A year of grey zones: Egypt’s foreign friends and foes

Egypt’s foreign policy and diplomacy throughout 2015 arguably fell in some sort of grey zone, with not one relationship that can be described as full-on friendship (not even Saudi Arabia) or full-on animosity (not even Qatar).

As the year comes to a close, we survey Egypt’s friends and foes and attempt to place them on the spectrum of alliance and antagonism — starting with those most like allies and ending with the states whose relationship with Egypt is most hostile.

Russia, the temporary ally

Russia and Egypt have multiple overlapping interests.

For the Egyptian regime an alliance with Russia was a temporary necessity, especially with the US taking several measures that appeared at the time to be hostile and Saudi Arabia facing uncertainty following the death of former King Abdallah bin Abdul Aziz.

Egypt’s relationship with Russia created a needed balance with Saudi Arabia and its new regime under King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz, and can even at times act as a tool of pressure.

Sisi’s regime needed a strong and loyal international ally in the face of harsh international criticism on the human rights situation in the country, and Russia provided the solution.

For Russia, when it became clear that it was losing Syria, not only politically, but also economically, it needed a new market that would resuscitate its external trade — and Egypt was there eager to receive Russian investment.

The relationship appears to be weathering the storm of the crisis of the Russian plane crash in Sinai. Egypt denied it was anything but an accident, but Russian investigations concurred with Britain that it was caused by a bomb, suggesting poor airport security measures on the part of Egypt.

A political researcher who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity put it this way. “The Egyptian regime needs a strong international actor to support it to the end, regardless of its problems or the threats it faces. Look at [Vladimir] Putin’s insistence on supporting Bashar al-Assad and you’ll see what I mean.”

There have been several official visits between President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and his counterpart Putin.

France, the enemy of the enemy

France moved from one extreme to the other in its relation with Egypt over the last couple of years. The relationship began with a condemnation of violence and human rights violations committed by the post-June 30 regime and arrived at the conclusion of significant arms deals. This includes the conclusion of deals to export French Mistral aircraft carriers and Rafale fighter jets to Egypt.

Roman Nadal, spokesperson of the French foreign ministry, explained this shift in a meeting with Mada Masr.

“Sisi is not Bashar al-Assad,” Nadal said. “He heads a regime that is fighting terrorism, and we support him because we share the same battle, and because the fall of Egypt means the fall of the region as a whole.”

Both Sisi and French President Francois Hollande exchanged official visits, and Hollande attended the Suez Canal extension inauguration in August.

Germany, the economic ally

Germany was the first to develop relations with the post-June 30 regime, signing several economic partnerships and agreements. The trade exchange between the two countries reached its peak in 2014 at 4.4 billion euros, a figure likely to be repeated by the end of 2015.

Germany’s logic in collaborating with the Egyptian state is similar to the French, as was apparent in Sisi’s meeting with Gerd Müller, the German minister of economic cooperation and development. Müller stressed “the importance of the Egyptian role in fighting terrorism, maintaining Egyptian cohesiveness and state unity.”

Jan Claudius Völkel, visiting professor at the EuroMed Studies Programme at Cairo University and a lecturer at the German Academic Exchange Service, thinks that while there are many disagreements between Egypt and Germany, the core of the relationship is economic, especially “where German technology is strong, such as in alternative energies.”

Sisi paid Germany an official visit in June, which was met with some parliamentary opposition there yet resulted in some political and economic success between the two countries, including a deal and several memorandums of understanding between Siemens AG and Egypt.

The United Kingdom, the trade partner despite everything

Britain was the first to announce that the Russian plane crash in Sinai in October was a terrorist act and then led the way in freezing flights to Sharm el-Sheikh, a decision taken during Sisi’s visit.

Yet the relationship is not that sour. Egypt allowed a UK security delegation to visit the Sharm el-Sheikh airport following the crash to assess the situation, although it was a not party in the incident.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron was among the first to support Egypt in its war on terrorism. And significantly, the UK has the second biggest investments in Egypt after Saudi Arabia.

The UK has also conducted a review of the Muslim Brotherhood activities in the country, a decision welcomed by the Egyptian authorities. In its final report issued in December, the UK government concluded that Brotherhood activities could be tied to some extremism, also a move praised by Egypt, although the report did not recommend banning the group.

The United Arab Emirates, the generous friend

With regard to UAE-Egypt relations, economic ties take precedence over political and regional ones, which is characteristic of the UAE’s foreign relations — it maintains economic relations with Iran, for instance, despite being the most hostile among the Gulf countries toward the republic.

Emirati investors withdrew from participating in the building of the new administrative capital of Egypt, due to economic disagreements, threatening a major project that had been accompanied by much media fanfare. However, despite this, the two countries’ relations remain intact.

Lubna Bent Khaled al-Qassemi, the minister of development and international cooperation and head of the Emirati committee for coordination of foreign humanitarian aid, told Mada Masr that Egypt has enjoyed the equivalent of 52 percent of the UAE’s foreign aid during 2014. This is equivalent to $3.2 billion, and about 48.6 percent of total UAE foreign aid between 2010 and 2014, which amounted to $5.8 billion.

Sisi and the UAE’s heir to the throne, Mohamed Ben Zayed, exchanged official visits.

Saudi Arabia, the older brother

While some observers believe that Egypt blindly follows Saudi Arabia and encourages the kingdom’s attempts to lead the region, others think there are major disagreements between Egypt and Saudi under the leadership of the present king.

There is clear agreement over some issues, most notably the shared hostility toward Iranian interests in the region.

But there is no full alignment on other important issues, such as the Syrian question. Saudi Arabia insists on overthrowing the Assad regime and maintains a certain ambiguity toward some militant groups there, such as Ahrar al-Sham and the Nusra Front, but not the Islamic State. For Egypt, the maintenance or overthrow of the Assad regime is not a priority compared with its determination to uproot all radical organizations there.

There is more ambiguity on other issues.

A few days after the declaration of the Saudi-led war on Yemen’s Houthi rebels, critical voices in the Saudi royal family chastised Egypt for only sending marine units to the Bab al-Mandab strait, rather than fully participating in Operation Decisive Storm.

Similarly, Egypt did not show any sign of support for the Saudi-led Islamic military alliance announced earlier this month. The Islamic military alliance follows the Arab forces proposition, which many believe Egypt prefers to its Islamic equivalent. The reasons for this are that it would spare it working with Turkey, the Egyptian army would constitute the majority, and finally, because Egypt may not prefer an army that would appear sectarian.

Meanwhile, Saudi announced an increase in its investments in Egypt, amounting to $8 billion, an announcement made on the same day that Saudi unilaterally declared its intention to form the Islamic military alliance with Egypt’s participation.

Anwar Eshqi, director of the Middle East Institute for Political Studies in Saudi Arabia, previously told Mada Masr that the declaration to increase investments in Egypt was meant to make “Egypt’s enemies understand that Saudi Arabia stands by Egypt.”

There were several official visits between Sisi and King Salman, with the latter coming to Egypt to partake in the Sharm el-Sheikh Arab summit in March.

Tunisia, a new ally

Tunisia did not join the countries welcoming the new post-June 30 regime, unsurprisingly given the persistence of a Brotherhood component in the ranks of its power elites. But with Beji Caid Essebsi’s election as president at the end of 2014, a new direction in Egyptian Tunisian relations has unfolded.

Former Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb met with his Tunisian counterpart Habib Essid in September at a bilateral summit to discuss more cooperation. Mehleb pulled out of a presser during his visit, at which a journalist asked him about a corruption case in which he is implicated.

Essebsi came to Cairo in October, and declared Egypt’s strategic regional importance, as well as the need to collaborate on the war on terrorism.

Israel, a friend under the guise of the enemy

In a statement during the last war on Gaza, Israeli government spokesperson Ofir Gendelman said, “The most important thing about this war is that it confirmed the close relations with the Egyptians.”

But an economic feud may be standing in the way. An international arbitration case ruled in favor of the Israeli Electric Corporation, ordering Egypt to pay $1.76 billion in compensation for stopping gas exports to Israel following the January 2011 revolution. Egypt said it would appeal the decision, while Prime Minister Sherif Ismail declared that all negotiations by Egyptian companies for importing gas from their Israeli counterparts will be stalled.

The US, the organic friend

Despite a bumpy two years for Egypt and the US — marked by Egypt’s rapprochement with the US’ major competitor, Russia, and US criticism and censure following the military ouster of Morsi — both countries are keen on maintaining strong relations.

With each stage of the deepening relationship with Russia, Egyptian officials tend to repeat — often without being asked — that Egypt does not exchange one ally for another and, in a clear reference to the United States, that relations with Russia do not come at the expense of relations with other states.

The Egyptian regime’s success in marketing its legitimacy and getting international political acknowledgement following the military ouster of Morsi has been translated into economic agreements and arm deals with the US. This brought US delays on aid to an end, but nevertheless some coldness remains between the two countries.

Joshua Stacher, professor of political science at Kent University with a specialization on Egypt, previously told Mada Masr that US-Egyptian military relations are too organic to be untied by the delay of part of the annual aid, especially given that inter-personal relations between Egyptian and American generals remain intact.

Sisi has neither made an official visit to Washington, nor has US President Barack Obama visited Cairo.

Sudan, the angry neighbour

The year saw some tensions with Sudan, but also some thawing of tensions when it was announced that both Egypt and Sudan would take part in Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen.

The Halayeb and Shalateen border area remains a point of contention, while the cross-border smuggling of arms destined for Sinai has slowed down

In the final part of the year, tensions turned into a spat, as Sudan lamented Egypt’s treatment of its citizens, in particular unlawful detentions and deaths. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir criticized the Egyptian media for exacerbating the strain and acting unprofessionally.

Sudan has also started to take a distance from Egypt’s position with regard to the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, arguably in order to try to align itself with Ethiopia as a rising power.

Qatar, a foe slowly moving closer

Against the backdrop of the continued criticism of Egypt on the part of Qatari TV channel Al-Jazeera, the peak of tensions between the two countries this year came during the meeting of the permanent delegates at the Arab League in February. Qatar expressed reservations about Egypt’s request for Arab support for its military operations against the Islamic State in Libya after the killing of 20 Egyptians there. The Egyptian foreign ministry responded with a statement that described Qatar as a supporter of terrorism, upon which Doha summoned its ambassador in Cairo.

He returned to his post a month and a half later, for the Sharm el-Sheikh Arab summit, which saw a meeting between Sisi and Tamim Ben Hamad, the prince of Qatar.

Two major judicial cases sit at the heart of the stand-off between Egypt and Qatar — the Al-Jazeera journalists trial and Morsi’s espionage case.

Despite efforts by Saudi Arabia to break the deadlock between the two countries, there were several setbacks. The last of these was when Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry flung an Al-Jazeera microphone off the podium before reading the final declaration of the Renaissance Dam negotiations in Khartoum.

Egyptian diplomatic representation remains at the level of deputy ambassador for the second year in a row after Egypt recalled its ambassador in January 2014 on the basis of “Qatar’s support for the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood group.”

Meanwhile, in a friendly move on the part of Qatar, it terminated the residence of a number of affiliates and sympathizers with the Brotherhood who had taken refuge there following the crackdown in Egypt.

David Wearing, a PhD candidate in Gulf issues at the London School of Oriental and African Studies, thinks that changes in the Qatari position toward Egypt are attributable to the Brotherhood being in a considerably weaker position today than it was two years ago, as well as Qatar’s reorientation toward Saudi priorities, namely fighting the Iranian enemy, particularly in Yemen.

Turkey, the furthest foe

Egypt’s standoff with Turkey has been pronounced in both acts and rhetoric.

Despite both countries joining the Islamic alliance under the leadership of Saudi Arabia early this month, there appears to be no change looming on the horizon in terms of their relations.

At a time when Saudi appears to be playing the role of the middleman seeking to improve relations that were greatly harmed since the Morsi ouster in 2013, the previous year has seen several milestones — mostly negative ones.

One such milestone was the non-renewal of the Roro economic agreement signed with Turkey in 2012 after the conclusion of its three-year term in March.

On the Turkish side, press reports quoted President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in April stating that a reconsideration of relations with the Egyptian government was conditional on the release of Morsi and the revocation of the death sentences passed against Brotherhood supporters.


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