Egypt’s Evolving Foreign Policy

Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf (on left) confers with advisors; photo by Nabil Omar via flickrEgypt was once a major player in the Middle East, particularly under the leadership of Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s and 1960s. Over the last decades, Egypt gradually lost its prestige and influence in the region as it became an introverted autocratic regime. In the post-Nasserite period, Egypt strengthened its ties with Israel, isolated Hamas, repressed domestic Islamic movements, marginalized democratic forces, and confronted regional powers such as Iran.

However, with the political demise of Hosni Mubarak the country’s foreign policy is gradually moving in a direction that better reflects popular sentiments. The new Egypt is looking to normalize relations with countries like Iran, re-evaluate ties with Israel, and tilt more toward the Palestinian cause.

Given its profound cultural capital, powerful military, huge population, and strong economic fundamentals, Egypt could not only regain its regional influence but also play a more assertive and prominent international role. More importantly, the emergence of a democratic system in Egypt could transform the country into a model for the Arab world.

Democratic Earthquake

Domestic factors like corruption, political repression, and desperate economic conditions galvanized the populace against the Egyptian state. But Mubarak’s foreign policy doctrine also contributed to the erosion of his political base. The democratic revolution was also a response to the government’s complicity in the siege of Gaza, seeming timidity in foreign affairs, and his growing reliance on the United States for the perpetuation of his reign.

The High Council of the Armed Forces currently rules Egypt, and the military shows no sign of making a decisive break with the past. Nevertheless, the new leaders are more wary and sensitive to the qualms of the people. The prosecution of former ministers, officials, and even the former president and his family symbolizes the junta’s responsiveness to popular demands. The military’s consistently expressed commitment to push through with democratic elections and create a conducive environment for an eventual transition to a civilian democratic political system indicates that the balance of forces has shifted to the people — despite the lingering threat of counterrevolution, mobilization fatigue, and medium-term disenchantment with democracy.

The military occupies a position of prestige and privilege in the society, and it is in its best interest to create a smooth transfer of power in succeeding months and years. Perpetuating the policies of the past regime would anger the population. So it’s more than likely that the new Egyptian leadership will review the tenets of the former regime’s foreign policy architecture.

The Islamists are already pre-empting their opponents by talking about how they seek to emulate the Turkish model, where Islam and political moderation coincide, especially in the realm of foreign affairs. Moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood has expressed its interest in occupying more low profile and welfare-oriented executive ministries. So far, the Islamists have not even vied for the position of presidency, content with gaining some parliamentary representation and possibly some influence in the executive branch.

The Islamists at this point are more concerned with gaining domestic political support and avoiding any backlash from the military, democrats, and foreign powers. Any Islamist-backed radical departure from the past could justify a crackdown by the military or compromise the country’s economic well-being and political stability, which could, in turn, erode broader popular support for their agenda. However, if Israel steps up its aggressive policies in the region — with the West failing to support the democrats — the Islamists could try to pressure the government — through mass rallies, political mobilization, and populist rhetoric — to abrogate the peace treaty with Israel or to qualitatively shift, if not downgrade, bilateral relations with the United States. Such a dynamic would inadvertently put pressure on post-revolutionary Egypt to be more assertive in its ties with Israel and the West.

The Gushing Wound of Palestine

The Palestinian question has been at the heart of the Arab political discourse for the last seven decades. The 1979 peace deal between Egypt and Israel ushered in an unprecedented phase of strong bilateral cooperation between the two former enemies, but it was also a major cause of the unpopularity of both Sadat and Mubarak. Israel benefited from the cold peace by neutralizing the most powerful conventional force in the Arab world. It even coordinated closely with Egypt on the siege of Gaza.

Although the peace accords allowed Egypt to avoid another conflict with Israel and win substantial economic-military aid from the United States, the country’s image has suffered a significant blow in the last three decades. Strategically, Egypt’s withdrawal from the Arab-Israeli conflict allowed other powers to raise their political profile and regional influence. The resulting strategic vacuum simply shifted the regional balance of power in favor of non-Arab and/or non-traditional powers. Iran, Syria, and Qatar — and later Turkey — have been the biggest beneficiaries of Egypt’s neutrality on the Palestinian issue.

Aware of the popular sentiment in favor of the Palestinian cause, the new Egyptian leadership initiated two important policy shifts. First, it re-opened the Rafah border, which has allowed most residents of Gaza to escape the suffocating siege imposed by Israel. Second, Egypt has played an active role in facilitating the unity deal between rival factions in Palestine. The deal represents the best chance for Palestinians to finally form a united front in future negotiations with Israel and break the oppressive deadlock that has plagued previous negotiations. These two developments may portend more critical foreign policy reformulations, especially on Israeli-Egyptian relations, in coming years.

Reaching out to Others

Anxieties over political change in Egypt are not only confined to the Palestine-Israel equation. Egypt’s emerging détente with Iran is beginning to worry not only the United States and Israel, but also monarchies in the Persian Gulf.

A year before the 2011 revolution, many prominent leaders in Egypt and the Arab world began to realize the value of normalized relations with Iran. The two countries began to consider the resumption of direct flights between the two nations after 32 years. Also in 2010, the head of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, urged member countries to acknowledge the new geopolitical realities in the region: namely, the rise of non-Arab countries such as Turkey and Iran. He touched on the thorny issue of Iran-Arab tensions by stating, “I realize that some are worried about Iran but that is precisely why we need the dialogue.” He reiterated his position after the revolution as he was preparing to run for the presidency in the Egyptian elections:“Iran is not the natural enemy of Arabs… We have a lot to gain by peaceful relations — or less tense relations — with Iran.”

Just weeks after the downfall of Mubarak, Egypt allowed Iranian warships to cross the Suez Canal, provoking uproar among Israelis and even Americans. In succeeding months, the diplomatic flirtation between the two countries took an even more interesting turn when Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil El-Arabi stated that Egypt was “turning over a new leaf with all countries, including Iran.” Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi immediately expressed his country’s appreciation of El-Arabi’s comments by expressing his wishes for “expansion in relations.” The two ministers met on the sidelines of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) in Bali, where the OIC expressed its support for improvement of ties between the two major Muslim countries.

Egypt’s Changing Role

Gamal Abdel Nasser was the central figure behind the first Arab revolution, which precipitated the withdrawal of colonial powers, Britain and France, from the Middle East. As Saudi Arabia spearheads a regional counter-revolution by abetting repressive monarchs in the Persian Gulf and providing sanctuary to fallen autocrats — with President Saleh of Yemen being among the latest beneficiaries — post-revolutionary Egypt could once again inspire change across the region. Given its size, history, and cultural influence, a successful transition to democracy would undoubtedly transform Egypt into a role model for smaller fellow Arab countries.

The era of yes men in the Arab world is beginning to end, and the new Egypt — though it has maintained good ties with the U.S. — will be more assertive and independent in its foreign policy choices. The case of Turkey is very instructive. Despite being a pillar of NATO, and a strong ally of the Unites States, Turkey has repeatedly shown its independence on a number of key regional issues such as Iran’s nuclear program, the invasion of Iraq, and the siege of Gaza.

There are limits to this independence. Egypt is heavily reliant on aid, investments, tourism, and trade. Economic concerns are still the country’s top priority. According to the latest Gallup poll, the majority of Egyptians are extremely pessimistic about the economy. Therefore, the priority of post-revolutionary Egypt’s leaders is ultimately the restoration of confidence and economic dynamism.

Democrats and Islamists are also aware that the military could choose to intervene — with tacit support from outside — if the democratic process gives birth to a radical government that jeopardizes the interests of the military and the state. This has been the case in other comparable countries such as Turkey and Pakistan, where the military has also played a central role in determining the destiny of the nation-state. Egypt is still the top U.S. recipient of military assistance after Israel. It is simply too embedded in the U.S. military-industrial complex to risk alienating Washington. So, too, has the financial clout and political weight of the Gulf Cooperation Council made a precipitous Egyptian tilt toward Iran unlikely.

Already, the Saudis are reportedly trying to sabotage the emerging rapprochement between the two countries. According to the head of Iran’s Interest Section in Cairo Mojtaba Amani,Saudi Arabia has even threatened to expel 1.5 million workers to dissuade Cairo from the resumption of ties with Tehran.”

Given these undeniable realities, an abrogation of the Israeli-Egyptian 1979 peace accords or the formation of an axis between Iran and Egypt is not in the offing. Moreover, the Egyptian foreign minister has injected realism into the rapprochement euphoria by indicating that Iran should not expect any substantial improvement in bilateral ties unless a new government is elected. In fact, just recently, Egypt expelled an Iranian on grounds of espionage, denting efforts by both states to improve relations.

Nonetheless, Egyptians from across the political spectrum seem to support normalizing ties. A delegation composed of Egyptian academics and civil society leaders recently visited Iran. According to a member of the delegate, Mustafa Nagar, “Iranians believe Egypt is a strong country, not only to put Israel under pressure, but to benefit from the Egyptians themselves, that’s why Egypt must restore ties with this great civilization.”

The Post-Hegemonic Era

The United States should play a constructive role in the democratic transition of Egypt. Despite anxieties over the possible shift in Cairo’s foreign policy doctrine, Washington should ensure that the development of civil democratic institutions is not, again, compromised in the name of stability. The last thing Washington needs is the emergence of a Pakistan-like political system, where the military controls the state at the expense of economic development, democratization, and political stability. The collapse of Arab autocracies and the impending conflagration in Pakistan should serve as wake-up calls for policymakers in Washington.

Instead of indiscriminately throwing its weight around and unconditionally cultivating ties with intransigent allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, the United States should be looking toward further cooperation with powerful and democratizing countries such as Turkey and Egypt. Maintenance and deepening of close ties with legitimate states with civilian governments committed to democracy and economic development is the best way for the United States to create islands of peace in different regions and construct durable multilateral arrangements, which serve common interests.

Such strategic patience could also rehabilitate the battered U.S. image around the globe. For instance, Brazil’s case is very instructive: the rise of a democratic and progressive government, under President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva, ushered in a new era of stability and economic progress. Today, Brazil is sharing the responsibilities of hemispheric leadership with the United States and contributing to regional stability and integration. The lesson is simple: reliance on responsible regional powers is America’s best chance for a smooth transition to a truly multipolar global system. Egypt can and should be just such a partner.

Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Richard Javad Heydarian is a foreign affairs analyst based in Manila. He could be reached at Jrheydarian@gmail.com