Is Egypt back in the Arab driver’s seat?

June 2021

Egypt disappeared from the Middle East after the 2011 Arab Spring. Well, the term “disappeared” is perhaps too strong, but it certainly adopted a lower profile. Anyone accustomed to Egypt’s leading role in the Arab world, not just under Gamal Abdel Nasser, was forced to accept the fact that Egypt had become just another actor, while the rich oil-producing Gulf countries assumed leading regional roles. From an Egyptian standpoint, it was frustrating to see small Gulf states stealing the show from Umm al-Dunya, “Mother of the World,” as the Egyptians call their country.

It’s hard to pinpoint when that shift began, but a possible turning point was the February 2019 establishment of the Cairo-based regional gas forum comprised of Egypt, Israel, Greece, Cyprus, Italy, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.

Israel’s May 2021 military operation in Gaza provided Egypt with yet another opportunity to bolster its standing in the region by mediating with Hamas. Egypt had always played a key role in Israel-Hamas mediation, even under president Morsi, providing Israel with leeway when it wanted to, for example, during the 2014 Operation Protective Edge, and reining it in when it sought a speedy end to the fighting. Either way, Egypt was instrumental in achieving ceasefires and humanitarian aid.

Egypt’s involvement in Gaza is understandable. First, because the enclave lies along its border and is a potential powder keg threatening the stability of the region, in general, and specifically of Egypt. Second, it allows the administration to portray itself as a regional leader on a key Middle Eastern issue. Just as important, the mediation provides Sisi with a seal of approval in Washington, where the Biden administration is intent on reining in regimes violating human rights. Two phone calls by Biden to Sisi during the fighting in Gaza made him flavor of the month. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken also conducted visits to Cairo, Jerusalem, Ramallah and Amman. Egypt continued to lead the mediation with Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry visiting Amman and Ramallah, whereas the head of military intelligence, Abbas Kamel, is actively trying to paper over differences among Israel, the PA and Hamas.

The Gaza operation also resulted in a warming of Egyptian-Israeli relations. Not only did it strengthen bilateral security ties, it also raised the diplomatic relationship to a new level with a visit by Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, the first by an Israeli foreign minister in 13 years.

THE GAZA operation also prompted a surprising warming of Egypt’s relations with Qatar. Back in January, Egypt, along with the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Jordan lifted its three-and-a-half year boycott of Qatar and renewed diplomatic ties with the monarchy. The crisis in Gaza provided an opportunity to dispatch Qatar’s foreign minister to Egypt to discuss his country’s future role in Gaza, not before he pledged a variety of investments in Egypt.

Sisi was also honored with an invitation by Qatar’s ruler to visit his country. The operation in Gaza and the Egyptian mediation thus provided Egypt with an opportunity to renew its active role in the Gulf arena. In light of Qatar’s continued support to the Muslim Brotherhood, it still remains to be seen whether an Egyptian-Qatari full rapprochement is in the offing.

While Gaza took up most of the headlines, Egyptian foreign policy has also become more pronounced in other arenas. One arena is Libya. Egypt supported Gen. Khalifa Haftar and his government in Tobruk, but since the government of national unity was established in Tripoli with UN support, Egypt has shifted its support and even hosted the new prime minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh. From now on, Libyan forces backed by Turkey and Qatar will no longer constitute a threat on Egypt’s western border. The recent opening between Turkey and Egypt also signals agreements and understandings on several contentious issues that soured their relationship: Libya and the attitude toward the Muslim Brotherhood.

Egypt’s growing activity in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea arena is just as interesting. Ethiopia’s construction of the Renaissance Dam prompted Egypt to warm its ties with Uganda, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Tanzania and recently even with Djibouti. In fact, Sisi visited tiny Djibouti on May 27. Egypt has also signed defense agreements with the Nile River countries: Uganda, Kenya, Burundi and Sudan. In November 2020, it joined the Red Sea Council representing Djibouti, Eritrea, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen. All these moves were designed not only to challenge Ethiopia’s regional ambitions, but also to demonstrate Egypt’s standing in the Red Sea and Bab al-Mandab Strait.

Does the Egyptian activism signal a sea change? It is too soon to tell. One must not forget that regional leadership is acquired with political, economic, military and demographic capital. Egypt has in recent years built a large army, although the extent of its readiness is in doubt judging by its handling of the Islamic State challenge in the Sinai. Egypt’s economy is in tatters following the coronavirus pandemic and absence of tourism, whereas demographic growth poses a heavy economic burden. All these factors do not augur success for Egypt in resuming its historic regional standing, but its renewed energies could turn it into what the late Egyptian journalist Hassanein Heikal once termed a “key state.”

**The article was published on The Jerusalem Post, 20 June 2021

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