Sisi's foreign policy: attempting balance on a weak fulcrum

Sisi's foreign policy: attempting balance on a weak fulcrum
Comment: Sisi appears to have made some savvy foreign policy decisions, but a closer look reveals a president ineptly pursing a deeply flawed strategy, writes Robert Springborg
9 min read
25 Oct, 2016
Egypt is asking too much in return for too little, writes Springborg [Getty]

The fundamental principle of Sisi's foreign policy is to balance off Egypt's suitors to maximize returns from each and prevent any from being able to control his personal destiny.

Presumably his approach is informed by his predecessor's foreign policy successes and failures. Nasser's early gains from balancing off the US against the UK, then the USSR against the US, diminished as his pronounced tilt toward Moscow enhanced its political leverage over him and caused Washington to oppose, not court him.

Sadat's over-correction in tilting back to the US became a cornerstone of Mubarak's foreign policy, who made few if any efforts to reintroduce Russia or any other actor to right the imbalance in his pro-American policy, albeit a policy with limits on how far he would go in support of Washington. Mubarak paid the ultimate price for his over-dependence on Washington by being abandoned in his moment of need 2011.

So for Sisi it may have seemed an obvious lesson of recent Egyptian history that he should try to turn back the clock to the early Nasser era, when deft balancing of the two principal Cold War rivals resulted in major gains for Egypt and ensured that the fate of its president not be in the hands of a foreign patron.

At first glance Sisi's efforts to restore equilibirium and derive gains from competition over Egypt's favors appear to have enjoyed success. Russia has been quick to take advantage of the opening he has provided, especially regarding the projection of military power by both.

Mubarak paid the ultimate price for his over-dependence on Washington

Although the exact details of the military relationship remain ambiguous, they appear to include potential Russian presence at a base on the northwest Mediterranean coast and at a logistics hub on the Suez Canal, from which Moscow can dispatch military supplies throughout the region.

Russia may also have gained some access to the Mistral class helicopter carriers provided by France, as implied by the Polish Defense Minister's claim that they have in fact been sold to Russia for $1 each. Moscow is currently engaged in fitting them out. In return, Russia is committing to build a nuclear power plant at Dabaa on the Mediterranean coast. It has stepped up its supply of armored vehicles and other weapons that can be used for crowd control, counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency warfare.

Washington's reaction has thus far been muted. After a two year hiatus it resumed the $1.3 billion of annual military assistance. The US - like Russia - is now providing armored vehicles intended to combat militants in the Sinai and elsewhere. Although trade between the two countries has diminished over the past year, delegations of American congressmen and businessmen to Cairo attest to US commitment to sustaining commercial relations.

The US - like Russia - is now providing armored vehicles intended to combat militants in the Sinai

The IMF staff agreement to provide Egypt with a $12 billion loan would not have been reached without US backing. On the surface then, Sisi appears to have successfully courted Moscow while maintaining Washington's support but reducing its capacity to influence political events in Cairo.

Sisi also seems to have managed at least some regional balancing acts. To offset the Saudis he has courted Iran, such as by voting in the UN Security Council for the Russian draft on Syria and in general supporting the Iranian position on that war torn country; by refusing to engage on the ground in Yemen alongside Saudi and Emirati troops; and by initiating a series of meetings between Egyptian and Iranian officials.

Egyptian and Emirati armed forces continue to operate jointly in Libya and the intense conflict with Qatar over the Brotherhood has abated, so within the GCC Egypt has also achieved some balance to offset Saudi Arabia.  

A more microscopic view of Egypt's bilateral relations, however, reveals troubling problems. The Russian relationship has been plagued by disagreement over handling of civilian air traffic between the two countries in the wake of the October 2015 crash of the Russian airliner in northern Sinai.

Sisi appears to have successfully courted Moscow while maintaining Washington's support

It has also been harmed by trade disputes, the most serious of which involved Russia banning imports of Egyptian horticultural products in retaliation for Egypt rejecting a shipment of Russian wheat on the grounds of the presence of the ergot fungus. Egypt has denied Russian reports of rehabilitation of the old Soviet base on the northwest Mediterranean coast.

The Obama Administration's irritation with Sisi is well known, but there have been few direct consequences as the American President is handing this and other prickly issues over to his successor, presumably Hillary Clinton. She will be less indulgent of Egypt than Obama has been, although this month his administration did redirect more than $100 million of civilian aid away from Egypt.

Her Vice President, Tim Kaine, is on record as a strong critic of Sisi's human rights violations. Egyptian reporters accompanying Sisi on his visit to New York to address the UN, where he met with both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, commented favorably on the former and unfavorably on the latter. It is widely assumed they were acting as a mouthpiece for their president.

The Egyptian-American relationship is presently in cold storage and is likely to go into the freezer once Clinton assumes office

The US Department of Defense is increasingly concerned with Egypt's military relationship with Russia. The US Department of State is unhappy with Sisi's support of "Field Marshal" Khalifa Haftar in eastern Libya. Many in Congress are set to begin the battle to reduce military assistance to Egypt and this time around they will meet less opposition from the executive. In sum, the Egyptian-American relationship is presently in cold storage and is likely to go into the freezer once Clinton assumes office.

Saudi Arabia manifested its displeasure over Sisi playing footsie with Iran by suspending ARAMCO's October monthly shipment of oil to Egypt. Sisi's denial in a newspaper interview last week that this reflected Saudi displeasure with Egypt bordered on the farcical. 

European relations are similarly troubled. The Regeni Affair has poisoned the important Italian connection. Refusal thus far to return French bodies from the Egypt Air crash in the Mediterranean, combined with general non-cooperation into the investigation of the cause of that crash, have soured relations with Paris.

The not-very-veiled threat to dispatch boat people to Europe unless paid ransom by the EU akin to that paid to Turkey was received very poorly indeed in Europe.

Reports of the Egyptian maritime rescue services' failure to save almost 200 boat people from drowning just off the coast at Rashid in October were seen as reflecting hypocrisy, callousness and incompetence on the part of the Egyptian government. The European Parliament has condemned Egypt's abuse of human rights and called on member states to suspend shipments of military equipment.

Sisi and his team have only a rudimentary understanding of how to conduct foreign policy

Reflecting the general displeasure with Sisi and Egypt is the fact that the country so far has not been able to meet the IMF's requirement that it first obtain $6 billion in other financing prior to the release of the Fund's $12 billion loan. When Sadat and Mubarak faced similar financial crises, Washington, backed by the Europeans and GCC states, quickly raised the necessary funds. Not this time though. The silence from those quarters is deafening.

What then has gone wrong? Is the balancing strategy flawed, or does the fault lie with implementation?    

The answer regrettably is both. For a balancing strategy to work the fulcrum - the base upon which the balance rests - must be adequate to sustain the weight on both sides.

Egypt is no longer capable of serving as a fulcrum for heavy geo-strategic interests, such as those of the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Its hard and soft power are too eroded, certainly from the Nasser era, but even in comparison to the overall Mubarak era. No longer capable of providing much in return for the favors of those who it would like to balance off, Egypt is asking too much in return for too little.

Implementation of the flawed balance strategy has been abysmal

So those who in the past might have been lured into and then kept playing the balance game are now either playing it with lower stakes, even contemplating walking away altogether. All that really keeps the US and EU from leaving Egypt to its own devices, is fear of negative consequences, as the country offers few if any positive inducements.

Those and others Egypt is hoping will play its game of balance will pay less for insurance against negative outcomes than they were once willing to wager on possible positive ones.

Implementation of the flawed balance strategy has been abysmal. Sisi and his team have only a rudimentary understanding of how to conduct foreign policy. Foreign Minister Sameh Shukry is a blunt-spoken product of Mubarak's office staff, with little training or experience in diplomacy.

Sisi and his military officer colleagues have even less. Their repeated fabrications, half-truths and unfounded allegations have alienated even friends and allies. Scorn expressed toward Saudi Arabia by Sisi himself and toward Hillary Clinton by those around him is counterproductive, to say the least.

Sisi should scale back Egypt's ambitions to balance off powerful actors.  He is in danger of being left out in the cold by many of them

The contempt shown for Italian investigators of the Regeni murder, for Russian and French air safety personnel, and for the UN mission in Libya, do not reflect well on the Sisi government's understanding of how international relations are conducted in general, or the desiderata of the game of balance in particular.

The latter especially requires a certain amount of seduction of current and potential game players, not just repeated slaps in the face against a backdrop of ambiguity and inadequate clarification of the country's positions and objectives. 

Sisi, in sum, is ineptly pursuing a flawed foreign policy strategy. He should scale back Egypt's ambitions to balance off powerful actors. He is in danger of being left out in the cold by many of them, as his present financial woes attest.

He should clarify Egypt's positions on pressing regional issues rather than appearing to be selling the country to the highest bidder. He should substitute humility for arrogance, truth for lies in the rhetoric that emits from his foreign policy team. Otherwise, the overstressed fulcrum of Egypt upon which the precarious and overweight balancing act rests, will crumble.

Robert Springborg is Kuwait Foundation Visiting Scholar at Harvard University’s Middle East Initiative, Belfer Center. He is also Visiting Professor in the Department of War Studies, King’s College, London, and non-resident Research Fellow of the Italian Institute of International Affairs. 

He has innumerable publications, including Mubarak's Egypt: Fragmentation of the Political Order; Family Power and Politics in Egypt; Legislative Politics in the Arab World (co-authored with Abdo Baaklini and Guilain Denoeux), Oil and Democracy in Iraq; Development Models in Muslim Contexts: Chinese, ‘Islamic’ and Neo-Liberal Alternatives, among others.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.