Egypt takes centre stage in West Asian affairs

Most important developments in West Asia are increasingly revealing an Egyptian fingerprint. Egypt’s diplomats and intelligence officers recently negotiated the end of the 11-day Israel-Palestine conflict, with the new Israeli government looking to Egypt to manage the turbulent cauldron of Gaza. Turkey, which has been hostile to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for the coup in July 2013, when he overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo headed by President Mohammed Morsi, is anxious to reopen relations.

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Egypt, after long years of neglect, has now become active in re-engaging with its neighbours in Africa, with substantial economic and defence partnership agreements. Finally, Egypt, with Iraq and Jordan, announced in Baghdad at the end of June that a new tripartite grouping of these West Asian States had been set up, proclaiming the advent of al-Sham al-Jadid, the “New Levant”.

Political, economic changes
Just a few years ago, after the overthrow of the country’s first democratically elected government, Egypt survived with a $12 billion aid package from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Kuwait. These West Asian deposits were supplemented by grants in 2013-14 for the import of petroleum products, valued at another $16 billion.

West Asian politics was also largely influenced by the active role of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in Syria, Yemen and Libya. Egypt found itself a reluctant partner in these ventures, though it was low key in Yemen and maintained ties with the Assad government in Damascus. In Libya, it was pushed into a more active role to confront the Tripoli-based administration, but here, too, it refused to deploy troops in the country.

Egypt’s role in the blockade of Qatar from June 2017, initiated by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, was also relatively lukewarm. Egypt allowed Qatari LNG to pass through the Suez Canal, while Qatar made no effort to dilute its investments in Egypt or order the repatriation of 2,50,000 Egyptian workers in the country.

The failure of Saudi Arabia and the UAE to achieve any success in their military interventions, or in the blockade of Qatar, has opened the space for Egypt to regain the influence it has traditionally enjoyed in Arab counsels. This has been greatly facilitated by the good management of its economy through difficult times. Economic reforms from 2015 finally provided foreign exchange reserves of $40 billion by 2018 and a growth rate of 5.6% in 2019.

The instrument that Egypt is using to assert its diverse interests in a complex and conflictual region is not military force, but diplomacy.

Regional challenges
The principal challenge that Egypt presently faces relates to Ethiopia’s plan to construct the “Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam” (GERD) on the Blue Nile. Egypt fears this project could restrict its access to the waters of the Nile, the source of 95% of its fresh water. Seeing the project as an “existential threat”, Egyptian officials have said that “all options” are on the table. However, Egypt has actually embarked on robust diplomatic engagements in its African neighbourhood, with defence agreements with the “ring countries” around Ethiopia — Sudan, Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda and Kenya — to safeguard its interests.

Ethiopia has initiated its own diplomatic effort in the Horn of Africa by firming up ties with Somalia, Eritrea and South Sudan. In response, Egypt has agreed to build a major dam and hydropower project in Tanzania, so that the latter will compete with Ethiopia in the export of power in the region. At the end of June, Egypt wrote to the UN Security Council seeking international intervention on the dam issue; it said that, with this effort, “we will have exhausted all the peaceful means”.

Egypt’s other challenge is relations with Turkey. The two countries met at the deputy Foreign Minister level in Cairo in early May and discussed the issues that divide them: Libya and the East Mediterranean. In Libya, Turkey has deployed about 500 soldiers and another 2,000 fighters from its militia in Syria in support of the Tripoli-based authority. Egypt and the UAE have so far backed the Tobruk-based administration and supported the rival Libyan force, led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, with weaponry and mercenaries. In March 2021, an interim government of National Unity was formed that brings together the two rival administrations in one national order until elections are held in December this year. But this arrangement is still fragile, and competitions for power between the Tripoli and Tobruk-based rivals are ongoing.

Libya’s peace process demands that foreign troops leave the country. Though the Syrian militants have started leaving, Turkey asserts that its own soldiers have been invited by the government and is showing no signs of withdrawing them, while Russia insists that withdrawal of foreign troops will be a “step-by-step” process so that a power balance is maintained. In the East Mediterranean, Egypt, with other littoral partners, has delineated energy claims in the sea which conflict with Turkey’s claims. With neither side willing to compromise, there are serious fears of conflict. On July 3, Egypt affirmed its interest in Libya by inaugurating a new naval base close to the Libyan border.

Coalition for cooperation
The just-announced tripartite coalition of Egypt, Iraq and Jordan is clearly an attempt by the partners to broaden their regional engagements: Iraq would like to free itself from the Iranian grip and expand ties with its Arab neighbours. Jordan is unhappy with the recent Saudi role in trying to topple King Abdullah and replace him with a disgruntled half brother, Prince Hamza. Egypt views the partnership as an opportunity to move beyond its traditional dependence on Saudi Arabia and the UAE and assert its own leadership in the region.

Together, the partners constitute a near-contiguous land mass, with a total population of 150 million and considerable domestic agricultural and industrial capacity. They are looking at extensive cooperation in energy connectivity and reconstruction areas. Membership is open and, later, Syria and Lebanon could also join this group.

The outlook
While Egypt’s diplomacy has already placed it in the vanguard of regional affairs, it also faces serious challenges. As of now, Ethiopia is not budging on GERD, raising fears of a military confrontation.

At home, due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, unemployment has increased, recovery has been slow, and the percentage of workers without adequate income has gone up from 55% to nearly 75%. The poverty rate is still 2% higher than in 2015, when reforms had started. Further deterioration in the economy could compel Egypt to seek assistance from the Gulf States, which would dilute its independent posture in regional affairs.

Again, under the country’s stringent counterterrorism laws, tens of thousands of government critics are in detention. During the election campaign, Joe Biden, now U.S. President, had promised that there would be “no more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favourite dictator’”, a reference to al-Sisi. However, it remains to be seen if the U.S. will actually go through with this.

As of now, Egypt is riding high. The Egyptian President recently revamped the museum of ancient history in Cairo and presided over parades of mummies of former Egyptian pharaohs as they moved to their new home. Perhaps, he feels a kinship with those old rulers who had brought Egypt so much glory all those centuries ago.

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Talmiz Ahmad is a former Indian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE, and Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune