairo, the diplomat said. It is also a concern among Arab Gulf capitals, especially Riyadh, which “fears that the group is getting out of hand and could destabilise the entire Arab Mashrek”.

That ISIS is already in control of borders between Iraq and Syria, where it is fighting alongside other radical groups, including Al-Qaeda, against the regime of Bashar Al-Assad, has caused anxiety in Cairo. The growing influence of radical Islamic groups is compounding the security concerns on Egypt’s eastern borders caused by the instability of relations between Israel and the Palestinians at a time when there are few chances to resurrect the negotiation process given Israeli intransigence and Washington’s disinterest.

“There are major problems along our borders. We are facing huge economic and political challenges in a clearly disturbed region,” says a presidential source. “It is in our interest to work towards stabilising the region, if only to avert the negative consequences of the ongoing havoc and to reduce its chances of spreading.”

“No one today can say with any degree of certainty that there will not be a division of Libya and Iraq. Some would argue that they have already been divided. I am not sure if we are talking about a Middle East in the re-making, or about an Arab world that is dismembered and weakened,” he added.

Regional security matters, says the presidential official, inform many of the daily deliberations of the new president.

Speaking on Tuesday at a ceremony marking the graduation of military cadets Al-Sisi stressed Egypt’s role in maintaining regional security.

The statement, says one senior official, is “a prelude to some military responsibilities that Egypt might — and I say just might — be taking in relation to wider regional security, especially that of the Arab Gulf”.

“It is no secret that despite their heavy reliance on the US for protection from what they perceive as Iranian and other Shia threats, the Saudis — for obvious religious and national concerns — would prefer that the responsibility be shared by Arab Muslim countries, primarily Egypt.

During last week’s stopover in Cairo by the Saudi monarch — he wanted to be the first Arab leader to visit Egypt, and to visit Al-Sisi before Al-Sisi visits Saudi Arabia, said a Cairo-based Saudi diplomat. Al-Sisi “reassured the Saudi Monarch that just as the Saudis were there for Egypt in their time of need so Egyptians will be there for the Saudis”, according to a presidential source.

The presidential official declined to confirm whether this implied some form of Egyptian military presence in the Gulf.

“Let us not go too far. There will be no stationing of Egyptian troops beyond our borders. The security of the Gulf is a national security concern for Egypt. This has always been the case. Our approach towards the issue is diplomatic and not military, and will remain so unless there is a clear need for change.”

The same official refuted speculation that the first ever Bahraini-Egyptian joint military manoeuvres — held in Bahrain a few months ago — were a prelude to Egyptian military involvement in the Gulf. “This is overstretching things. We are keen to support stability in the Arab Gulf and we do this through diplomatic channels and negotiations”.

The presidential official acknowledged that Gulf security cannot be guarantee without engaging Iran.  He also acknowledged that smoother relations between Cairo and Tehran are part of the strategy the Foreign Ministry is pursuing to prevent the “dormant but not so contained Sunni-Shia conflict from hitting us all in the face”.

“This is something that we are already seeing in Iraq, and that we have seen in Lebanon and Syria. We don’t want to see an ethnic-based war — not between Sunnis and Shias, not between Arabs and Turks or Arab and Kurds. Despite our many reservations on the choices of the government of the current prime minister of Turkey what we want, and what we think is essential for our interests, is regional stability.”

Officials and diplomats concede Cairo’s chances in influencing the fate of regional stability remain limited. “We have been facing tough internal challenges. But we also know that our regional role is a key strength and we want it to pick up,” says a Foreign Ministry source.

The foreign service, he added, is working in close cooperation with national security bodies to compile priorities for action in the coming months. 

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