Saturday,16 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1217, (16 - 22 October 2014)
Saturday,16 December, 2017
Issue 1217, (16 - 22 October 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Eyeing the dividends

The success of Sunday’s Gaza Reconstruction Conference provides a springboard for Egypt to make wider regional interventions, writes Dina Ezzat

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Egyptian diplomats are confident the Gaza Reconstruction Conference, held on Sunday, has confirmed Egypt’s re-emergence as a key regional power.

The conference, which was opened by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, attracted 50 delegations, including the foreign ministers of the US, Qatar and Turkey, three states whose take on political developments in Egypt over the past two years can hardly be described as supportive. The high profile turnout, say senior state officials, has ended any debate about the legitimacy of Egypt’s new regime “once and for all”.

The conference was held less than three weeks after Al-Sisi headed the Egyptian delegation to the year’s top diplomatic event, the UN General Assembly. According to presidential sources Al-Sisi is “very satisfied” with the dividends likely to accrue from both international events.

“It means that Egypt, no matter what this or that country thinks or says, cannot be overlooked, not when it comes to regional developments and certainly not when it comes to files that have been traditionally part of Egypt’s regional mandate,” said one presidential source.

Throughout the 50-day war on Gaza last summer Egypt stuck to its guns and insisted the crisis could only be resolved via the initiative Cairo had proposed in the second week of Israeli attacks. Egypt then decided it would work with the Palestinian national unity government and not with Hamas, an off-shoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, though it is Hamas that is effectively in control of Gaza. Cairo then determined to host an international conference on Gaza and to decide the date. At every turn, to the barely disguised glee of officials, Egypt got its way.

Attempts exerted by some regional forces to sideline Egypt, say local diplomats, were successfully neutralised.  Cairo-based Western diplomats agree. When all is said and done, they say, it was not just Egypt’s long accrued expertise on Gaza that made this possible, but the determination expressed by both the Palestinian Authority and Israel that Egypt retain its traditional role as broker.

For Egyptian diplomats, Cairo’s ability to influence Middle Eastern developments that are independent of the home-front has been consolidated.

It is an assessment with which foreign participants in the Gaza Reconstruction Conference concur. Many who had attended conferences in Egypt during the rule of President Hosni Mubarak told Al-Ahram Weekly at the end of the conference that they felt no difference in terms of the event’s organisation and performance to how things were before Mubarak was removed by the 2011 popular uprising. In the words of one member of an international humanitarian organisation: “It was as if I had come to the meeting without knowing about the developments and changes of the past three years. I would not have thought the conference was being held in a country that has gone through so much”.

Egyptian diplomats and participants both agree some pledges made during the conference were politically loaded.

“It is significant when Qatar, whose relations with Egypt have been rocky to say the least, decides to pledge $1 billion for Gaza in Egypt,” said one Arab participant.

Egypt is now confident it can expand its regional interventions beyond Gaza, and the war on terror is in Cairo’s sights.

In addition to providing logistical and intelligence support to the US-led war on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), something that is already underway, the envisaged expansion includes direct political mediation to provide a vision for the future of countries under attack by ISIS and similar groups. 

Egypt is particularly keen to influence developments in Libya and Syria. Cairo has already been busy expanding its contacts with key political factions and groups in both countries, always away from hardcore Islamists. 

Cairo is looking to forge political agreements capable of commanding wide support in both Libya and Syria and, subsequently, on the international stage.

“It is not an easy job, especially in Syria where our view is that the Bashar Al-Assad regime cannot be excluded from any future settlement. It is not a view that our friends and allies in Riyadh share. They insist that the future of Syria cannot include Assad and his senior aides,” says an informed Egyptian diplomat. 

Cairo is clearly hoping its expanding regional role will positively influence the decisions of international donors and investors.

“Once you establish yourself as a key regional player the world wants to make sure that you are stable and improving the economy is key to Egypt’s stability,” argued a source at the office of the prime minister.

Cairo will host a conference on investment in Egypt in February. Originally proposed by the Saudi monarch in the wake of the ouster of Mohamed Morsi last year, the event was initially dubbed a donors’ conference. Over the last few months Cairo has shifted the emphasis, having decided Egypt would be better off soliciting investments rather than grants. 

The possibility of receiving loans is still on the table, including from the IMF, says the source at the prime minister’s office. But the main aim is now to secure investments, especially in the Suez Canal zone, site of a mega-project that includes digging a new channel for the canal which will open up the possibility of a quantitative leap in the maritime services needed to support traffic in one of the world’s major commercial waterways.

Along with enticing investors, Cairo hopes its rediscovered role as a regional mediator will secure greater sympathy for many of Egypt’s other foreign policy objectives, including the settlement of its dispute with Ethiopia over the Grand Renaissance Dam and its desire to upgrade its armament profile.

As far as the latter aim is concerned, progress is already being made. US Secretary of State John Kerry used his participation in the Gaza Reconstruction Conference to announce that Washington would soon deliver the long overdue Apache helicopters that Egypt needs to combat terrorists in Sinai.

Before the end of 2014 Cairo also hopes to close the arms sales package with Russia that it has been negotiating for almost a year.

Preparations are already underway, say Egyptian diplomats, for Al-Sisi to travel to a number of world capitals, and there are plans for Egypt to host “several key visitors”.

Things are getting back on track as far as foreign relations are concerned: on that there is almost unanimous agreement among Egyptian diplomats both at home and abroad. Some add that positive movement on the foreign policy track, and the first signs of a more encouraging economic outlook, are no small victories for the new regime. What they are less certain about is how far these victories will go in balancing the criticisms that continue to be levelled at Egypt over the speed of its democratisation and commitment to civil liberties.

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