Egypt’s Role in Arab Politics: Punching Below its Weight

For decades, Egypt figured prominently in every discussion of power politics in the Middle East. Egypt’s diplomatic activism and occasional military forays (such as the division-strength force dispatched to Saudi Arabia to support Operation Desert Storm to drive Iraq out of Kuwait in 1991) were vital to enforcing and maintaining the status quo. The United States sought counsel and assistance from long-time President Hosni Mubarak on all important issues, such as Palestinian-Israeli peace. Egypt’s convening powers and excellent relations with all parties proved helpful, such as arriving at the Oslo Accords of 1993 and addressing the “Al-Aqsa” intifada seven years later. By the start of the 21st century, Egypt’s influence as a regional arbiter was at a high-water mark.

The first signs of change began to appear in the early to mid-2000s, when mounting human rights concerns and political repression led to increasing political discontent. The government’s seeming inability to improve the Egyptian economy by generating growth and employment compounded the problem. By the time the Arab Spring struck Egypt in full force in 2011, concerns in Washington about the continuing value of the alliance, while muted, were beginning to grow. Simultaneously, Egypt’s ability to live up to expectations as a force for stability and to exert the influence it once did among Arab states was coming into question.

Today, that influence is on a downward trajectory as Egypt’s focus turns to domestic problems, leaving something of a vacuum on the Arab stage. This has serious implications not only for Egypt’s future as a regional power, but for its relationship with the United States.

The Heydays of Influence

Egypt’s regional role and influence have long stemmed from its status as the most populous Arab country, its geostrategic position at the nexus of Africa and Asia, and, not least, its rich history and enormous cultural influence within the Arab world. Under Gamal Abdel Nasser (1952-70), Egypt also had an inspiring story to tell the rest of the Arab world, including the overthrow of the monarchy and the last vestiges of colonialism as well as helping to lead the Non-Aligned Movement. Egypt also developed strong relations with a powerful foreign patron, the Soviet Union, which helped build the country into a regional military and economic power and magnified its influence on the world stage. The defeat in the 1967 war with Israel dimmed Egypt’s star, but it continued to play a major political role beyond its own borders.

Nasser’s successor as president, Anwar Sadat (1970-81), flipped the script once more. He ejected Soviet military and civilian advisers in 1971, redeemed Egypt’s military reputation in the 1973 war with Israel, realigned Egypt with the West, and signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. This last step cemented Egypt’s relationship with a powerful new foreign patron, the United States, securing military assistance totaling $1.3 billion annually and access to advanced technology and training. Egypt’s military institution is arguably the most powerful in the Arab world today. Egypt once again was able to present a persuasive narrative to the Arab world—reborn international relevance, increased diplomatic throw-weight, and economic re-energization and restructuring.

Hosni Mubarak’s accession as president upon Sadat’s assassination in 1981 ushered in a period of relatively quiet stability during which Mubarak consolidated Egypt’s role as the pre-eminent Arab player on issues of war and peace in the region.

However, economic stagnation and political sclerosis toward the end of the Mubarak period paved the way for the collapse of the regime in the Arab Spring revolutions of 2011. In the political reordering that followed, Egypt once again, though briefly, had a compelling story to tell about what other Arab countries potentially could become: the stirring possibility of government accountability, respect for human rights, and meaningful electoral politics. Egypt held its first free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections in 2012 that brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power. However, in a reversal of democratic development, President Mohammed Morsi was toppled in 2013 by the armed forces, to be succeeded after an interregnum by the leader of the coup, General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, who was formally anointed as president in a dubious national election in 2014.

Today Egypt finds itself mired in a period of counterrevolutionary stagnation, beset by deep economic woes, dependence on outside financial assistance, and political and national misdirection. A vicious battle against a rising internal terrorist threat from the so-called Islamic State (IS) and its affiliates primarily in the Sinai Peninsula but also elsewhere in the country, has combined with worsening repression and human rights abuses to leave Egypt rudderless and inwardly focused. Preoccupied with its own problems, contemporary Egypt has little inspiration to offer others in the region, which has affected the country’s trust in itself and its role among its neighbors.

Limiting Foreign Policy to the “Near Abroad”

Egyptian foreign policy today has essentially assumed a defensive crouch and narrowed its once expansive regional ambitions to focus on security threats, mainly from Islamist extremism. Efforts to exert influence and counter perceived challenges are mainly concentrated on the country’s immediate neighbors.

In Libya, President Sisi appears focused on shoring up his chief local ally, General Khalifa Haftar, in his fight against various Islamist militant groups, which Egypt deems a threat to its own security. In support of this objective, Egypt has carried out a number of airstrikes against militant targets, most notably in May 2017 after terrorist attacks on Coptic Christians and their places of worship. Beyond attacking armed groups in Libya, which may or may not have connections to IS, and politically supporting Haftar, Cairo does not appear to be a meaningful player in broader international efforts to stabilize its western neighbor.

To the south, Egypt’s relations with Sudan have deteriorated sharply, mainly over territorial and security issues, although the two countries have traditionally been staunch allies. Cairo also keeps a wary eye on Ethiopia, where the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam has given rise to fears that Addis Ababa may soon be able to decrease Egypt’s supply of Nile water, despite a 2015 Declaration of Principles governing the dam’s operation signed by Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan. The dispute had reportedly prompted Egypt and Eritrea to come to a secret agreement earlier this year allowing Cairo to construct a naval base on Eritrea’s Nora Island to provide a military option in case ongoing discussions over the dam go sour. (Egypt denied the existence of such plans).

Similarly, Egypt’s relations with the Hamas government in Gaza went into a deep freeze for some time. Cairo had accused Hamas of supporting Egyptian militants and permitting them safe haven in Gaza, presenting a serious complication for the Egyptian military’s fight against IS in Sinai. Hamas’s pledge to construct a security buffer along the Gaza-Egypt border has eased some of the strain and may lead to more improvement down the road. Still at issue are Egyptian demands that Hamas turn over Egyptian militants alleged to be residing in Gaza, and Hamas’s insistence that Egypt permit greater movement of people and goods through the Rafah border crossing. On the other hand, ongoing Egyptian intercession in a reconciliation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority and Cairo’s latest moves to ease living conditions in the Gaza Strip may open previously closed doors for cooperation.

The Gulf Steps In

As Egypt’s sphere of influence has shrunk, others have stepped in to try to fill the vacuum. Both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have increasingly asserted themselves in the last several years as self-styled leaders in the fight against Islamist extremism and primary counterweights to Iran. To the extent that Egypt does play a role in broader regional affairs nowadays, it does so mainly as more of a proxy promoted by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have jointly provided tens of billions of dollars in financial assistance to Egypt since the 2013 coup. Moreover, President Sisi did all he could to influence the transfer of two Saudi Arabia-claimed islands, Tiran and Sanafir, to the Kingdom despite overwhelming popular objection to the idea. Egypt is even indebted to the UAE for the latter’s paying for the work of a public relations firm in Washington, DC.

President Sisi was a featured player at the American-Arab-Islamic Summit in Riyadh last May, where he was memorably photographed clutching a glowing orb with President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabian King Salman bin Abdelaziz at the inauguration of the new Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology. Both the photo-op and the summit served their purpose—highlighting Saudi Arabia’s role as the chief bulwark against terrorism and Iran, as well as Egypt’s utility in a supporting role. For Cairo, however, despite the optics at the summit, the counterterrorism struggle remains mostly confined to its own borders, and it has few practical assets to bring to bear beyond Sinai.

Egypt finds itself in a similar position with regard to Arab efforts at military coordination; a concept that has achieved higher prominence since the Trump Administration broached the idea of forming an “Arab NATO” with key regional partners. Although in 2015 Sisi himself proposed creating an Arab military alliance––an idea eventually endorsed by the League of Arab States––Egypt has done little to advance the idea beyond moral support. It was left to Saudi Arabia to begin organizing a 41-nation Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism in late 2015. Similarly, in terms of partnering with others in the region’s conflicts, Egypt has essentially brought nothing to the table. It has opposed outside intervention in Syria and Libya (except, presumably, in the case of its own intervention in the latter). Cairo has likewise stayed clear of the Saudi Arabia-led war in Yemen. Rising domestic protests against the Sisi regime’s economic policies may make increased foreign involvement politically impossible anyway. In any case, although Egypt has sought to portray itself as a major player in broader Arab counterterrorism and military efforts, its actual role is much diminished.

The American Effect on Egypt’s Retreat

American-Egyptian relations are no longer what they used to be. Tensions between the Obama Administration and the Sisi government over the 2013 coup and subsequent massive human rights abuses led to a cooling of the relationship; Sisi was pointedly not invited to the White House during the administration’s tenure. In comparison, President Trump initially appeared to be enamored of Sisi––with the latter’s tough-guy image and hardline stance on Islamist terrorism––once calling him “a fantastic guy” with whom he agrees “on so many things.” However, disagreements on human rights violations and suppression of civil society in Egypt led the Trump Administration to deny Egypt $95.7 million in military aid in August, and suspend another $195 million until these concerns are addressed. Egypt’s ongoing military relationship with North Korea—another factor in the aid-trimming decision—has contributed to the downturn in relations. Reports of an August 2017 seizure in the Suez Canal of a North Korean shipment of rocket propelled-grenades destined for the Egyptian armed forces only serves to underscore the problem.

Egypt’s importance to American military operations in the Middle East has declined relative to its apex at the height of US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then, expedited overflight clearances and Suez Canal transits were at a premium. Now, with the American military not as involved as it once was, the United States can afford some distancing from Cairo while Washington looks to cozy up to strident leaders in the Gulf who are now seen as more pivotal regional players. The longer this dynamic continues, the less likely that Egypt will be viewed as a top-tier power among Arab states.

Propositions for US Policy toward Egypt

The Trump Administration has declared its admiration for President Sisi’s government and values him as a partner against terrorism, two important considerations in the policymaking community and among many members of Congress. But given that the administration has also signaled unmistakably that all is not well in the US-Egypt relationship, there are some essential questions that require well-reasoned answers. Is Egypt as important to maintaining regional stability as it once was? Is it still a reliable partner, and what is the relationship’s present value to the United States? Importantly, is the American aid package, as currently configured, useful in achieving US goals toward Egypt and the region?

This suggests at a minimum that the administration conduct its own fresh review of the US-Egypt bilateral relationship that would centered on a serious cost-benefit analysis, carefully taking into account its utility in the current threat environment and what capabilities Egypt can contribute to facing challenges. The US military assistance package to Egypt should thus be tailored accordingly, in terms of the size of the package and the weapons systems purchased since they may no longer be appropriate under the changing circumstances of threat perceptions in the Middle East.

The administration would also do well to avoid a too-close embrace of President Sisi since that may prove unwise given rising levels of discontent and protests inside Egypt. By the same token, public rhetoric should be more nuanced and reflect concern for the basic dignity, rights, and liberties of all Egyptians.

Most importantly, if the United States hopes to see Egypt regroup and play a more active regional role, it better realize that it can only do so if it puts its own domestic affairs in order. The United States must therefore encourage the Egyptian government to focus intensively on improving daily economic life for ordinary Egyptians, ease its iron grip on politics, and protect and improve human rights. Only then can Egypt make real progress in addressing its problems, including extremism and terrorism, and once again begin to assume a position of real influence in the Arab world.