EGYPT: Still a Necessary Western Ally in the Middle East

The Egyptian "Arab Spring" captured the world’s imagination. For a few weeks, it seemed that most populous Arab country, would lead – even more than Tunisia – a period of radical political and social change in Egypt. It did not. Almost seven years after the Tahrir Square revolt, Egypt finds itself ruled by an even more dictatorial (and stable) government than that of Mubarak.

How, did the Egyptian people get into this situation and will they get out?
Egypt used to be an important partner for the West. It still is, but in a different way. In the past 45 years, Egypt has gone from Soviet ally to a pillar of America’s policy in the Middle East. Now, Egypt appears to be returning to the Russian fold.

Egypt, Staunch American Ally 1970-2011
President Sadat, one of the first victims of the true political Islam (when Islamists targeted specific figures rather than random civilians), aligned the Republic of Egypt to the United States during the 1970’s. He loosened the close ties his predecessor Gamal Abdel Nasser established with the Soviet Union, sending home 20,000 Russian troops. In doing so, Sadat also, inadvertently, released the Islamist ‘genie from the bottle’, at first using members of the Muslim Brotherhood to challenge communists and secular leftist students, in universities. It was the equivalent of the American policy devised by Carter’s National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, to use Islamic Mujahedin against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

But Sadat also signed a peace deal with Israel, ‘the Camp David Accord,’ under the auspices of the United States in 1979.

The Egyptian president also showed support for Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran, who, as fate would have it, lost his ‘Peacock Throne’ in Tehran to the Islamic Revolution in the same year. In fact, the Shah is buried in Cairo. That combination fueled Islamist sentiment in Egypt in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Sadat paid for these policies with his life. Conversely, it also emboldened Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, a decorated military pilot in the 1973 Yom Kippur war of October 1973, to call a ‘state of emergency’. Peace with Israel earned Egypt several hundred million dollars of U.S. aid. Mubarak used the emergency and the need to preserve the unpopular normalization of diplomatic relations with Israel – and the aid package – to perpetuate a series of key policies that still affect Egyptians today.

The stress on security further bloated the internal security apparatus and the dreaded ‘Mukhabarat’ (secret police). The armed forces, meanwhile, took an ever more prominent role in the Egyptian economy. By the time Mubarak resigned from office (or was forced to do so) in February of 2011, the Army controlled 50-60% of the economy – with interests that extend well beyond the military sector. Predictably, such control has also led to and consolidated substantial corruption in the military ranks, including, of course Mubarak himself.

The students and young professionals, mostly from the western educated elites, who launched the anti-government protests in January and February of 2011, wanted, above all, to end the military cronyism, the de-facto military dominance of the economy and, especially, the ‘state of emergency’. The latter was one of the key demands of the ‘Arab Spring’. Indeed, the measure, adopted in 1981, was renewed over the years with the motivation to fight the threat of terrorism. It was revoked after the Mubarak regime’s fall. Yet, the current president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi re-introduced it with a vengeance. The state of emergency gives more than ample powers to the security forces; it bans the right to protest, restricts the freedoms of opinion, association and media. In other words, Egypt under al-Sisi, hasn’t changed perceptibly from Egypt under Mubarak.

The Arab Spring
The Arab Spring brought a few months of relative freedom, culminating in the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamed Morsi winning the general elections in 2012. But, the Brotherhood failed. Morsi may have allowed for greater political freedom but his leadership proved that a little freedom can be worse perhaps, even than a little authoritarianism. The result is that President al-Sisi and the Egyptian State now enjoy even more power than Mubarak. Al-Sisi has brought back the military’s economic dominance, using some infrastructure and rather ‘pharaonic’ projects – including the expansion of the Suez Canal – to reduce unemployment. Future historians might even compare al-Sisi to President Donald Trump in this sense. Al-Sisi has also been revamping the armed forces, acquiring new aircraft from France, which has become one of its key partners in the West.

Egyptians may regret the recent ‘tightening’ of their society, yet inasmuch as al-Sisi led a de-facto, if not de-jure, coup, the Egyptian people themselves wished for the ousting of the ‘democratically’ elected President Morsi.

The Muslim Brothers did win the June 2012 elections. But, the same ‘Brothers’ had not had anything to do with the anti-Mubarak revolt, symbolized by the occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo in the full-blooded pursuit of the aims of ‘the Arab Spring’ by ordinary citizens, with youth in the vanguard. In the weeks between January 20 and February 11, 2011, the Islamists were cautious, at best. They joined the revolt, but meekly, only at the end, calculating that they were far better politically organized than the others. That calculus was correct. Having been relegated to the Mosque, the Brotherhood long present, not only in the cities but in every village in the country, managed to gain a strong support base for a well-known political program. They did not have to re-invent the proverbial wheel.

That is what the secular but disjointed Tahrir Square revolutionaries had tried, but failed, to achieve.

An Election and a Coup
Despite the tremendous political advantage, Morsi’s Moslem Brotherhoood won by the slightest of margins in 2010, taking 51.3% of the vote with electoral participation at less than 50%.

In the period between the election and al-Sisi’s coup, the Brotherhood’s Government turned out to be a failure, in every important category of leadership. Economically, Morsi's priority was to focus on 'Brotherhood issues', rather than trying to improve conditions for employment and addressing the problems of the very poorest. Having become so quickly accustomed to overthrowing those who lose popular consensus through rebellion, on 30 June 2013, millions of people took to the streets against Morsi. The Brotherhood’s president made one mistake, he invoked the ‘emergency law’ and loosened the security apparatus.

Not surprisingly, understanding the difficult task ahead, al-Sisi sitting at the top of the military apparat, made sure to bring back both of those things in magnified form, which continues.

Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to suggest that Egypt was freer under Mubarak than it is under al-Sisi now. The state of emergency is therefore another move that al-Sisi wields to ensure he doesn’t depart, as Morsi had done.

Al-Sisi has exploited two deadly bombings targeting Coptic churches in Tanta and Alexandria, to further consolidate power. In an even greater way than for Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood represents a veritable nemesis for al-Sisi. He wants the world to formally recognize the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. He was hoping to achieve this after first meeting Trump at the White House. He failed there, but the Egyptian president appears to have emerged strengthened internationally after Trump has treated him as a key player on the Middle Eastern chessboard.

Regardless of the de-rigeur rhetoric from the usual suspects in Washington -and some European capitals, al-Sisi’s Egypt represents a more familiar entity for the West. There were always questions about what Morsi would do with the Camp David agreement and Israel. There has been no need to worry about al-Sisi. He has propped up the armed forces’ control of the economy to levels even beyond Mubarak’s imagination. He has also courted the West, securing major arms deals – including the purchase of Rafale military jets and an aircraft carrier, from France. Al-Sisi has made Egypt into an even more formidable partner for the West and for NATO. Without Western support for example, Cairo will have many difficulties in stabilizing next door Libya. In turn, the West, specifically Italy, Spain and France, have an interest in a stable Egypt, which they see as crucial in stabilizing Libya. But, al-Sisi has also pursued closer ties to Russia, which also backs the Russian speaking General Haftar in Libya.

Egypt, Libya, Russia and Regional Alliances
Libya happens to be one of the keys to understanding the various levels in which al-Sisi can maintain Egypt’s relevance. Both Egypt and Russia back General Haftar’s forces in Libya, favoring his government, over the one recognized by the West and led by Fayyez al-Sarraj. Illegal migration, human trafficking and the movement of terrorists in the Mediterranean are key concerns for the European Union. Egypt knows this. Thus, it’s not surprising that the Egyptian government, or certain forces within it, could torture and kill Italian researcher Giulio Regeni (in mysterious circumstances still) with relative impunity. Italy withdrew their ambassador to Cairo in 2016, only to restore his post last August, because Egypt is a key partner for Italy in the Mediterranean.

Al-Sisi was one of the first world leaders to congratulate Donald Trump after the New York real estate magnate won the U.S. presidential election of 2016. Indeed, Sisi expects much better relations with Trump’s America. Cairo's relations with the Obama administration since 2013 were terrible. The Obama White House often criticized Cairo over human rights violations, as well as al-Sisi’s management of internal politics and the war on terrorism. But, Obama was especially concerned by al-Sisi’s ties to Putin's Russia. Al-Sisi and Trump’s relations are such that Egypt can boast of being the United States’ third most important military ally in the Middle East, preceded only by Saudi Arabia – in turn preceded by Israel.

The good relations between Moscow and Cairo will be more important than those between Washington and Cairo in what is bound to be a very delicate phase. The sudden reconciliation between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas in Palestine, will facilitate a reconciliation of relations between Egypt and Turkey and Asad’s government in Syria as well. Turkey’s President Erdogan had established close ties to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi. Al-Sisi’s coup was thus a blow to relations between Ankara and Cairo.

Meanwhile, Syria has prompted Jordan to improve ties with the Assad regime, to re-open border crossings between the two countries, and then to resume diplomatic relations with the regime. Russia will no doubt, play a series of diplomatic moves to boost Syria’s President Bashar al-Asad’s legitimacy within the Arab world and beyond. Moscow’s minister of foreign affairs, Sergei Lavrov will be traveling more often to the middle east, to weave a new diplomatic chessboard. The United States have not revealed their cards yet. Trump may yet repeal the nuclear deal with Iran at Israel’s and Saudi’s behest, but the rest of the world will be doing its best to maintain it and diplomatic ties to Tehran.

Some Hope?
To facilitate this process and Syria’s gradual reintegration, Lavrov will need Egypt to play a key role in easing the division between the Gulf States and Qatar. In turn, Russia will also have to encourage better ties between Egypt and Turkey, to then tackle ‘the big one’, the diplomatic stalemate between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Of course, there are inevitably‘ unknown unknowns,’ as former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld put it.

Israel (and the U.S to some extent),. have encouraged Kurdish independence efforts, which might yet result in a prolonged war in Iraq, even Syria, which would surely involve Turkey as well.

Nonetheless. Egypt remains the largest military power in Africa and the Middle East, it has a prominent role in the Arab League and is the main obstacle to Islamic radicalism in that region They have been fighting for years a war against the local branch of the IS in the Sinaii, that has already triggered 2,000 dead, while still allowing their intelligence to gather much information about cells and foreign fighters, including those from Europe.

In addition, Cairo has an interest in preventing the IS from trying to get into Libya in territories controlled by ‘bandits’, suited to profiting from illegal trafficking – migrants included. Security co-operation between the two sides of the Mediterranean and between Europe and Egypt has become more necessary than ever. The defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria and the death of almost all of its middle eastern leaders, is shifting the axis of the Caliphate to North Africa and Sahel .and to some extent, Afghanistan

If there’s one positive development in Egypt, it has been the recovery of the tourism industry in 2017. After several years of decline, in 2017 some eight million tourists have visited the country. Egypt returns to hope for this industry, after harvesting the fruits of an encouraging summer on the inbound front. Reuters reported that the travel industry earned $3.5 billion in revenues so far, this year, marking over 170% growth compared to the same period of 2016.

Of the ambitious investment projects announced over a year ago very little has been achieved. The expansion of the Suez Canal - an over $ 8 billion project – was finished quickly and questionably, given the lack of feasibility study. Moreover, it may perhaps be a case of too little, too late. International trade patterns have changed. Shipping companies with the new generation of truly giant ships, apparently are preferring to use the Cape of Good Hope, avoiding the Suez, while sea-trade has contracted in recent years. 

For an economy as dependent on foreign currency as the Egyptian one, the ‘Spring’ has resulted in a haemorrhage of foreign currency reserves - from $36 billion in 2011 to $19 billion in September 2016). This has forced a series of devaluations that have almost halved the value of the Egyptian lira. The economy improved in 2017 in general, but there are more clouds on the horizon. Washington has decided to suspend $195 million in military aid – and hold back an additional $96 million – as the U.S. president has adopted a more ‘Obamaesque’ approach. The White House – forgetting conveniently about the $350 billion of weapons sold to Saudi Arabia - decided to accuse Egypt of lagging in human rights and of banning NGOs, a test that no-one applies to the Saudi’s absolute monarchy 

The near term outcome seems predictable. Russia and a handful of EU states will play an ever-greater role in the region, given the opportunity by Trump’s apparent lack of interest in the area, other than cliché statements about Iran and Israel.  

Alessandro Bruno