Egypt: Struggling to assert itself in the Middle East

Egypt: Struggling to assert itself in the Middle East
Comment: In part one of this two-part series, Alain Gresh argues Egypt is struggling to follow an independent foreign policy and move out of the long shadow of Saudi Arabia.
5 min read
28 Jun, 2015
Saudi Foreign Minister abd al-Jubeir observes his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukri, Cairo 31 May [Getty]

"President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's visit to Germany demonstrated the problems you come up against in defining foreign policy. The president wants first and foremost to be seen as legitimate, something that Hosni Mubarak did not have to worry about", explains one influential journalist from a government newspaper, who asked to remain anonymous.

Sisi's recent visit to Germany surprised, amused and even astonished Egyptian opinion, which has been largely indifferent to the media coverage attempting to erase frequent criticism of German journalists and politicians.

Along with many Egyptians, they were shocked to see the leader accompanied by artists literally singing his praises and journalists doing a standing ovation at everything "their" president said at his press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Unsurprisingly, the Chancellor's statements condemning the death sentence against former President Mohamed Morsi were not translated on Egyptian television.

     God made me a doctor to diagnose the problem, so I could prescribe the remedy.
-President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi

Many were appalled to hear Sisi declare: "God made me a doctor to diagnose the problem, so I could prescribe the remedy" appalled Egyptian officials in the corridors of the very cautious Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

This desperate search for legitimacy surrounding his rule that was born of a coup d'état on 3 July 2013 (the President had to cancel his participation at the African Union summit in South Africa in June after local organisations filed a complaint against him and requested his arrest) is accompanied by an obsession with the fight against the Muslim Brotherhood, which antagonises even Egypt's allies.

The honeymoon with Riyadh comes to an end

"We hope to enshrine" the speaker continues, "our vision of a global confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood across the whole region. Now, our ally, Saudi Arabia, has lifted its veto on an operation with the Brotherhood, notably in Yemen and in Syria. With King Salman's accession to the throne, Riyadh's priority changed and Iran became the main enemy. The Saudis are aiming to bring order to the ‘Sunni house', they have resumed talks with Turkey - a regime which constantly denounces Sisi's illegitimacy, supports al-Islah in Yemen and the Brotherhood in Syria."

The honeymoon period for Cairo and Riyadh has come to an end, and the Egyptian media is not shy in making digs at the Saudis, whilst being careful to not overstep the mark: the regime is too dependent on the financial boon of the Gulf to be able to break from or even a develop an overly autonomous regional policy.

If we are to believe rumours, on his death bed, King Abdelaziz, the founder of the Saudi regime, is said to have confided in his children that: "The happiness of the Kingdom lies in the misfortune of Yemen."

Mustafa el-Labbad is the director of the Centre for Regional and Strategic Studies in al-Sharq. Like all centres that are indirectly dependent on the authorities, it is on autopilot, and the organization of any sort of conference has become impossible. He recounts another anecdote: "On his deathbed, Abdelaziz is said that have explained that: "Egypt should be immersed up to its nose; not so much that it drowns, not so little that it can no longer swim."

"Saudi Arabia" he continues, "doesn't want Egypt as a partner, even as a second-rate one. It doesn't want an Arab front, and even less so the military force advocated by Egypt. The Saudi decision to attack Yemen was taken two days before the Arab Summit, and Egypt was informed of it a few hours before it was launched."

Indeed, the first reaction of the Egyptian Minister for Foreign Affairs was to publish a statement asserting Cairo would not be involved. A few hours later, Sisi confirmed his country would be cooperating fully with the Riyadh-led coalition.

The dangers of Yemen

On his deathbed, the Saudi King reportedly said Egypt should be immersed up to its nose; not so much that it drowns, not so little that it can no longer swim.

The Yemeni question embodies the contradictions in Cairo's foreign policy. Not a single official, journalist or citizen wishes to see Egyptian involvement, all of them fear the kind of downward spiral that would lead their country to being involved against its will.

The memory of the war led by President Gamal Abdel Nasser in support of the young republican regime (1962-1970), which cost the lives of 26,000 Egyptian soldiers still haunts peoples' memories, and first and foremost those of the army. "We have coordinated our efforts with Pakistan, the Emirates and Oman so that the Saudis do not go too far," explained the researcher Tewfik Aclimandos.

Egypt comes down in favour or negotiations, especially as the result of the coalition's military operations is limited - prevent the destruction of the little infrastructure Yemen possesses, and alleviate an alarming humanitarian situation denounced by the International Red Cross set against a backdrop of bizarre international indifference.

Egypt refused to send out its troops and contented itself with the deployment of a few battleships on the Bab-el-Mandeb strait, which is already closely watched over by American and French marines.

"If Pakistan was able to take refuge behind its parliament's decision, in order to justify its refusal to send troops, Sisi doesn't even have that pretext as there's no longer a parliament in Egypt. And the Saudi's won't forget it," concludes Labbad.

Are they looking for an alternative solution to the "doctor sent by God"?

Whatever the reason, even the United Arab Emirates, a country that is considered the most sympathetic to Egypt's vision of a global struggle against the Muslim Brotherhood, appears to be hesitating.

As reported by the very well-informed journalist Dina Ezzat, "a high-ranking Egyptian official went to Abu Dhabi in order to complain that Ahmed Shafik, Morsi's unfortunate opponent in the second round of the 2012 presidential election, was continuing to pursue political activities in the capital."

On 14 June, he announced he was stepping down from the presidency of his party, but it was unlikely this would put the lie to the notion he is waiting in the wings, should Sisi fail.

For part two in this series, click here.

This is an edited translation of an article originally published by our partners at Orient XXI.