Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Egypt redefines its sense of regional purpose

In recent years, Egypt has paid a high price for two developments. The first was the uprising against Hosni Mubarak in 2011, which set dynamics in motion that transformed the country and created ongoing instability. The second was the transformation of Egypt’s regional role thanks to the Obama administration’s pivot away from the Middle East.

Today the country is facing major challenges: a burgeoning terrorist threat, particularly in the Sinai; a vulnerable economy, thanks in part to the decline in tourism amid a perception that the country is unsafe; and uncertainty about Egypt’s regional function.

To be fair to Abdel Fattah El Sisi, however, the decline in Egypt’s regional influence predated his coming to power. Under Mr Mubarak there was already a crisis of confidence because the issues through which Egypt gained regional status, such as Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, terrorism, and Egypt’s role as a cornerstone of the American alliance system in the Middle East, had become less of a priority.

When Mr El Sisi took power, he was backed by Gulf allies who shared Cairo’s opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood. Other priorities have complicated the picture since then, including the Saudi-led coalition’s campaign in Yemen and the potential impact of developments in Syria on Egyptian security.

The reversal over Syria has been a useful indicator of how Mr El Sisi has pursued Egyptian interests, even if this leads him away from his traditional allies.

The Egyptian fear may be understandable. Mr El Sisi is concerned that a victory by jihadis in Syria might embolden those in Egypt. Nor are the Egyptians alone. Jordan is equally concerned by the prospect of Jabhat Al Nusra or ISIL taking over in Syria, which is why it has prevented opposition groups in the south from mounting attacks against Damascus.

The agendas of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are different to those of Egypt and Jordan, despite official exclamations of cooperation and the fact that all are united in opposing Iran. This tells us much about how the region has changed in five years, as state interaction is being shaped by a far more complex array of interests.

Domestically, Mr El Sisi has used the backlash against former president Mohammed Morsi to reimpose strong political control. This has not been without consequences. A crackdown against journalists, for instance, provoked international outrage, even if this was later tempered after a rise in terrorist attacks pushed governments to take a softer line with Mr El Sisi.

Egypt has also had to redefine its sense of regional purpose in light of the Obama administration’s radical shift away from the Middle East. The Egyptian armed forces never forgave the US for supporting the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government.

Barack Obama’s utter inaction in helping find a resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was a blow to Egypt, as it had always played a vital mediating role in negotiations. In fact, under Mr Obama the Americans have shown little regard for Egypt’s previous standing as a leading American ally.

While Mr Obama did speak to the Muslim world from Cairo in June 2009, he did so first from Ankara, where he addressed the Turkish parliament. In the past American officials had tended to make Egypt one of their first stops on trips to the region. Under Mr Obama, Turkey and Iraq were, while the Cairo visit came only two months later. More important, the president never returned.

Egypt reacted to this sense of relative marginalisation by improving its relationship with Russia, which has astutely exploited Arab anger with America’s negligent attitude. Russia has supplied Egypt with weapons and Mr El Sisi and Vladimir Putin have met on numerous occasions.

It’s difficult to see where this might lead, but Russia has re-entered the Middle East’s centre stage after almost two decades of being pushed to the sidelines by the United States. Egypt and Syria may anchor new Russian affirmation in the region, but for now the distinct sense is that Mr El Sisi, facing major domestic obstacles, is still working hard to get Egypt’s reinvention right.

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