Egypt has long been viewed as a major player when it comes to the stability of North Africa and the Middle East. However, from the escalating conflict in neighbouring countries to economic pressures and strategic threats, Egypt finds itself navigating a complex geopolitical landscape. Central to these concerns is the impact of regional conflicts on Egyptian national security, particularly the situation in Gaza and its implications for Egypt’s security and policy decisions.
Indeed, this is not the first war that Israel has initiated in Gaza, yet it stands as the most significant since 2005, following Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank. In this latest conflict, Israel perceived an opportunity to address the landowner issue and to forcibly displace residents, a tactic it has employed in most Palestinian territories since 1948. This situation directly impacts Egyptian national security. There is a prevailing concern that Israel intends to use Sinai as an alternative homeland for the people of Gaza, effectively transferring the crisis to Egypt. This concern is more than well-founded. In fact, it is being noted by fellows at reputable institutes, apart from being openly pushed forward by Israeli academics. However, the Egyptian government has consistently declared its refusal to accept such a scenario, a sentiment echoed by the Egyptian populace, who are keenly aware that any displacement would critically undermine the Palestinian cause.
Egypt boasts a formidable army, well-equipped to defend its sovereignty and territory. Yet, it is a point of principle that Egyptian soldiers would never direct their weapons against Palestinians. This leads to the question: is it merely a coincidence that the various problems outlined in this article, all converging at this point, bear no relation to the issue at hand?
Yemen and the Houthis: Endangering the artery of the Egyptian economy
The Suez Canal, serving as the northern gateway to the Red Sea and a route for approximately 12% of global trade, is currently facing threats due to the Houthis targeting ships passing through the Bab el Mandeb Strait, the Red Sea’s southern entrance. The Houthis have been attacking ships en route to Israel, causing many maritime transport companies to avoid this route. Instead, they opt for the longer, more costly journey around the Cape of Good Hope to minimise risks. In fact, estimates suggest that such diversions can cost ships up to $1m in fuel costs per round trip. Needless to say, however, this shift also has severe repercussions for the revenue of the Suez Canal, which is estimated at around $9bn and is vital for Egypt as a major source of foreign currency, particularly given the country’s economic challenges. In light of potential escalations by the Houthis, Egypt is compelled to respond swiftly and decisively.
Sudanese civil war: A flood of chaos
The protracted conflict between the Sudanese army and the Rapid Support Forces has reached a seemingly intractable phase, raising the spectre of a potential second partition of Sudan. Control is divided, with the northern and eastern regions under the army’s authority, while the Rapid Support Forces govern the western, southern, and central areas. This division threatens to create two new neighbours to Egypt’s south and has already resulted in millions of internally displaced persons within Sudan. For many of these displaced individuals, the most viable refuge lies to the north, in Egypt.
A map of the hot zones in the Sudanese civil war
Given its historical commitment to religious solidarity, Arab identity, and adherence to international humanitarian norms, Egypt will likely extend hospitality to these displaced people. This situation is not unprecedented for Egypt, which has already hosted over 9 million people (not officially referred to as refugees) since the events of the Iraq War in 2003 and the Arab Spring in 2011. These individuals, hailing from countries like Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen, have found safety and hospitality in Egypt. Needless to say, supporting many displaced people places a significant financial burden on the Egyptian economy, already strained by the need to subsidise petroleum products and other essential goods.
However, an even greater concern arises from the ongoing situation in Sudan: the emergence of multiple militias. These groups pose a potential and continuous threat to Egyptian security, requiring constant vigilance and strategic preparedness from Egypt’s side.
The fragile state in Libya: Very long risky borders
Plagued by the fallout of division, Libya has been in a state of limbo since the catastrophic events in Derna. The nation stands at a crossroads, with the possibility of a resolution or an escalation of conflict between the Eastern and Western factions. Neither side seems inclined to make concessions necessary for Libya’s reunification. In this tense atmosphere, each party is poised to seize any opportunity to gain an advantage. This ongoing uncertainty necessitates vigilant security and potential intervention along Egypt’s western borders. Egypt’s proactive measures have been evident, notably when Turkey supported Western Libya. Without the Egyptian army’s intervention on behalf of Eastern Libya, Egypt’s western frontier would have been exposed to significant risks. Consequently, Egypt must maintain a state of readiness to respond decisively to these evolving regional dynamics.
Ethiopia: Water, Water, Water
Egypt’s challenges extend beyond its immediate vicinity, with external factors also presenting significant threats. A prime example is the deadlock in the negotiations between Egypt and Ethiopia over the GERD (Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam). This dispute poses a significant threat to Egypt, potentially affecting its crucial water resources. The contention arose following the Arab Spring in 2011 when Ethiopia capitalised on the instability within Egypt. Ethiopia’s expanding regional aspirations, coupled with the support of certain countries and organisations intent on undermining Egypt, led to the dam’s construction. This project threatens to restrict the flow of the Nile River, a lifeline for Egyptian civilisation since antiquity. Consequently, Egypt must prioritise resolving this issue, as it directly impacts the welfare and stability of its entire population.
American Silk Road: Egypt’s prime location at risk
The forecasted track of the American Sik road
Washington has unveiled plans for a new trade route as an alternative to the Suez Canal, proposing a path that begins along the southern European coasts in the Mediterranean and extends through Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and even reaches India. The United States has openly declared that this initiative is designed to counter the Chinese and Russian Silk Road. This alternative could prove to be more economical and faster in the long term, especially since a portion of the route would be overland. The initial phase is expected to go through Saudi Arabia. The project’s launch has been deferred pending the resolution of the conflict in Gaza, but it is expected to gain momentum again, particularly in light of the Houthi attacks in the Bab el Mandeb Strait. The so-called American Silk Road appears to be strategically positioned as a substitute for the traditional Red Sea passage. This situation is a critical issue for Egypt, as it has significant implications for its security and economic interests. In this regard, it must be remembered that 12% to 15% of global trade passes through the Suez Canal, and the American Silk Road can diminish this figure if it proves to be successful. Furthermore, recent Houthi attacks in the Red Sea have resulted in the major carriers shifting up to $200 billion worth of trade from the Suez Canal. Needless to say, although Western shipping has been targeted in this regard, the recent attacks have, and will undoubtedly continue to, boost Washington’s plans for an overland route from the UAE to Israel.
Tensions in the Egyptian-Saudi relationship
At first glance, Egyptian-Saudi relations might seem stable, but beneath the surface, they are lukewarm. Speculations about the cooling of ties abound, with the full view of underlying causes remaining somewhat elusive. This includes Egypt’s hesitancy in transferring the Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi Arabia, the latter’s scaled-back economic support and investment in Egypt, and sporadic tensions reflected in media interactions. These dynamics hint at a deeper rivalry between the two Arab powerhouses. Egypt brings its historical significance, strategic geography, demographic strength, and military prowess to the table. In contrast, Saudi Arabia wields substantial economic clout and religious influence. Both nations vie for dominance in the Red Sea area and, by extension, in the wider Arab world, each wary that the other’s ascent might diminish its own standing. Consequently, instead of forging an alliance, this rivalry threatens to devolve into a regional cold war, as exemplified by the discussions surrounding the American Silk Road initiative.
Economical challenges affecting +100 million people
The economic landscape in Egypt is marked by significant challenges, with the nation facing a steep budget deficit, projected at 824.4 billion Egyptian pounds for the fiscal year 2023/24. Inflation has surged to record levels, with headline inflation hitting 35.7% in June, exacerbating the cost-of-living crisis. The Egyptian pound’s value has significantly declined, contributing to economic strain across various sectors, including tourism and the Suez Canal. Additionally, external factors such as the GERD dispute and energy sector issues, evidenced by regular electricity cuts, further complicate the situation. In order to truly understand the impact of these economic dynamics, it’s essential to consider the human dimension: families struggling to make ends meet, young people facing a bleak job market, and communities grappling with the uncertainty and stress of economic instability. Within itself, the economic sector has significant spillover to the social sphere, and Egypt’s economic problems are more than likely to have a lasting impact on the country’s social fabric.
Climate change: The elephant in the room
Climate change significantly impacts Egypt, particularly affecting water availability and agriculture. The combination of rising temperatures and shifting rainfall patterns undermines agricultural productivity, heightening drought risks and jeopardising food security. Addressing these challenges necessitates robust water management and the adoption of sustainable farming practices to ensure resilience against these environmental changes.
Technological Infrastructure Cybersecurity Threats
Technological progress, while beneficial, introduces cybersecurity risks that target essential infrastructure and national security. This evolving threat landscape demands strengthening cyber defence mechanisms and intelligence operations. As cyber warfare becomes a significant part of international conflicts, strategically emphasising Egypt’s readiness and vigilance is crucial to navigate and mitigate these sophisticated challenges. With that being said, Egypt is also actively enhancing its technological infrastructure to safeguard against threats and to harness advancements in critical sectors like water management, agriculture, and renewable energy. Integrating innovative technologies is paramount for Egypt’s adaptation to and mitigation of socio-economic and environmental challenges. In water management, for example, Egypt is turning to advanced solutions to optimise its scarce water resources. One such project is the collaboration with Rubicon Water, an Australian firm. This partnership aims to implement gravity-fed irrigation canal systems with sensors and control software to ensure precise farm water delivery, reducing waste and enhancing agricultural productivity. This initiative is part of a broader project to rehabilitate 50,000 water installations across the country, a critical move given Egypt’s persistent drought conditions and the imperative to ensure water security
All these threats, now what?
Egypt’s geopolitical stance, deeply intertwined with its foreign policy strategies, plays an essential role in navigating the complexities of its neighbourhood and beyond. Obviously, the relationships with major powers and neighbouring countries are crucial in shaping Egypt’s responses to these threats. The strategic alliances, diplomatic engagements, and regional cooperation that Egypt fosters reflect not only its foreign policy objectives but are also instrumental in addressing the myriad of security, economic, and strategic challenges it faces.
The country’s stance on regional conflicts, such as the situation in Gaza, its negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) with Ethiopia, and its involvement in the stability of neighbouring countries like Libya and Sudan, are all influenced by and have implications for Egypt’s foreign relations. Furthermore, the challenges posed by the Suez Canal’s competitiveness, the American Silk Road initiative and Egypt’s economic resilience emphasise the need for more diplomatic engagement and strategic partnerships.
In other words, it is increasingly evident that Egypt’s approach to mitigating the discussed threats necessitates a comprehensive foreign policy framework that leverages its regional influence and international partnerships. This involves safeguarding its national interests and security and contributing to regional stability and cooperation. At the end of the day, the truth is that the current situation facing the country is by no means enviable. In fact, one could argue that the challenges Egypt faces are unprecedented, even when considering occupation times.
One can’t help but spot danger, whichever way they look, and overcoming these problems might be akin to crossing the Bar Lev Line in 1973. That said, I conclude this article with the same question that I started it with: Are these converging crises a mere coincidence or a calculated convergence amidst external pressures? I’m positive that we’ll have our answer in the future. But for now, we’ll just keep guessing.
Ashraf Kordy is a Board Member at the Egyptian Chamber of Commerce of Giza, Cofounder & CEO of K53 Holding, and CEO of EAR Media