How revolutionary is Egypt’s post-revolution foreign policy?

Egyptian foreign policy has experienced something of a revolution since President Hosni Mubarak’s unceremonious departure on February 11 of this year — or has it? After decades of taking its cues from Washington, Egypt’s foreign-policy elite — led until recently by Nabil El-Arabi, the newly appointed secretary-general of the Arab League — is supposedly dispensing ...

Ty McCormick
Ty McCormick
Ty McCormick

Egyptian foreign policy has experienced something of a revolution since President Hosni Mubarak's unceremonious departure on February 11 of this year -- or has it? After decades of taking its cues from Washington, Egypt's foreign-policy elite -- led until recently by Nabil El-Arabi, the newly appointed secretary-general of the Arab League -- is supposedly dispensing with old conventions and pursuing a more independent and domestically popular regional strategy.

The first indication that Egyptian revolutionary spirit had boiled over into the foreign-policy arena came in late March, when El-Arabi welcomed a Hamas delegation to the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, commencing discussions about opening the Rafah border with Gaza and a potential reconciliation deal between Hamas and Fatah, the more moderate Palestinian party led by Mahmoud Abbas.

Hamas, which has so far refused to recognize Israel's right to exist, is on the U.S. State Department list of foreign terrorist organizations and has proved a vexing problem for peace negotiators in the United States and Israel.

Egyptian foreign policy has experienced something of a revolution since President Hosni Mubarak’s unceremonious departure on February 11 of this year — or has it? After decades of taking its cues from Washington, Egypt’s foreign-policy elite — led until recently by Nabil El-Arabi, the newly appointed secretary-general of the Arab League — is supposedly dispensing with old conventions and pursuing a more independent and domestically popular regional strategy.

The first indication that Egyptian revolutionary spirit had boiled over into the foreign-policy arena came in late March, when El-Arabi welcomed a Hamas delegation to the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, commencing discussions about opening the Rafah border with Gaza and a potential reconciliation deal between Hamas and Fatah, the more moderate Palestinian party led by Mahmoud Abbas.

Hamas, which has so far refused to recognize Israel’s right to exist, is on the U.S. State Department list of foreign terrorist organizations and has proved a vexing problem for peace negotiators in the United States and Israel.

Nonetheless, Egypt brokered a historic unity deal between Hamas and Fatah on May 4, and by May 28, it had opened the Rafah border crossing, ostensibly easing Israel’s blockade of Gaza. "We are opening a new page," said Ambassador Menha Bakhoum, spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry, in an interview with the New York Times. "Egypt is resuming its role that was once abdicated."

El-Arabi also put possible rapprochement with Iran — at odds with Cairo since the 1979 Islamic Revolution — front and center before replacing presidential hopeful Amr Moussa as secretary-general of the Arab League this June.

"Egypt has turned a page with every country in the world," said El-Arabi in an interview with the Washington Post. "They [Iran] are not an enemy. If you want me to say it — Iran is not an enemy. We have no enemies. Anywhere."

El-Arabi proceeded to meet with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi at the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) in Bali, and a delegation of 50 Egyptian intellectuals and clerics was dispatched to Tehran as a show of goodwill.

But analysts remain skeptical about the real extent of Egypt’s foreign-policy shift. Michele Dunne, director of the Atlantic Council’s new Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, told FP that there has been some "change in approach, but the degree of change is less than what is being reported." In particular, Egypt’s new Palestinian policy is hardly discernible from Mubarak’s old policy.

"It is pretty much the same deal that former Intelligence Director Omar Suleiman proposed in October of 2009," Dunne said of the supposedly radical unity deal between Hamas and Fatah. The only difference, according to Dunne, was that Hamas rejected the deal at that time, primarily because it enjoyed stronger backing from Syria than it does now.

David Schenker, director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, had a similar view. "This is about making a perceived distance between Cairo and Washington," he said.

"The movement of Palestinians into Egypt has been minuscule by design," he continued, dismissing the idea that Egypt’s other bold move, the Rafah border opening, was more than a symbolic gesture.

Both analysts agreed, moreover, that real movement toward Iranian rapprochement is extremely unlikely. In Schenker’s words, "The military still has a traditional view of Iran — that it is a subversive force in the Middle East. As long as the military is in charge, I don’t see Egypt’s relations [with Iran] moving forward in a meaningful way."

Saudi Arabia, which recently pledged $4 billion in aid to Egypt, is another reason that Egyptian relations with Iran probably won’t warm up too quickly. According to Dunne, such aid is "probably based on an understanding that Egypt won’t get too close to Iran."

And soft loans are not the only weapons in Saudi Arabia’s arsenal: Hundreds of thousands of Egyptian ex-patriots work in the Persian Gulf, remitting between $7 billion and $9 billion annually to Egypt. Should an inspired Egyptian government stray too far into Iran’s orbit, it is certainly possible that these laborers would be sent home to join the swollen ranks of Egypt’s unemployed.

So how much different is the foreign policy of Egypt’s ruling military junta from that of tried-and-trusted Hosni Mubarak? Substantively, it’s not much different, though it has certainly been dressed in revolutionary garb.

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