Johannesburg (Special to Informed Comment) – Egyptian foreign policy under the tutelage of Egyptian president Abdul Fattah El-Sisi has seen the country lose much of its independence in an attempt to secure gulf aid and in the service of combating the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. In addition, the country’s myriad domestic challenges has seen its influence in the Nile Basin wane in favour of Ethiopia, which was able to begin the construction and filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in July 2020 in spite of Egyptian opposition.
Unlike the period during the 1950s and 1960s, when Egypt was seen as a leader of the Arab and non-aligned world, Cairo has for the most part toed the Saudi and Emirati line in return for the provision of arms and aid. Egyptian relations with Israel have also warmed, since both countries view Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood as threats, and because Israel lobbied Western capitals to view Sisi favorably following the 3 July 2013 Coup.
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File: A rainbow spreads across the sky over the Egyptian capital Cairo on December 1, 2016, with the Ministry of foreign affairs building (C) and the landmark Cairo Tower (L) seen in the horizon. / AFP / KHALED DESOUKI (Photo credit should read KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images).
Cairo has had some foreign policy successes, especially in relation to the formation of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, headquartered in Cairo. That forum has isolated Turkey, one of Cairo’s fiercest regional competitors. In addition, relations with Russia and China have improved.
However, the country’s deployment of its foreign policy largely for a narrow goal of serving its domestic agenda will see it continue to lose much of its independence since it is reliant on Gulf and Western largesse to keep its population satisfied, especially in light of its growing unemployment and poverty rate.
Egyptian foreign policy: history and Principles
For decades, Egyptian foreign policy has been based on three main circles, an Islamic circle, an Arab circle, and an African circle. These three spheres represent how Egypt sees itself, and although they often act in concert, at any time one may be given a higher place of importance. During the 1960s for example, throughout the rule of Gamal Abdel Nassir, the Arab and African circles occupied the main focus, with Egypt’s Islamic character being emphasised less. further, the country’s foreign policy is concerned with two key national security issues, the Nile, upon which the country relies for its fresh water needs, and the Mediterranean, through which most invader countries have entered Egypt. Moreover, for most of its history Egyptian foreign policy has been leveraged to divert from the country’s domestic issues, especially during the rule of Nasser, when non-alignment and Pan Arabism were appealed to in an attempt for Nassir to gain popularity and distract from his crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. For much of its history foreign policy has been dominated by the military and a small cadre close to this mainly military leadership. Security and regime survival have been the main aims influencing the country’s foreign policy concept and conduct.
After WW II, Egypt occupied an extremely influential position, especially in the Arab world. The country was a founder member of the Arab league in 1945 and for most of its history has remained the seat of that organization. Its large population, and strong military made it a leader in the Arab world, and it remains one of the most influential players in Arab culture more broadly. The Egyptian Arabic dialect for example is seen as a lingua franca for much of the region. During the period of Nasser’s rule 1952-1970, it promoted non-alignment and Pan Arabism, with much success. Between 1958 and 1961 it even formed a unified country with Syria, while its espousal of non-alignment during the Cold War saw it being able to obtain arms from both the Soviet Union and countries within the US orbit.
After Nasser’s death in 1970, this position has waned, especially following its conclusion of a peace agreement with Israel in 1979; the seat of the Arab League was even moved from Cairo to Tunisia until 1989. This era saw Cairo shift toward the US orbit, and it has since received the most American aid after Israel. The 1980s and 1990s saw it privatise many state run companies as a part of liberalising its economy and in an attempt to receive loans from the Brentwood institutions (the World Bank and International Monetary Fund [IMF]). In 1991 for example it was not able to fulfill its debt obligations and had to implement structural adjustment, which saw its economy further weaken. This caused economic stagnation, partially eventuating in an uprising in 2011, which saw its military leadership being replaced for the first time in 2012. Large protests in 2011 resulted in Mubarak’s ouster; a presidential election in June 2012 saw the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Mursi victorious, gaining around fifty-two per cent of the vote.
During the rule of Mursi, June 2012-July 2013, the country’s position began to shift. Although vowing to respect the peace treaty with Israel, Mursi sought closer ties with Palestinian factions, including Hamas. Moreover, he sought to reestablish ties with Iran. Egypt also sought closer ties with Turkey and Qatar. These factors, coupled with a public perception of Mursi’s dictatorial tendencies’, and deep state interference around insecurity and gas and electricity, saw large protests in July 2013. These were instrumentalised by the country’s powerful military to oust the Mursi regime and replace him with Abdul Fattah El-Sisi, the country’s then military head. Significantly economic conditions during Mursi’s period in charge saw him also appeal to the IMF for aid, while the vexing issue of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), also saw him and Egyptian parliamentarians threaten conflict with Ethiopia over the Nile.
Cairo’s main regional competition has largely and historically been from among the Gulf monarchs, which previously saw Nassir’s Pan Arabism as a threat. Between 1960 and 1990 the monarchies hosted Egyptian dissidents, mainly from amongst the Brotherhood, however this changed in the 1990s when Gulf monarchs began to see the Brotherhood’s democratic Islamism as an existential threat, since this posed the only real opposition to monarchical rule. It was this factor that saw Gulf monarchs, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates fear Mursi’s accession to power in 2012. These countries viewed the Brotherhood’s rise as posing a threat to their dictatorial regimes, especially in light of Egypt’s influence in the region. they thus worked in concert with the Egyptian military to undermine Mursi, financially and diplomatically supporting his ouster. Further, between 2013 and 2016 they pledged between twenty-five and forty billion dollars in aid to the Sisi administration, providing it critical assistance and enabling it to crackdown on the Egyptian branch of the Brotherhood. Significantly even at the height of its influence, Egypt has always been dependent on Gulf larges for economic survival. The country is a net importer of food and agricultural products, and relies on tourism for a large portion of hard currency. Even under Mursi, the country appealed to Saudi Arabia for aid, and vowed that it would continue to remain an important bilateral relationship.
Sisi’s seven years of ‘dependence’
Losing the Nile
Egypt is almost totally dependent on the Nile, especially since ninety-seven per cent of its population resides in the Nile valley; it is reliant on the river for over ninety-five per cent of its fresh water needs. Historically, The Egyptian state therefore threatened to use force to secure the river’s flow through its territory. In order to do so, both Egypt and Sudan even supported Ethiopian rebel groups, including the Eritrean and Tikrayan liberation movements, to weaken the country. Cairo also pressured financial institutions to refrain from funding dam construction projects in upper riparian states.
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KHARTOUM, SUDAN- MARCH 06: President of Egypt Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi and Chairman of the Sovereignty Council Gen. Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman al-Burhan (not seen) hold a joint press conference after their meeting at Presidential Palace in Khartoum, Sudan on March 06, 2021. (Photo by Presidency of Sudan/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
However, since 2011, the power balance has shifted in favor of Ethiopia. Taking advantage of the chaos caused by the overthrow of Mubarak, Addis Ababa announced the creation of the Millennium, now Grand Ethiopian renaissance Dam (GERD) in April 2011. The proposed dam was conceived as a strong source of hydroelectrical power for the country, which could supply over 6 000 megawatts annually. Sixty-five million of Ethiopia’s 110-million population could receive energy from it. Former Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi also asserted that it would be used to irrigate 500 000 hectares of land. However, Addis Ababa subsequently asserted that it would be used solely for electricity generation.
Egypt and Sudan have opposed the dam from the planning stages, arguing for their ‘historical right’ to determine the Nile’s usage. Egypt insisted it would impair the Nile’s flow, and the electricity generation capacity of Egypt’s Aswan High Dam. Some studies, which were confirmed by Ethiopian officials during negotiations, put the losses at between eight and twenty billion cubic meters annually, accounting for between twenty and forty per cent of the Blue Nile’s flow to Sudan and then Egypt, which could drastically impact fresh water access for Egypt’s ninety million people. Further, the Aswan High Dam’s electricity generation capacity will drop by between twenty-five and forty per cent. However, this risk will result only if Ethiopia fills the dam’s reservoir in four years. Although this was the original intention, Ethiopia subsequently agreed to fill it in seven to nine years. Tensions came to a head in May 2013, when Ethiopia diverted the river’s course to facilitate the dam construction. Egyptian politicians in a parliamentary meeting, accidentally livestreamed by Egyptian television, called for the bombing of the dam and Egyptian support to rebel groups to destabilise Ethiopia. Both Ethiopia and Sudan condemned the calls.
After acceding to power, Sisi sought negotiations over the dam’s creation, resulting in the March 2015 declaration of principles on the filling of the Dam. However, Cairo was unable to halt the Dam’s construction, which is now at over seventy per cent. Further, despite roping in the USA and World Bank in November2019, which were heavily supportive of Egypt, Cairo has not been able to force Ethiopia to conclude an agreement on an agreement governing the filling of the Dam. Egypt wants guarantees that an agreement would be binding and that Addis Ababa would release water from the dam during periods of drought, despite the fact that the Aswan High Dam has over 160 million cubic meters of water stored in its reservoir. in July 2020 Ethiopia filled the dam to its first-year capacity in two weeks, in spite of Egyptian and Sudanese opposition. Cairo’s lack of real influence has severely weakened its negotiating position, especially since its threats to use force is no longer seen as credible. With Egypt’s population predicted to rise to 150 million by 2050, the country will become even more dependent on the Nile for its survival. Egypt’s annual water capacity per capita is already predicted to decrease from 570 cubic meters per person annually to 500 cubic meters in the coming years as a result of climate change.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE greenlighted Sisi’s coup in 2013, lobbying for Egypt in international fora, and providing it much required aid. Saudi Arabia provided Egypt with oil, investment, and Riyadh and Abu Dhabi even deposited funds into the Egyptian Central Bank to prop up the Egyptian Pound. A convergence has occurred between Sisi and Gulf Monarchs attempts to crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. Gulf funds even allowed Cairo to weather a partial US aid freeze in 2013 and 2014, and allowed Cairo the space to conclude a twelve billion dollar IMF loan package in November 2016.
Sisi has thus become very dependent on the Gulf for the regime’s survival, and Cairo has lost most of its influence visa v the Gulf. Cairo thus offered to provide troops for the expansion of the Gulf’s Peninsular Shield force, which was supposed to be comprised mainly of Egyptian and Jordanian soldiers. Moreover, in April 2016 Sisi even returned the Red sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia in a move which angered much of the Egyptian public, in return for Saudi investment and support. This saw large protests and eventuated in a 2017 Supreme Administrative Court decision declaring the agreement null. However, these islands remain under the control of Riyadh, with Cairo being unable and unwilling to demand their return. Further, it was forced to support the Saudi war in Yemen, even though this was unpopular domestically and amongst foreign allies Russia and Cairo.
Cairo has opposed some Saudi Arabian positions, especially in relation to the conflict in Syria. In September 2016, at the UN, Sisi argued that dismantling Syrian institutions was not necessary, and Egypt supported an October 2016 UNSC resolution calling for a ceasefire in Aleppo, of which Saudi Arabia criticized. However significantly in this regard Abu Dhabi was in favor of both decisions; Cairo has thus mainly followed the Emirati lead, especially since they share the same strong position against the Brotherhood.
Instability in Libya
Egypt shares a 1200 kilometer boarder with Libya, through which arms smuggling has occurred, with weapons reaching the Islamic State’s Sinai Province (ISSP).
Sisi views the Islamist components of the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) as an existential threat. Egypt is also keen to benefit from Libyan oil. Sisi thus warned about the dangers emanating from Libya in his first television interview after being nominated for the presidency in 2014. He has supported the renegade Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army militia (LNA), who espouses similar views on political Islam and democracy as him. Cairo has provided the LNA diplomatic and military support since 2014, and even allowed Emirati aircraft to use Egyptian airspace and bases to carry out an attack on then Libya Dawn forces in Tripoli in August that year.
However, despite this Haftar has been unable to capture Western Libya, even after implementing a year-long siege between April 2019 and 2020. Egyptian support, coordinated with Saudi Arabia, Sudan and the UAE provided him with the arms and diplomatic cover to continue the siege in spite of UN efforts to advocate for negotiations. This failed, and Haftar was pushed out of most of Western Libya in May 2020, forcing Egypt to announce a new process (the Cairo Declaration) advocating negotiations and criticising foreign support for the GNA. Although the GNA has been stopped from capturing Sirte and Jufra, after Egyptian threats to send in troops, Turkish influence over the GNA will likely continue. Further, Haftar’s obstinance has seen Cairo having to hedge between supporting the LNA and Libyan House of Representatives’ (HoR) speaker Ageela Saleh. Moreover, Cairo has sought to empower the country’s tribal elements as a counter weight to Haftar; Sisi has been forced to assess his support for a military solution because of Haftar’s ineptitude and unpopularity and because Turkish support for the GNA has resulted in a stalemate.
Israeli relations improve
Under Mursi, Egypt’s relations with Israel were partially frozen, despite Mursi’s assertion that he would respect the 1979 Camp David accord between the two countries. The Israeli embassy in Cairo was closed after protests outside the embassy in 2011, while in November 2012 Mursi recalled his ambassador from Tel Aviv in protest over Israel’s then ‘pillar of defense’ military operation in the enclave. Mursi even dispatched his then Prime Minister, Hisham Candil to Gaza and mediated a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel.
Since Sisi’s accession this has altered, and Egyptian relations with Israel has strengthened. Tel Aviv and Israel share important commonalities on regional issues, especially in relation to Iran, IS and democratic Islamists. Further, both countries see Hamas as posing a threat in light of its popular and democratic nature. Tel Aviv thus successfully lobbied Western capitals not to freeze relations with Egypt following the July 2013 coup. Further, it has allowed Egypt to deploy troops, military hardware, and even aircraft to the Sinai Peninsula to combat the ISSP, even though this was prohibited under the peace treaty. Tel Aviv even deployed drones to assist Egypt in this regard. In return Sisi reinstated his ambassador to Tel Aviv in 2016, following the reopening of the Israeli embassy in 2015. Egypt has also voted in favor of Israel in international fora, and in 2014 mediated between Israel and the Palestinian factions following another Israeli incursion into Gaza, which caused the deaths of over 2000 civilians. Egyptian mediation allowed Israel to absorbed international pressure to negotiate, undermined France’s then attempts to mediate and was weighted in favor of Israel. Israel-Egypt relations under Sisi have benefited both countries, at the expense of Palestinians, and more critically against the general Egyptian public sentiment, also held by Sisi’s leftist and Salifis supporters, most of whom are opposed to normalisation. In 2015 Egypt even flooded hundreds of Sinai tunnels, which are a critical lifeline to Gaza’s two million residents.
The Gas lifeline
after the Italian energy giant ENI discovered liquified national gas (LNG) deposits off the coast of Egypt (the Zohr gas field), Cairo is seen as a potential Gas exporter. This is since Zohr is speculated to possess around one trillion cubic meters of Gas, the largest ever find on the Mediterranean. Cairo sought energy independence by 2019, a goal that was never going to be fulfilled in light of its domestic issues. Further, in 2019 it concluded a twenty-billion-dollar agreement to purchase LNG from Israel, which it had previously exported LNG to.
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(L to R) Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades, and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis give a joint press conference after their trilateral summit at the presidential palace in Cyprus’ capital Nicosia on October 21, 2020. (Photo by Iakovos HATZISTAVROU / POOL / AFP) (Photo by IAKOVOS HATZISTAVROU/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
However, despite this, its LNG policy of forming an Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) has largely been successful. Initially mooted in 2019, the forum was institutionalised as an international organisation in September 2020, and comprises Mediterranean countries Greece, Italy, Jordan, Egypt, Cyprus and Israel amongst others. It is to be headquartered in Egypt and provides Cairo much international prestige. It will also enable Egypt to leverage the resources of countries such as Greece and Israel to develop its LNG sector, providing much required funding and expertise. The EMGF also allows Cairo to isolate Turkey, which is not part of the forum in light of its competing interests in the Mediterranean and contestation over maritime boarder delineations with Greece and Cyprus. Significantly Turkey is one of Cairo’s most formidable regional rivals. It vociferously opposed the overthrow of Mursi and the Qatar blockade. In addition, more importantly it has supported the GNA in Libya and in recent years has been on the opposite side on regional issues, especially in relation to Syria, Iran and the response to the growing normalisation amongst Gulf countries. Cairo also views the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in turkey as a threat in light of its espousal of democratic Islamism and because it accepted many decedents from the Egyptian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood following the coup. The EMGF thus allows Egypt to leverage the resources of its members, most of whom also have tenuous relations with Ankara, to isolate and alienate it.
Cairo also strengthen ties with Russia, which had waned following the expulsion of Russian troops from the country in 1972. Moscow and Cairo inked arms deals to train and equip Egypt’s military, worth over three billion dollars. In 20109 the two countries agreed a further two billion dollar deal to purchase Russian aircraft in spite of US opposition. Further, Russian tourism has been a lifeline for the country’s dire economic situation. China too has invested in the country, especially in relation to the construction of a new administrative capital. However, this aid and investment, like much of what has occurred during Sisi’s seven years in charge, has been used to crackdown on descent and not benefited the country’s population much. The Russia arms deal in 2014 for example was used as a means of circumventing the need for American arms, some of which were suspended at the time as a means of forcing Sisi to ease his crackdown on descent. Sisi was thus able to resist US pressure to weaken the crackdown on the Brotherhood and other opposition formations. Unemployment and poverty rates have
Constitutional amendment’s passed in April 2019 will likely see Sisi rule until at least 2030. These amendments also provide him with the power to influence judicial appointments, while entrenching the power of the military as protecting the country’s ‘constitutional’ order. These will likely see a continuation of the country’s current foreign policy agenda, which will be deployed in the protection of the regime. This was the case for most of the country’s modern history and will endure. Further, the country’s economic challenges will also likely see it continue to stay within the Gulf orbit. Egypt and the Gulf states now depend on each other to contain rising domestic descent. Cairo will likely also remain dependent on the larges of Gulf countries to circumvent its growing poverty and unemployment problem.
Further in relation to Cairo’s attempts to secure Nile waters, its main national security issue, it will likely be forced to concede to the Ethiopian position. It has tried to lobby Sudan to form a common downstream riparian position, however upstream states now hold the balance of power. Climate change, coupled with Cairo and Khartoum’s domestic problems will only worsen this.
Last, a change in the US leadership, away from Trump, who famously called Sisi his favorite dictator will see the country face more pressure from the USA. Washington is however unlikely to reduce aid and military support to Egypt since it is seen both as a linchpin of stability in the region and because of its ties with Israel, which are viewed favorably within Washington.
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