Egypt: Will there be a change in its Middle Eastern policy? Implications for Israel
By Dr. Moshe Albo | July, 2021
Egypt is identifying an opportunity to promote its strategic goals regionally as well as in Washington: The reconciliation agreement with Qatar, ceasefire in Libya, change in Turkish oppositional policy toward Cairo, and implications of the campaign in the Gaza Strip on Egypt's status have all led to forming an active strategy for the promotion of its state and security goals, as well as strengthening its domestic grip.
In this framework, the Egyptian Supreme Criminal Court ruled on June 14, 2021 that twelve senior officials in the Muslim Brotherhood's top political and religious leadership will face the death penalty for incitement of murder at the massacre that took place during the Saturday protest at Rabaa al-Adawiya square in August 2013. The final decision on the date of the execution will be made by the Egyptian President. Ironically, the court ruling was made while talks were held in Cairo with Hamas leadership led by Head of the Political Bureau Ismail Haniyeh, who knew those sentenced to death well.
The court ruling attests to the regime's confidence in its attempt to crush the Muslim Brotherhood's political and spiritual leadership, as well as its assessment that such a step will not affect its own stability, nor reflect negatively on its regional or international status. The timing of this Egyptian move was perfect, considering the weighty regional items currently on the agenda, as well as Cairo's growing valuableness to many of them: Gaza and the Palestinian issue; the ceasefire in Libya; and the emerging nuclear deal between the United States and Iran.
The aggressive internal policy against the Muslim Brotherhood is enabled by the change in Egypt's political relations with Qatar, and also with Turkey to some extent. The reconciliation agreement signed in January 2021 by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, and Qatar under U.S. auspices has led Cairo to decide to reinstate its relations with Doha. Two weeks after the agreement was signed, the Egyptian foreign minister announced the return of diplomatic ties between the two countries. Last May, the foreign minister of Qatar visited Cairo and declared el-Sisi the legitimate elected leader of the Egyptian people. In June, the Egyptian foreign minister visited Doha and was interviewed by Al-Jazeera, which has toned down its harsh criticism of the Egyptian regime since the two countries had reconciled.
The Egyptian interest in setting the wheels of political, economic and security relations with Qatar in motion lies in educated risk management, as well as the assumption that the benefit derived from the agreements exceeds the threat they pose. The Egyptian regime has no illusions about the deep affiliation between Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood. Nevertheless, by improving its relations with Doha, Egypt stands to gain strategic points it cannot overlook: attracting foreign investments into the Egyptian economy, which is suffering from severe fundamental issues exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis; and the potential promotion of state security interests in Libya and Ethiopia.
In this context, the fragile ceasefire reached by the National Army forces in Benghazi and the Government of National Accord in Tripoli has focused Cairo's diplomatic efforts on forming an agreed unity government that will not pose a future security threat on its western border, while reducing the risk of overall military escalation. Cairo's concern over Turkish military entrenchment and the integration of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated militia groups into the Libyan army who will serve as a source of support for the organization in Egypt itself has led to broad Egyptian diplomatic proactiveness, even with Qatar, who is perceived as an influencer on Turkey and the Government of National Accord, that aims to concretize stability and remove all foreign forces from Libya.
Qatar also has economic levers in Ethiopia which Egypt seeks to utilize to exert pressure on the issue of the Renaissance Dam. A core interest of Egyptian policy is to settle the dispute with Ethiopia, which Cairo perceives as a threat to the stability of its own regime. Not only can Qatar affect Ethiopia financially, but Doha's support of the Egyptian view is also important to establishing a united Arab front both regionally and internationally. Yet, despite positive signs of progress in the relations between them, past resentment and Cairo's deep distrust of Doha's intentions contribute to the fundamental suspicion Egypt harbors toward Qatar.
Over the last few months, a change has also been noted in Ankara's foreign policy vis-à-vis Cairo. The Turkish interest to rectify its relations with Egypt stems from the realization that it is not realistically feasible that the Muslim Brotherhood will regain power in Egypt, as well as its desire to refrain from being regionally isolated, curb Greek-Egyptian-Cypriot moves in the eastern Mediterranean basin and Libya, and reduce friction with Cairo. President Erdogan has toned down his heated rhetoric against the Egyptian regime, and has even announced his desire to increase the collaboration between the two states while engaging in trust-building steps. However, Turkey is still invested in its military entrenchment in Libya, which includes the establishment of a logistics base that will serve trade with Africa, and tightening the strategic cooperation with Tripoli. Thus, while Ankara displays basic willingness to withdraw its proxies and mercenaries from Libya, it has no intention of releasing its tightening security and economic grip on the latter.
At this stage, Egypt is not responding to Turkey's courting attempts. Instead, it is watching the steps Ankara is taking in Libya and the eastern Mediterranean basin with suspicion. Cairo perceives Turkey as a dangerous ideological adversary seeking to entrench itself militarily in Libya, while exhausting oil and gas resources in its economic zone. Cairo had previously accused Turkey of aiding the Muslim Brotherhood's terror attacks, and fears the expansion of Turkish military and political impact in Libya, as it could affect its own internal stability. Egypt is therefore responding by building up its air and naval forces, as well as tightening its strategic relations with Greece, Cyprus, and Israel, while isolating Turkey regionally and exerting pressure through the international institutions, demanding that it remove all Turkish forces from Libya.
Thus, Egypt has identified the change in the region as an opportunity to bolster its campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood domestically while promoting its state security interests regionally as well as in Washington. Turkey, however, is still perceived as a severe multidimensional strategic threat to Egypt's state security interests, and Cairo has no intention of changing its policy toward it at present.
The implications for Israel lie in understanding Egypt's proactive strategy, which serves its state security agenda first and foremost, but does not necessarily align with Jerusalem's interests. With regard to the arrangement process in the Gaza Strip, Cairo will try to conceptualize a solution that will prevent further security escalation, integrate Qatar into the rehabilitation architecture it is spearheading, and revive the peace process to establish its standing in Washington and the region while leveraging it to promote its goals vis-à-vis Ethiopia and Libya. At the same time, Cairo continues to curb all feasibility of the implementation of normalization with Israel, and the structured gap between the public and heated media discourse and the intimate state security discourse remains intact, and is not likely to change in the near future.
However, Israel is valuable to Egypt both regionally and vis-à-vis Washington – the shared interests in the eastern Mediterranean basin, and particularly with regard to Turkey, the growing collaboration in the energy sectors, as well as the close security-military relationship forged in recent years all serve as considerable means by which to bridge policy gaps and enhance the strategic coordination between the two countries, inter alia in the Palestinian context.
Authored by Dr. Moshe Albo, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
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