By the time he hosted the donor conference for the reconstruction of Gaza on October 12, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi seems to have succeeded in repositioning himself from dubious military autocrat in western eyes, to necessary strategic pillar in the Middle East.
This trend had begun earlier, but it picked up speed during the summer Gaza war, where, despite Hamas’ grave and justifiable doubts, all parties found themselves reverting to Egypt and Sisi as the necessary interlocutor for any solution.
Turkey and Qatar tried, and almost lured US Secretary of State John Kerry away, but in the end, Egypt as the direct neighbour of Gaza and Israel and with deep intelligence links to the warring parties, prevailed. Cairo once again became the venue for both indirect Hamas-Israel negotiations and Palestinian reconciliation talks.
Even before the war, on June 22, on the eve of Kerry’s visit to Egypt, the US had unlocked more than half a billion dollars in US military aid, while at the same time acknowledging that promises to the Egyptian people by their leaders “are yet to be fulfilled”.
|Inside Egypt – Can Abdel Fattah el-Sisi unite Egyptians?|
Although Egypt’s democratic evolution is still a major issue, geopolitical interests have taken precedence once again.
Kerry reiterated his concerns about repression of dissent on October 12, but Sisi knows that US actions are more important than words and posturing today. Indeed, this is yet another example of US policy ambivalence in the region.
The US was once with Mubarak, then leaned towards the Muslim Brotherhood, then became confused by Sisi’s coup/non-coup, only to find itself again adapting to whatever, or whoever, comes round.
The tough masters of Middle East reality triumph in the face of US vaccilation or vague policy, and set the game.
A canal runs through it
Egypt’s centrality begins with its role in Gaza and the border with Israel, but it also spreads to the Suez Canal, and widens further to the need for some stability while neighbouring Libya and the Sahel boil, and the slightly more distant Levant and Iraq twist in the tortured gymnastics of fragmentation and radicalism.
In these turbulent circumstances, a stable Egypt is more crucial than ever. Sisi knows this and has played the required diplomacy properly to reposition himself and his country as the necessary reference for any constructive (or reconstructive) work in the region. He appears to combine patience with an inscrutability that served him well when he took over power from the Muslim Brotherhood in the first place. He is now using these skills to reconfigure his regional and international position.
Today, this is especially the case on Israel-Palestine. Sisi’s speech at the reconstruction conference reaffirmed that Israel cannot get through to “Riyadh except through Ramallah“, ie, Israel has to take the Arab Peace Initiative – or at least some deal of that form – seriously. Implicitly, he is also repositioning Egypt as one of the key players to get there. Israelis may not be convinced given their burgeoning, but quiet ties, with some Gulf states, but Sisi is betting that these relations will only go so far without a more serious engagement with the Palestinians, and with him.
Egypt is key on this file, but a return to regional politics is also relevant at another level. The primary political fault line today in the region is between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The reality is that Iran has a strong regional strategy and projection without any Sunni state equivalent. Saudi Arabia has attempted to play that role but due to its historically conservative nature and other factors, it is not in a position to lead.
Egypt is the natural regional counterweight to Iran, not through confrontation but, almost literally, in its capacity to create a balance of power. Therefore, an Egyptian-Iranian political dialogue may be a necessary first step to mitigating some of today’s regional excesses and developing regional stability, as long as other interests, especially in the Gulf, are incorporated. Distrust still marks the Iranian-Egyptian relationship today, especially in Cairo, but the desperate need for regional order may make progress imperative.
Turkey is another thorn in Egypt’s side: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues to attack Sisi as a tyrant and usurper, and will not watch such a dialogue develop without unease. This road will therefore not be easy, even if it may be a natural consequence of Egypt’s regional role.
Sisi is clever enough to know that as long as he is not egregious regarding human rights and oppression, democratic evolution will once again take a backseat to geopolitical interests and stability, at least for international powers. The real question is whether the future of Egyptian politics, revolutionary or not, will remain calm and relatively manageable during his tenure.
Sisi may be skilful and he is playing his cards right, but another sequel to the events of January 2011, and July 2013, is not out of the question. Sisi has emotional and marketing appeal inside Egypt, his brand is still rising and he is popular, but the expectations for results, especially in terms of employment and improvement of living conditions, are also high. The “fear factor” that held people in check under Mubarak is gone. The question now is whether – and when – key sectors of Egyptian society will rise again if their basic material and emotional needs are unmet.
While Sisi, the West and others redevelop the regional diplomatic game, Egyptians may not revert to the somnolence that once marked them; they may instead continue to seek meaningful political and economic change. Managing those demands, and remaining in power, may prove to be the greater challenge ahead.
John Bell is Director of the Middle East Programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid. He is a former UN and Canadian diplomat, and served as Political Adviser to the Personal Representative of the UN Secretary-General for southern Lebanon and adviser to the Canadian government.