Two years of foreign policy under Al-Sisi: reaching out and new options

Daily News Egypt
18 Min Read
Despite public assurances from Vladimir Putin that the target of Russian attacks are “Islamic State” targets, critics, including the United States, are maintaining that moderate rebels are being struck Presidency handout

The foreign policy of any country is usually shaped to serve its domestic policies. Egypt’s foreign policy was very hazy in the first year following the revolution and in the few years since, it has undergone several radical changes.

After the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in July 2013, Egypt’s foreign policy was focused on fighting the Brotherhood-affiliated media around the world, as well as addressing the countries that supported them.

Since Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi became president in June 2014, his foreign policy has faced several challenges. Among them is Egypt’s attempt to rely less heavily on the United States for support, the need to maintain strong ties with the Gulf countries, and the move toward forming new economic partnerships with Asia and Europe.

More international options: relations with the US and Russia

Following the ouster of Mohamed Morsi from office, Egyptian-US relations suffered. After security forces ended pro-Brotherhood protests in Cairo, US president Barack Obama announced that the US was cancelling its biannual joint military exercise, Operation Bright Star. It also decided to not deliver three Egyptian apache helicopters to Egypt.

The new Egyptian regime subsequently turned to Russia for support, an old friend who officially declared the Brotherhood a terrorist group.

Al-Sisi started visiting Russia when he was defence minister, along with then foreign minister Nabil Fahmy in 2013, to assert strong, new ties with Moscow. He visited Moscow again shortly after being elected president. Several agreements have since been signed between the two countries, including a $3.5bn arms supply deal and the financing of Egypt’s nuclear programme, which is aimed at increasing the production of electricity.

Egypt’s current Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry told a state-owned radio station on Monday that Egypt’s foreign policy after 30 June was based on a balance of interests. Shoukry added that strategic relations with the US do not mean that Egypt will limit its interests or relations with any one party. According to him, Egypt must maintain diverse relations with all its current partners, including Russia, China and other African countries.The new ties with Russia have not prevented Egypt from maintaining crucial and historic relations with the US. The latter has continued to support Egypt, both economically and militarily, even through the tension. Recently, relations between Egypt and the US have further improved as several congressional delegates visited Cairo.

The US understands that Egypt is a keystone country in the region and consulting with it is crucial in combating terrorism. As recently as last month, a US congressional delegation recommended that Egypt receive support in its counter-terrorism efforts. Egypt has also participated in the western coalition against the Islamic State (IS). As this coalition is against Moscow’s interests because it is aiding some Syrian opposition groups to president Bashar Al-Assad, namely the Kurds, Egypt’s participation has been limited to logistic support.

Deputy director for research at Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), Amy Hawthorne, does not believe that that Egyptian diplomacy has changed the US administration’s opinion on Egypt over the last year. “Most US officials are very aware of the serious problems—economic, political, security-wise—developing in Egypt and the dangers this presents to Egypt and to US interests. There are also many tensions in US-Egypt relations and obstacles to stronger cooperation, especially on economic assistance, thrown up by the Egyptian authorities, and frustration throughout the US administration about our often difficult dynamics with Egypt,” Hawthorne told Daily News Egypt.

The US largely has concluded that it cannot do much about the problems in Egypt and that, as troubling as Egypt’s trajectory is, the country is more stable and more coherent than places like Syria, Libya, Yemen or Iraq—urgent conflicts that demand more US attention than Egypt does these days, according to Hawthorne.  “The US is very worried about the rise of an Islamic State affiliate in Sinai and focuses on counter-terrorism in Egypt.”

Regarding the US-Egyptian relations last year, Hawthorne believe that it was a return to business as usual without a clear strategic focus or strong shared interests in the US-Egypt relationship. “Both countries are frustrated and fatigued with one another, and beneath the surface there is tension and disagreement. US influence in Egypt continues to wane, in part due to changes in Egypt itself and in part due to missteps and mistakes by the US,” she added.

The Gulf: maintaining regional security

Maintaining strong relations with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain is a top priority for the current Egyptian regime as these countries were instrumental in assisting Egypt during the economic turmoil following 30 June. Their financial aid helped the government  stabilise its foreign currency reserves.

Despite the Gulf countries’ financial aid, Egypt’s stance towards the Syrian conflict, among others, may have an impact on future assistance. Although Saudi Arabia and the UAE are backing the immediate ouster of Al-Assad, Egypt still believes that the Syrian people should decide their own fate. Consequently, Egypt is forced to handle the Syrian issue very carefully so as not to lose its Gulf allies.

Following recent events, domestic opposition parties are criticising the regime for its relations with Saudi Arabia in particular, as they believe it is profiting more that Egypt from its bilateral relations, leaving Egypt at a disadvantage.

The incident that escalated current domestic tensions is the Red Sea islands deal which would see the sovereignty of Tiran and Sanafir transferred to Saudi Arabia. The Egyptian government maintains that the islands are Saudi and had only been transferred to Egyptian sovereignty under special circumstances and for a finite period. The opposition adamantly states the islands  belong to Egypt.

Egypt, Greece and Cyprus: searching for gas

Relations with both Greece and Cyprus have been crucial for Al-Sisi, for economic and political reasons.

Gas exploration in the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea has resulted in crucial discoveries for the three states, particularly Egypt, as it is in dire need of an economic boost.  Greece is also eager to discover new gas fields as it is still suffering from its own economic crisis. Moreover, for all three nations, forming an ally in the face of Turkish policies in the region may be also a target of this alliance. This three-country partnership may also prove beneficial to all in forming an alliance against Turkish policies in the region.

Experts have been speculating on the strategic importance of this alliance, as well as its timing. George Filis, adjunct professor of European affairs at the American College of Greece, believes this alliance is important for both geo-economic and geopolitical reasons.

Filis believes that the discovery of the massive natural gas deposit (Zohr) in the Egyptian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) could be a game-changer for energy development in the region, reorienting the plans and priorities of all stakeholders.

“This discovery, in combination with the recent developments and findings in the Cypriot EEZ (Aphrodite deposit), along with the fact that the newfound Egyptian deposit is very close to the Cypriot EEZ, increases the probability of discovering something similar on the other side of the maritime borders. Greece’s preparations for the conduction of similar explorations in the region south of Crete and in the Ionian Sea make the demand for cooperation and coordination urgent and natural,” Filis told Daily News Egypt.

Discussions are being held between Nicosia and Cairo regarding the transportation of Cypriot natural gas to existing Egyptian facilities for further processing, and exports are moving in this direction. This could increase Greece’s importance as an emerging regional energy hub through the full materialisation of the potential of the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) project.

“This means Greece will need to secure extra natural gas quantities (LNG or conventional), a part of which might come from Cyprus and Egypt,” Filis added.

From the Greek perspective, the timing for the development of a strategic alliance with Cairo is crucial. “Our countries right now constitute the main pillars of stability in the broader region that I define as the water axis of the Black Sea–Straits–Aegean–Eastern Mediterranean (BSSAEM),” Filis said.

“In purely geopolitical terms, Greece and Cyprus need Egypt, and Egypt needs Athens and Nicosia as a base of reference, reliance and certainty in an era of turbulence, instability and uncertainty,” he added.

Strong ties with Greece and Cyprus may also help in forming an alliance against Turkey. The basic threats that Greece and Cyprus face are in line with Cairo’s major concerns. The most important regional threat for Greece and Cyprus are the neo-Ottoman aspirations of a revisionist and aggressive Turkey that is trying to challenge the status in both the Aegean and  eastern Mediterranean seas. Filis believes that Ankara’s dubious policies regarding combating IS, its unacceptable practices regarding the unprovoked attack on a Russian air force aircraft in Syria, as well as its intrusion into the Iraqi sovereign space near Mosul, prove that Turkey, or at least its current political elite, is not part of the solution for the chaos in the region, but rather part of the problem.

As such, Filis said: “deterring a revisionist imperialist Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean and combating terrorism, and its supporters, in the broader area constitute a top priority to Greece, Cyprus and Egypt, a reality which offers the necessary common interest to bring together our countries and forge a strategic alliance, which will become the new point of reference in the eastern Mediterranean.”

Ethiopia and Sudan: water security

Since construction started in 2011, the Ethiopian Great Renaissance Dam (GERD) has strained relations between Egypt and Ethiopia.

Egypt has attempted to reach an agreement with Ethiopia to guarantee that the dam will not affect Egypt’s share of water, but Ethiopia has shown no sign of cooperating and 60% of the dam is now complete.

Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan did, however, reach an agreement to allow two French companies to carry out a research study and write a technical report, which will identify the impact the GERD will have on Egypt and Sudan.

Recently, however, Getachew Reda, Ethiopian minister of the Government Communication Affairs Office (GCAO), said that the upcoming technical report has nothing to do with the current construction.

“The dam is being built and this will not be affected by the report, but if there is anyone who believes that he would be affected after the study is carried out, then it is not our problem in Ethiopia,” Reda said.

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry said on Sunday that upon reading the statements, minister Sameh Shoukry instructed the Egyptian embassy in Addis Ababa to contact Reda and verify the statements with a reminder of the Declaration of Principles, signed in March 2015, which asserts a commitment to achieving mutual interest, not harming any of the parties and respecting the results of the technical reports.

Italy: the Regeni case

Italy is one of Egypt’s most important economic partners. Italian giant Eni has been an integral part of the two countries’ cooperation, as it has taken a major role in the gas exploration carried out in the Mediterranean.

Egypt’s foreign policy has taken a serious hit recently, however.

On 25 January 2016, the fifth anniversary of Egypt’s revolution, Guilo Regeni, an Italian PhD student at the University of Cambridge, was reported missing in Cairo. His body was found on 3 February and showed signs of torture, which included cigarette burns and signs of electrocution on his genitals.

The incident sparked tension between Rome and Cairo, as the Italian side demanded the truth about what happened to Regeni. The Italian public also applied pressure on its government, demanding it take necessary measures against Egypt. Italy subsequently recalled its ambassador to Cairo.

Officials from both countries are still in talks about the incident. Following Egypt’s recent willingness to send transcripts of phone calls from some of the suspects to the Italian side, the beginning of a repair in strained relations may be close at hand.

Libya: a neighbouring turmoil

Over the past two years, Egypt’s policy towards Libya has been fixed. Cairo is supporting General Khalifa Haftar and demanding that the UN arms embargo be lifted in order for its armed forces to fight extremism.

International powers are expecting Egypt to play an important role in stabilising Libya, as the spread of terrorism in the neighbouring country will have an impact on Egypt’s national security.

“Nowadays, Egypt has to carry on its own shoulders the burden of problems which have few connections with its internal situation, and more ties with the regional and international situation, such as illegal trade across North Africa, religious radicalism, and the international economic crisis, especially in the field of oil and gas markets,” said Italian political analyst Andrea Falconi.

Security in Sinai is compromised by the presence of militias, which resort to criminal activity and the drug trade as a source of income and stability. For decades, the international community has asked Egypt to guarantee the security of both North and South Sinai, from Rafah to Eilat, and  the Suez Canal. In return, they will guarantee economic support. “Major issues, such as disputes about Nile water sharing, were postponed to avoid conflicts, and many liberalisation and privatisation measures led to a drastic surge in foreign debt,” said Falconi. “All this increased the Egyptian perception of isolation. It would be no surprise if, nowadays, Egypt is looking for new partners, such as the Saudis in the east and Haftar in the west.”

From the US perspective on Libya, Egypt is expected to carry out a role similar to that which was asked of Tunisia and Algeria: tighter control over its western border and an end to arms supply and trade, which compromises Libyan security.

“I’m sure that in the next few months we will see many offers of western military equipment to Egypt in order to achieve better control of its western borders, such as radars and monitoring drones,” said Falconi.

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