Standing in for US, Egypt flexes its Mideast muscles

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A boy rides his bicycle past a large portrait of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Gaza City. Hamas leaders met with Egyptian officials there on May 31, 2021.

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For most of the past decade, Egypt has been preoccupied with domestic affairs: a popular revolution, a military coup, and repeated economic shocks. The country has not had the bandwidth to play much of a part on the regional Mideast stage.

But now it is seeking to regain its old role as the region’s undisputed leader. And that matches the Biden administration’s search for allies who can uphold security and stability in the Middle East while Washington is focused on China.

Why We Wrote This

Egypt’s recent success in brokering a Gaza cease-fire has given wings to its regional diplomatic ambitions. Washington’s gratitude gives Cairo extra latitude.

Cairo’s successful backroom role as the mediator who brokered last month’s cease-fire in Gaza between Israel and Hamas earned plaudits from the United States. Egypt is also exploring the possibility of mediating between Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and the West.

In return for its stabilizing influence, Cairo is expecting the U.S. to help promote Egyptian goals in Libya and with regard to the waters of the Nile, about to be dammed by Ethiopia.

“We are home to one-fourth of the Arab world,” says Nabil Fahmy, a former Egyptian foreign minister. “Anyone dealing with or through the Middle East will bump into the Egyptians one way or another.”

For most of the past decade, Egypt has been preoccupied by domestic concerns: A popular revolution, a military coup, and repeated economic shocks have absorbed the nation’s attention.

But now, as the United States shifts its diplomatic focus away from the Middle East and toward China, Cairo is stepping forward to make its regional presence felt anew. From Libya, through Gaza to Syria, Egypt is seeking to regain its old role as the region’s undisputed leader.

“We have been trying to rebuild and re-stabilize our country. Part of that process is now regaining our role in the region,” says Nabil Fahmy, former Egyptian foreign minister and ambassador to the U.S.

Why We Wrote This

Egypt’s recent success in brokering a Gaza cease-fire has given wings to its regional diplomatic ambitions. Washington’s gratitude gives Cairo extra latitude.

“To project Egypt the way we want to as a leader, we need to project ourselves as a player in settling the region’s conflicts,” he adds.

That matches Washington’s search for allies who can uphold regional security and stability. Egypt is putting itself forward as the perfect candidate for the job, and the Biden administration appears ready to agree, setting aside its concerns over the Egyptian government’s human rights violations.

Under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a former army chief, the government has concentrated largely on reforming the economy and eliminating any political opposition. International human rights groups say Mr. Sisi has jailed more than 60,000 critics since he seized power in a 2013 coup.

Internationally, Cairo has tended to follow the lead of the two Gulf kingdoms that have bankrolled Mr. Sisi, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

But Egypt has increasingly found itself impacted by regional conflicts, says Walid Kazziha professor of political science at the American University of Cairo.

“When Egypt was aloof on regional issues, regional issues eventually found their way to impinge on Egypt and put it on the defensive,” he explains. “To defend itself, Egypt realized it had to play a regional role.”

Mohammed Salem/Reuters
Palestinian Hamas Gaza Chief Yehya Al-Sinwar and head of Egyptian intelligence Abbas Kamel meet in Gaza May 31, 2021.

Leave it to Egypt

Egypt was given that opportunity in May when war broke out in neighboring Gaza between Israel and the radical Islamist group Hamas, which rules the enclave.

Acting as a diplomatic back channel, Cairo brokered a cease-fire to end the 11-day conflict and earned American plaudits for doing so. President Joe Biden expressed his “sincere gratitude” to President Sisi.

That was a far cry from the days on the U.S. campaign trail when Mr. Biden excoriated Egypt for its human rights violations and pledged he would offer “no blank checks.”

But “stability and security have long taken priority over human rights concerns” in the Middle East, points out Steven A. Cook, a regional expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “The recent conflict in Gaza and the rehabilitation of Egypt, which has an appalling human rights record, highlight this dynamic.”

“Today there is a willingness by the Americans to leave the role of mediation between Palestinians and Israelis to other parties who can work within the framework of the American vision,” Professor Kazziha says. “Egypt has snatched the opportunity.”

In recent days, Egypt has cemented its presence in the Gaza Strip, which marks its Eastern border along the Sinai Peninsula, dispatching senior security delegations to Gaza to secure a more permanent cease-fire. It has also pledged $500 million in reconstruction funds and last week dispatched engineering teams and heavy equipment to prepare for reconstruction.

The message? In Gaza, Egypt is here to stay.

“Gaza is the border region and an issue of national security, but it is also an area that has had no Arab diplomatic presence” because the enclave is ruled by the radical Islamist group Hamas, says an Arab diplomat familiar with Egypt’s role in Gaza. “It is a quick way for Egypt to become indispensable in regional politics with little cost.”

You scratch my back ...

Cairo is now selling itself as essential to stability in a region the Biden administration has less time for nowadays, promoting a Middle East in its own image: strong state governments, led by stable and predictable actors who will prevent regional competition from destabilizing their neighbors.

“Pursuing centrism, moderation and stability creates a huge common ground for Americans and Egyptians to work together,” suggests Mr. Fahmy.

Cairo’s success in Gaza has earned Egypt diplomatic capital that it intends to spend.

Hazem Ahmed/Reuters
Libya's Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibeh welcomes his Egyptian counterpart Mustafa Madbouly in Tripoli, Libya, April 20, 2021.

One immediate area of common concern is Libya, Egypt’s neighbor to the west, where a government of national unity recently formed with Cairo’s blessing is struggling to exert control over vast swaths of territory.

Egypt is hoping for greater American support for that government’s key goals: the departure of foreign mercenaries, the reopening of coastal roads that link the country, and the unification of rival military forces.

Cairo is also urging Washington to put more pressure on Ethiopia to find agreement with its neighbors on how it will operate a new dam on the river Nile that is nearing completion. The dam will give Ethiopia control over 80% of Egypt’s water supply.

As part of its flurry of diplomacy ahead of a July dam-filling date, Egypt has rallied downstream Nile countries in recent weeks, and has cemented a unified front with neighbor Sudan.

On Tuesday, Egypt gathered Arab foreign ministers to coordinate their response in a summit in Doha and issued a joint call for U.N. Security Council intervention.

Cairo is also looking to extend its mediator role to Syria, where a decade of civil war and harsh U.S.-led sanctions has failed to oust or reform Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Egypt is quietly making the case in Washington and elsewhere that Mr. Assad’s military regime, as the only viable actor on the ground, must be reintegrated into the regional fold, and is offering to mediate between Damascus and Western governments, Arab diplomats say.

Egypt is also channeling its clout to support the Iraqi government through a trilateral alliance including Jordan, in the hope that economic cooperation and support will help Baghdad assert itself over Iranian-backed militias.

After a decade in abeyance, Egypt seems anxious to flex its international muscles more visibly.

“We extend over two continents. We are home to one-fourth of the Arab world,” says Mr. Fahmy, the former minister. “Anyone dealing with or through the Middle East will bump into the Egyptians one way or the other.”

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