Regional ties: Expanding a crucial country’s role in the Middle East

Surrounded as Egypt is by a number of challenging geopolitical situations, ranging from civil war in Syria to instability in Iraq and Libya, navigation of the region’s politics has become a more fraught exercise for the administration of President Abdel Fattah El Sisi. Yet, as it has done for decades, Cairo continues to exert a significant influence on regional affairs.

While turmoil has gripped much of the MENA region, countries there have managed to forge a high level of cooperation on key issues. Egypt has often been at the forefront of these efforts. For example, in March 2015 President El Sisi hosted a summit with Arab leaders in Sharm El Sheikh, during which a recommendation to establish a regional military force to deal with crises throughout the Arab world was adopted. The final communiqué of the summit stated the need for “coordination, efforts and steps to establish a unified Arab force”. The rationale for such a force, which is voluntary, is to potentially intervene in conflicts that could further destabilise the region, such as in Yemen and Libya.

President El Sisi has taken an active role in trying to foster greater cooperation in dealing with regional challenges. Given the security threats that Egypt faces in both the Sinai Peninsula and the Western Desert, this is hardly surprising. In December 2015 Sameh Shoukry, minister of foreign affairs, told local Arabic-language media, “The biggest challenge has been the extent of Egypt’s ability to navigate the storm the Middle East is passing through and to maintain internal cohesion and stability.”

Strong Showing

Indeed, with external regional affairs having real repercussions domestically, the president has adopted a proactive foreign policy. In February 2015, for example, Egypt embarked upon unilateral action in Libya, with airstrikes against Islamic State training bases and weapons depots. The raids killed 64 Islamic State members, including three of the group’s local leadership. This move followed the execution of 21 Christian Egyptian workers in Libya by Islamic State militants.

Regional Coordination

Although Egypt has been prepared to act unilaterally, President El Sisi has been particularly vocal in his calls for regional and international coordination and cooperation in unstable regions, such as Libya. However, this has not always been a straightforward goal. Relations with some countries have seen a strengthening of ties. In particular, relations with Kuwait and UAE have seen so much improvement that the members of the six-country GCC have offered millions in much-needed funds over the past few years.

In other cases, however, bilateral links have been strained. One example is Qatar, which has historically provided strong support for the Muslim Brotherhood, the political movement that backed former President Mohamed Morsi. This has had a knock-on impact the effectiveness of some of the region’s key organisations, such as the Arab League, which saw the appointment of an Egyptian secretary-general briefly held up over concerns from Qatar.

However, Cairo has made it clear that solutions to the region’s problems can only be met by multilateral action. This has been demonstrated by the country’s willingness to participate in negotiations seeking to bring resolutions to the conflicts in Syria and Libya. Shoukry also told local press that such an approach is at the core of the country’s new foreign policy. He said, “Egypt’s vision is that, as individual states, we will not be able to overcome these challenges, which include terrorism, state failure, armed conflicts, foreign interventions, designs and interests in the region, as well as humanitarian disasters, including the refugee and [internally displaced person] crisis.” He added, “Such challenges cannot be confronted by any single state alone; however, we must work on coordinating our policies to benefit from each state’s unique capabilities and comparative advantage.”