Egypt may be beginning to emerge from its self-imposed strategic seclusion.
Since its revolution in 2011, Egypt has not been punching its weight in regional balances of power. It has to a large extent abdicated its claim to leadership of the Arab world, leaving it to the less experienced, but more eager, hands of the Saudi and Emirati Crown Princes (who also bankrolled and helped orchestrate the mass movement and the military intervention against the elected Muslim Brotherhood government, and President ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi’s rise to power). We are now seeing the first indications that this may be changing, and that Egypt may be beginning to emerge from its self-imposed seclusion. This is due to a combination of achievements in the internal arena, as well as significant developments for Egypt – some of them worrisome, other positive from Cairo’s point of view – in its immediate surroundings.
On the domestic side, two weeks ago, Egyptians voted in a snap referendum for constitutional amendments approved less than three days earlier by the Parliament. Among other things, it extends the president’s term for four to six years and restricts the president to two terms; buttressed the military’s role in politics and internal security, re-established a presidentially-appointed upper house (Senate) to the Parliament; and increased presidential control over the judiciary. Most importantly, a specific amendment extends Sisi’s current second four-year term to six years and allows him to run for another six-year term in 2024. After his expected re-election then, he will be President until 2030, a seventeen year reign.
This does not end Sisi’s preoccupation with arranging domestic order and combatting internal threats – especially, pulverizing the defeated Muslim Brotherhood and fighting IS-affiliated jihadists in Sinai. Still, his concerns may now be relaxed significantly, now that the “head that wears the crown” lies more easily.
The shoring-up of Sisi’s political position and guarantee of his hold on power, comes at a time of potentially destabilizing developments in Egypt’s immediate surroundings, including on two of the country’s three land borders (Sudan and Libya), as well as in the second (Sudan) and the third (Algeria) largest Arab states. These touch directly on Egyptian interests and national security, and bring him to a more activist and influential policy, enabled and encouraged by his domestic success.
Serendipitously, Sisi is the Chair of the African Union from February 2019 to February 2020 (a triumph, since Egypt was suspended from the organization for a year after Sisi took power in 2013), a position that is affording him even more weight in orchestrating the regional response to the developments. Notably, he convinced the AU to extend its deadline on Sudan’s Transitional Military Council’s handing over power to a civilian government from 15 days to three months, thus allowing it breathing space to “gets its political ducks in a row”. He has also urged the AU to support Khalifa Haftar’s NLA in Libya.
It is worth noting that events on its third land border, between Sinai and Gaza and Israel, have since 2011 engaged Cairo deeply, due to their association with jihadist attacks on Egyptians, and Egypt’s position as the “gatekeeper to Gaza”. Cairo serves as a crucial interlocutor between Israel and Hamas and in this area, at least, has all along remained an important regional, and to some extent international, player.
In both Sudan and Algeria, the situation is poised in a moment where the military leadership is the arbiter of the future developments after dethroning a long-serving dictator in reply to massive popular pressure on the streets. This is a uniquely “Egyptian” moment, and tracks the 2011 developments in Cairo closely. Both sides in both internal struggles – as well as their external supporters, in Riyadh, Doha, Abu Dhabi and Ankara – are well aware of the Egyptian precedent, where the military stepped in to “preserve order,” and halted possible process towards significant political change. The regime in Egypt now has an opportunity to shape analogous regimes on its borders and in its region, or, if not, to face either successful models of transition to more representative regimes, or chaos, neither of which will serve its interests. The activists and demonstrators in Khartoum understand this, and publicly express great suspicion and distrust towards Cairo.
Meanwhile, in Libya it has been Egypt’s ally (or rather, client?), Khalifa Haftar who had been making significant gains in recent weeks, closing in on Tripoli and consolidating the rule of the Libyan national Army (LNA) over much of the country. Given the need to control the Egyptian-Libyan border area in the east (Cyrenaica), and to roll back the power of the Muslim Brotherhood within the internationally recognized government in the west (Tripolitania), it comes as no surprise that Egypt was determined to intervene and help Haftar gain ground: so far, quite successfully. Egypt and its allies apparently see a possibility of ending years of ineffective divided rule and chaos by military conquest and then, presumably, military-based authoritarian rule.
Sisi has not in recent years agreed with the Saudi preoccupation, or even obsession, with Iran: in fact, Egypt has reportedly informed its allies in recent weeks that it will not be participating in the anti-Iranian Middle East Security Alliance (known as “the Arab NATO”) being promoted by the American National Security Council, a development which will make this already shaky project even more so. Sisi has also kept his distance from Abu Dhabi and Riyadh’s adventure in Yemen, and spent the past six years in disagreement with their policies regarding the Assad regime.
However, with the possible beginning of the “second phase” of Arab uprisings in Algeria and Sudan, he and they have returned to read from the same playbook. They are together back in the situation they faced in 2011/2013, when popular movements brought down authoritarian regimes and threatened to create new liberal, or at least popular, political arrangements. There is also the threat that more democratic politics in Algeria and Sudan could increase the political power of Islamists. On opposing this, all three can agree.
Sisi has also met with significant success in his relations with the United States. Not only did his visit to the White House (9 April) result in what looks like a major change in American policy in Libya, shifting it to support Haftar rather than the government in Tripoli; it also led President Trump to voice support for listing the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. Egypt already cooperates closely with Russia – with which relations under Sisi have quietly flourished in general – on Libya and specifically on support for Haftar. The achievement of support by both Washington and Moscow for his preferred policy is a significant achievement for Sisi and his Gulf allies. It also offers another example, alongside the decision to withdraw US troops from Syria – following a phone conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – of the efficacy of personal diplomacy vis-à-vis President Donald Trump in changing the vector of US policy.
Geopolitically, the locus of Middle East developments has, for now, shifted to the Western half of the Arab world (Sudan, Libya, Algeria, Gaza), where Egypt has direct and vital interests, is still the predominant regional power, and enjoys significant advantages. This seems to be the moment in which events combine to both enable and compel Egypt to bestir itself and, at least partly, step back into its historic role, at least among its near neighbors.
JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.