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Sisi’s reformed foreign policy could restore Egypt as major regional power

Former U.S. Secretary of State Kerry meets with el-Sisi in Cairo, November 3, 2013
Former U.S. Secretary of State Kerry meets with el-Sisi in Cairo, November 3, 2013

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David Hartwell is a Middle East political, military and security expert, and Director and Managing Editor at Middle East Insider. He tweets: @DaveHartwell1

One of the key challenges facing Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has been to bring a new sense of direction and order to the country’s foreign policy. After the domestic political upheaval of the post-2011 period, during which foreign policy became more influenced by public opinion than at any time in Egypt’s recent past, Sisi has sought to replace the impulsive, naïve and often amateurish path pursued by former Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi with one more in keeping with the historical guiding tenets of Egypt’s foreign policy. These place a priority on the strategic alliances with the United States, Europe and Arab Gulf states, with policy formation dominated by the president, in concert with the military, intelligence agencies and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Morsi’s mistakes

There were a number of reasons for the failure of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood’s foreign policy. First, they failed to appreciate the depth of the link between Egypt’s foreign and domestic policies. After 2011, public opinion played an almost unprecedented role in the formation and influence of policy, but Egypt’s domestic stability prior to 2011 had always been built on a foundation of a moderate, consistent and pragmatic foreign policy underpinned by strong alliances with the United States and the Arab Gulf monarchies. Nevertheless, the role popular pressure played after 2011 meant that as Morsi and the Brotherhood’s popularity decreased during their time in power, they failed to grasp the extent to which this would limit their room for manoeuvre or embolden their opponents in the military, security and political establishment.

Second, and unusually for a party that had waited more than 40 years to form a government, Morsi and the Brotherhood were unable to grasp the fundamental tools of diplomacy associated with foreign policy-making. This was due in large part to the Army’s continued domination of intelligence and security decision-making and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs success in resisting the Brotherhood’s attempts to take-over the ministry.

Finally, the continued dominance of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau and Morsi’s unwillingness to question its advice led to a clash between the idealism underpinning the Brotherhood’s politico-Islamic ideology and the mixture of flexibility and pragmatism required for a successful foreign policy in the Middle East.

These underlying factors would combine during Morsi and the Brotherhood’s brief period in power to produce a foreign policy that was impulsive, inconsistent and often naïve. From the downgrading in importance of Egypt’s alliances with the US and the Gulf monarchies; the failure to agree a loan with the IMF to prevent the collapse of the Egyptian economy; the abortive attempt to replace these with an Egypt-Turkey-Qatar axis; the failure to properly engage with the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) nations; a somewhat laissez faire attitude to the peace treaty with Israel; and the inability to prevent upstream Nile states (especially Ethiopia) from threatening Egypt’s agreed share of the river’s flow, foreign policy under Morsi lurched from one crisis to the next.

Former President of Egypt Mohamed Morsi meets with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff in May 2013, just before he was ousted by Sisi.
Former President of Egypt Mohamed Morsi meets with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff in May 2013, just before he was ousted by Sisi.

Sisi hits the reset button

On assuming office in June 2014, Sisi set about resetting foreign policy. In doing so, he has not necessarily returned it to the Mubarak era – the increased influence of public opinion remains as does the fact that the policy challenges remain dynamic – rather, he has reinforced Egypt’s long-standing foreign policy strengths, combining them with greater flexibility and pragmatism.

First, Sisi has rebuilt Egypt’s alliance with the Gulf monarchies, especially its traditional allies, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). During Morsi’s period in office, both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi had made their displeasure with the Brotherhood plain. After Egypt failed to secure a USD4.5 billion loan from the IMF, both refused to supply financial aid at a level that could replace this amount and bolster the beleaguered the Egyptian economy. Moreover, Qatar’s extension of generous loans to Morsi in place of Saudi and UAE finance only served to further irritate Riyadh and Abu Dhabi and exacerbate already tense relations between Doha and its other GCC partners. Sisi’s election saw Egypt once more welcome in the Saudi and the UAE and his success in stabilising the Egyptian economy is in no small measure down to substantial financial assistance provided by GCC states. In exchange, Egypt has supported the Saudi-led coalition’s military intervention in Yemen, contributing naval vessels and even suggesting early in the campaign that it would consider the deployment of Egyptian troops in Yemen should this be deemed necessary.

Second, Egypt has stabilised its relationship with the US, although there remains an intangible residue of suspicion. Washington (and the European Union) is critical of Egypt’s domestic political environment, especially restrictions on the press and political association, which Egyptian authorities have justified by the terrorist threat emanating from the Sinai. That said, the US is also in need of allies to support its efforts to tackle Islamic State (IS). Sisi pledged Egyptian support for this on the proviso that it not purely focus on IS, but other regional terrorist groups, such as those in the Sinai.

Third, in an effort to counter US and EU pressure over its domestic politics, Sisi is diversifying his foreign policy options in the direction of the BRIC nations, especially Russia. Sisi welcomed Russian President Vladimir Putin to Egypt in February and in May Russian media reported that a USD2 billion deal for 46 MiG-29 multi-role combat aircraft discussed by the two men had been agreed. Russia’s engagement with Sisi is part of a wider move to become involved in the Middle East, but Egypt’s positive response is indicative of Cairo’s desire to be solely reliant on the US and Europe for financial and military support.

Fourth, aware that the country’s domestic fortunes are intimately linked to its international reputation, Sisi has also had to prioritise stabilising the Egyptian economy in an effort to alter the perception among foreign investors and tourists that Egypt is an economic “basket case”. In this he has been helped by the substantial aid provided by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which has boosted Egypt’s foreign currency reserves and restored confidence that the worst of the economic crisis has passed. He has also been able to reap the benefits of the economic measures instituted by interim President Adly Mansour who finally introduced a capital gains tax after many years of delay, amended the Investment Law to offer greater legal protection and incentives for investors, and reduced energy subsidies. On assuming office, Sisi augmented these measures by announcing a series of major infrastructure projects, chief among which is the plan to substantially increase the capacity of the Suez Canal.

Fifth, Sisi has moved to reassure Israel over the security of the 1979 peace treaty and, likely due to the current security challenges in the Sinai, has even suggested ways of strengthening it. Egypt has deployed thousands of troops close to the border with Israel, in a technical breach of the treaty; however, Israeli agreement to this – securing the Sinai from jihadist groups is clearly in Israel’s national interest – hints at further innovation and flexibility in the future that could deepen an already prosperous security relationship. Underpinning Israeli confidence in Sisi is his ambivalent attitude to Hamas, whose close relationship with Morsi and the Brotherhood was a source of constant Israeli unease.

Sixth, Sisi has sought to engage constructively with Ethiopia and the other upstream Nile states to find an amicable solution to the problem of sharing out the river’s water resources. The 1959 Nile Waters Agreement between the Sudan and Egypt entitles Egypt to 55.5 billion cubic metres of the annual flow of the Nile; however, development projects upstream, especially Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam project, threaten this agreement. Egypt is sympathetic to Ethiopia’s argument that such projects are necessary to allow its economy to develop, but it will not countenance any agreement that decreases its current share of the waters. In this respect, Ethiopia’s declaration in September 2014 that the dam is intended for power generation rather than irrigation may provide hope that Sisi can secure agreement in the future.

SIsi at the Egyptian Economic Development Conference in Sharm al-Sheikh, March 2015.
SIsi at the Egyptian Economic Development Conference in Sharm al-Sheikh, March 2015.

A new-old foreign policy

All of this means that Sisi has restored the traditional guiding tenets of Egyptian foreign policy while adapting them to the challenges Egypt currently faces. Future success will depend much on the continued improvement of the economy; the successful and peaceful completion of the long-delayed parliamentary elections; tangible signs of an improvement in the security situation (especially in the Sinai); and the return of Egypt’s reputation as a major pragmatic, moderate power, able to exert influence across the region in the way it did prior to 2011.

Project for Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

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