From Gaza to Libya to Iraq, Egypt's new strongman is developing a foreign policy based on repression and stability.
- By Michael Wahid Hanna Michael Wahid Hanna is a fellow at the Century Foundation.
Once again, Israeli and Palestinian diplomats are in Cairo. This time, though, the two sides won’t even talk to each other. Instead, Egyptians shuttle back and forth between individual meetings, playing a high-stakes game of telephone. A short-term cease-fire is secured, for now. The pursuit of a longer-term truce continues.
The Egyptians should be seen as an unreliable mediator. Even before the latest war in Gaza started, the current government in Cairo had made its antipathy toward Hamas abundantly clear. But in this recurring cycle of cease-fires and violence, Egypt remains the only realistic choice for mediation. The question is whether the Arab world’s most populous country can turn the immutable realities of geography — Egypt borders both Israel and Gaza — into a durable diplomatic success. It won’t be easy. The Egyptians will have to reach beyond coercion — their favorite tactic.
A successful negotiating process can only happen if Egypt, Israel, and Hamas set aside their zero-sum attitudes. Despite its hostility to Hamas, Egypt can still help this process along if it is willing to use its credibility with Israel to set up a realistic set of arrangements that address both Israel’s and Egypt’s legitimate security concerns and the pressing needs of the people of Gaza. If the Egyptians can accomplish that, it will be a boon for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s international credibility and the prospects for Egypt’s domestic stability.
Gaza is by far Egypt’s highest-profile foreign-policy initiative, but the region is in turmoil from Libya to Syria to Iraq. And despite Cairo’s diminished regional role in recent years, Sisi has been forced to respond: Two months into his presidency, the outlines of an emerging Egyptian foreign policy are coming into focus, with Egypt’s regional policy largely an outgrowth of its own domestic concerns about Islamism, militancy, terrorism, and instability. These concerns help explain Egypt’s ruthlessness toward Hamas and the escalating rhetoric from Cairo regarding the threat posed by chaos in Libya. Egypt’s posture in a tumultuous region echoes the nascent regime’s domestic efforts to consolidate power and reimpose repressive stability.
But the Sisi doctrine isn’t as unbending as it might appear from just looking at Gaza. When addressing Syria and Iraq, Egypt’s approach is more varied and nuanced. Beyond its borders and the unrelenting influence of its conspiracy-addled domestic politics, Egypt is able to more accurately assess threats and solutions.
At its core, Egypt has emerged as the region’s ultimate status quo country focused on anti-militancy and anti-Islamism, rejecting regime change in all its forms and firmly wedded to Arab states’ territorial integrity and fixed borders. Perhaps most interestingly, Egypt seems to have distanced itself from the Sunni vs. Shiite agenda that increasingly animates the Middle East’s conflicts. Despite long-standing animosity toward Iran, which shows no sign of diminishing, Egypt has actively pursued diplomacy with Tehran’s allies in Iraq and Syria. Sisi is showing that he cares far more about regional stability than sectarian allegiance.
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Egypt’s regional position has been in steady decline for decades, but since Israel’s evacuation of its Gaza settlements in 2005, Egypt has had an irreplaceable role in mediating between Israel and Hamas. Under former President Hosni Mubarak and now under Sisi, Egypt has never been an honest broker, but its peace treaty with Israel and its border with Gaza have made it an inevitable choice.
A constant feature of Egyptian policy — save for the one year between Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi’s election and his ouster by the military — has been an unwavering hostility toward Hamas. Since Sisi forced Morsi from power, that has only grown. The Egyptian security establishment sees Hamas as inextricably linked to Egypt’s own issues of insecurity and instability. These perceptions have hardened further in the midst of the country’s tumultuous, and aborted, post-Mubarak transition. In today’s Egypt, however, it is often a challenge to disentangle legitimate concerns from the baroque conspiracy theories that have come to dominate public discourse. Hamas doesn’t threaten Egypt’s stability to the extent that the regime claims, but Egypt does have legitimate security concerns arising from the current situation in Gaza; the porous border between Gaza and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula has long served as a conduit for arms and militants. Further stiffening the Egyptian position are the close links between Hamas and the now-banned Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
Despite ideological bonds and personal relationships, Morsi was never able to fundamentally alter Egypt’s posture toward Gaza. While Hamas leaders thought they’d secured a political sponsor and perch in Cairo, the payoff was largely deferred. The unspoken assumption when Morsi took office was that the Brotherhood would eventually shift Egypt’s approach toward Hamas and Gaza as it became more secure in its power and gradually asserted control over national security issues. This was the implicit basis of the 2012 cease-fire after the last round of conflict in Gaza, a cease-fire that was brokered by Morsi’s government and that garnered him worldwide notice. But the Egyptian security establishment’s approach to Gaza never wavered or changed.
Egypt has long sought to undermine and weaken Hamas’s power, but it has also been mindful of the limits of that policy due to Egyptians’ broad public sympathy for the Palestinian cause and a grudging acceptance that Cairo would have to deal with Hamas as the governing authority in Gaza. This approach to Hamas was shelved in the aftermath of the July 2013 military coup that effectively brought Sisi to power. Previously, Egypt understood the network of smuggling tunnels between Sinai and Gaza as a problematic but necessary lifeline for Gaza’s residents in light of the suffocating blockade. Since Morsi’s ouster, however, Egypt has undertaken an aggressive campaign to destroy the smuggling tunnels in an effort to isolate Hamas further, cripple the group’s economic power, and slow the flow of money, men, and materiel.
Egypt’s post-Morsi Gaza policy has been transparently ruthless, with the ultimate aim of producing a politically docile and malleable Hamas in Gaza by exploiting internal divisions within the organization. Egypt sees itself as the indispensable broker of last resort. Sisi and his government operated throughout the conflict in Gaza based on the belief that they had unprecedented flexibility to continue pursuing hard-line policies despite the increasing human toll.
Cairo’s belief that it could force Hamas into a corner was buttressed by its disingenuous efforts to promote a cease-fire ahead of Israel’s July 17 ground invasion. Those efforts sought a quiet-for-quiet formula for ending the violence in Gaza, but gave Hamas no concrete concessions. The initiative was undertaken without serious consultations with Hamas, which reveals Egypt’s efforts to trap the Islamists in Gaza: either agree to a humiliating surrender or face the consequences of continued Israeli assault. As the ground offensive got underway, various Egyptian officials squarely pinned blame on Hamas’s intransigence for the escalation despite the grim human costs of the conflict, in which the United Nations estimated that civilian casualties comprised at least 72 percent of the dead.
For the Egyptians, the first cease-fire initiative had two main aims, neither of which was peace in Gaza. First, the regime wanted to inoculate itself against potential criticism in the Egyptian media, particularly criticism emanating from usually friendly sources. The government also wanted to hold on to the mantle of regional broker, fending off efforts by Turkey and Qatar to project their influence, particularly as Egypt sees these countries as the major patrons of the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the region.
As cease-fire talks continued, Egypt remained steadfast in its insistence and refused to grant substantive concessions to Hamas, believing Hamas would be further weakened by the Israeli offensive and viewing Hamas’s demands for the immediate lifting of the blockade in the midst of armed conflict as a form of coercion. This approach has been a central feature of Egypt’s mediation efforts.
But Egypt’s position isn’t just about keeping Hamas weak or defending against criticism. Its leaders are also engaged in a quiet struggle with Israel over Gaza’s fate. Among the long-term concerns of the Egyptian security establishment is the possibility that unilateral steps to open the border would set a precedent that could ultimately make Gaza Egypt’s responsibility. Israeli hard-liners have often talked about a hypothetical three-state solution, which would create a Gaza statelet primarily dependent on Egypt as its link to the outside world. This kind of border revisionism is anathema to the current regime in Egypt, which is understandably loath to unilaterally shoulder the immense economic and political burden represented by the impoverished Gaza Strip.
Now Egypt faces the difficult challenge of balancing its own interests with creating more durable cease-fire arrangements. To do so, it will have to adopt a more realistic attitude to Gaza that, while taking into consideration Egyptian security interests about smuggling, recognizes the costs of the blockade and sets aside unrealizable hopes of destroying Hamas.
Egypt’s approach to Gaza over the past month has been a risky venture. Sisi’s regime has faced the possibility that it would appear to the Egyptian public to be complicit in Israeli carnage. The government also risks provoking more backlash from domestic militant groups. But Sisi has proven himself not to be risk-averse. His audacity began with his ouster of Morsi in July 2013, despite U.S. warnings about the consequences of a coup, and extended to his bloody dispersal of the Muslim Brotherhood-led protests a month later.
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There’s reason to believe that Egypt’s hard-line approach to border security, smuggling, and militancy in Gaza could extend to Libya. Recent statements by Amr Moussa, Egypt’s former foreign minister and now a rejuvenated political player and informal adviser to Sisi, have further fueled that speculation. Speaking in early August on Libya’s instability, Moussa called for a "broad public debate to sensitize public opinion to the risks, and to build the necessary support in case we have to exercise our right to self-defense." The current foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, clarified: "There is no talk about an intervention by the armed forces in Libya. The Egyptian army is only tasked with protecting the borders of the Egyptian state."
Despite this effort to tone down the rhetoric, it is clear from public pronouncements, leaks, and private conversations with Egyptian officials that Libya has emerged as a top concern. Less clear is what they think they can do about it.
Libya and Egypt share a porous 745-mile-long border. Since the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime in 2011, Libyan weapons, including advanced weaponry, have flooded into Egypt. That scares Egyptian security officials, but so does the disintegration of the Libyan state and the breakdown of law and order. Militant Islamist groups have found fertile ground in lawless Libya, a fact attested by the withdrawal of most Western diplomats from the country over the past month. A state security officer on the Egypt-Libya border told Reuters last month, "We know of three camps in the Libyan desert of Derna which are close to the Egyptian border where hundreds of militants are being trained." Egyptian officials also believe that Muslim Brotherhood members, who have been arrested in the hundreds inside Egypt, have sought refuge in Libya. The role of Islamists, and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular, in Libya’s political future will continue to be a source of disquiet for the Egyptian security establishment on ideological grounds alone.
But the prospect of a direct Egyptian military intervention into Libya is still unlikely. Egypt’s military faces its own domestic militant threats: It is actively engaged in battling a low-level insurgency in Sinai and terrorism in the Egyptian mainland. It is in no position to undertake a risky endeavor like getting involved in Libya’s multisided and ongoing civil war.
Beyond the Egyptian security establishment’s focus on border security, tracking, and interdiction on the Libya border, Cairo is more likely to become involved in Libya’s internal affairs moving forward, deepening ties to anti-Islamist forces and rekindling links with former Qaddafi regime figures. That could include diplomatic support for Egyptian allies within Libya, stepped-up intelligence sharing with favored militias, and operational coordination. Increased coordination with other countries has already begun and will likely accelerate. Egypt will also be closely monitoring the safety and status of the hundreds of thousands of Egyptian expatriates residing and working in Libya. For Egypt, the issue of Libya, like Gaza, is understood in relation to its own domestic stability. Egypt’s approach will likely be security-focused and, as with its own disastrous transition, short on politics and constructive diplomacy.
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Only when reaching beyond its own borders does the current Egyptian regime project a more balanced approach that emphasizes stability through political accommodation. But there are still fundamental similarities: an adherence to the status quo. Sisi’s Egypt seems to oppose any and all changes in regimes or borders — including to countries that aren’t necessarily allies. It’s a position focused on stability, not on advancing regional agendas.
On Syria, Egypt began staking out a more conciliatory and diplomatic approach soon after Morsi’s overthrow. Speaking in July 2013, former Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy made clear that Egypt believed that "a political solution was necessary." Emphasizing the fear of regional spillover and militancy, Fahmy sought to create distinctions between Morsi’s government and the preferred policies of some of his hard-line allies by bluntly stating that "there is no intention for jihad." This last comment was made with the rise of Egyptian foreign fighters firmly in mind, as scores of young men traveled to Syria to join the burgeoning sectarian civil war. Prior to Syria’s presidential elections on June 3, Fahmy reiterated Egypt’s support for "a political solution between the parties in the context of the content and principles of the Geneva II, regardless of the mechanisms."
Boilerplate statements on the need for political solutions to Syria’s civil war come from across the region. But in recent months, Egypt’s approach to Syria has reflected that ultimate goal, particularly as the Islamic State (IS) has metastasized on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border. With numerous Egyptians militants having joined the fight, Egypt has firmly distanced itself from the notion of regime change in Syria, and some within the security establishment go as far as to see Bashar al-Assad’s fight against IS as a common cause.
Egypt is not a central diplomatic player on Syria and it won’t become one. But Cairo’s diplomats have sought to involve themselves in behind-the-scenes diplomacy in ways that go against Saudi Arabia, Cairo’s biggest patron. Most notably, Egypt has sought to facilitate secret dialogue between moderate opposition figures and the Syrian regime. The unstated goal of this dialogue is an eventual political transition that preserves the Syrian state while bringing in opposition figures who are considered acceptable to most parties. Egypt has explicitly shunned sectarian goals on Syria and is keen to push for a re-engineered status quo that is agnostic as to the ultimate fate of Assad. Staunching the further rise of IS takes precedence over regional competition and sectarian power politics.
This pro-status quo attitude has been expressed even more bluntly and publicly when it comes to Iraq, a country that has largely been shunned by a Sunni Arab world unwilling to come to grips with the reality of a Shiite-led political order in Baghdad. Egypt’s position is particularly striking in light of the massive financial and diplomatic support the country has received from both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates since Morsi’s ouster. Even in the midst of expanding turmoil and a shared concern about the Islamic State’s momentum, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf have made no effort to mend relations with the Iraqi government. Instead, relations have continued to be strictly seen through a sectarian prism. Against this backdrop, Egypt’s outspoken positions on Iraq have been striking.
After Mosul’s fall to IS, President Sisi spoke directly with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, offering Egypt’s full support. The telephone conversation was followed by further public comments in which Sisi decried the potential for Kurdish independence and the division of Iraq. The "referendum that the Kurds are asking for now is in reality no more than the start of a catastrophic division of Iraq into smaller rival states," Sisi said. He followed up by dispatching his foreign minister to Baghdad, a signal of further support. At the heart of the foreign minister’s message was the regional threat posed by "sectarian confrontation and the spread of extremism and terrorism in the name of the Islamic religion." These diplomatic contacts came even as Iran was searching for alternatives to Maliki, who had become toxic. With Maliki’s days now numbered and Haider el-Abadi designated as his successor, Egypt’s overtures to Iraq might represent a promising pathway to mending relations with Iraq and beginning the process of regional reintegration.
Egypt’s revitalized regional policy comes at the same time that Cairo-Washington relations are more strained than they have been in decades. The Obama administration, and in particular, Secretary of State John Kerry, have attempted to mend relations with Egypt but even these efforts have been unsuccessful in light of Egypt’s deteriorating political environment. U.S. initiatives to begin mending Egypt’s political divides have often been met with fresh political repression, such as mass death sentences and the imprisonment of political activists and journalists. That has caused the United States a great deal of embarrassment.
Sisi has also been seeking to project an air of greater independence from the United States, primarily by courting Russia. Recent events have certainly damaged the U.S.-Egypt relationship, but even Sisi’s government still values the United States. While the relationship will remain colder and more fraught, neither side is willing to see a complete rupture. Instead, the focus now seems to be on issues where Washington and Cairo can more easily agree: counterterrorism and security cooperation.
Egypt’s domestic struggles will remain the regime’s focus for the immediate future. But with crisis across the region, the Sisi regime is being forced to develop a foreign policy. The one that is emerging is firmly focused on militancy and instability, and seeks to reinvigorate the regional status quo.
There’s an irony in the Sisi doctrine, though. Beyond Egypt’s immediate environment, the government has displayed a degree of realism that is exactly what has been missing from Egypt’s domestic politics since the coup a year ago. Speaking in Baghdad in July 2014, Shoukry emphasized the necessity for Iraq’s political leaders to set aside "party affiliations and personal interests and bear the serious national responsibility entrusted to them to protect Iraq and maintain its territorial integrity and unity." Shoukry’s advice to Iraq’s political class is sound. Egypt would do well to heed its own words.