GEW Assessment Report
by Dr Hichem Karoui
While Arab Gulf countries, after vying for Arab leadership, seemed powerless as they watched the ongoing Israeli attack on Gaza passively, one of the most telling indicators of Egypt’s changing role is its stance on the Palestinian issue. President Sisi’s refusal to support a US-Israeli initiative to transfer the Gaza population to Sinai is a departure from the more subservient policies of his recent predecessors. This stance can be seen as a strategic move to reclaim moral and political authority in the Arab world. It also signals to the US and Israel that Egypt’s cooperation should not be taken for granted, thereby recalibrating Egypt’s geopolitical value.
Egypt has been a cornerstone of Arab identity and politics since the mid-20th century. Under leaders like Gamal Abdel Nasser, it championed the pan-Arabism ideology, confronting Western imperialism and advocating for Palestinian rights. Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal in 1956 was a watershed moment, signaling Egypt’s intent to assert its independence from Western powers. However, the subsequent peace treaty with Israel in 1979 led to political isolation from other Arab states and diminished its leadership role.
Egypt: The Historical Powerhouse
Egypt has had a long history of engagement in the Arab-Israeli conflict, extending back to the mid-20th century. The country’s role has shifted over time from being a vital participant in battles against Israel to being the first Arab country to recognise Israel and sign a peace treaty with it officially.
Egypt was actively involved in military engagements with Israel in the early phases of the conflict. Egypt and Syria, for example, launched a concerted surprise attack on Israeli forces in the Sinai and the Golan Heights during the Arab-Israeli War of 1973, also known as the Yom Kippur War. Egyptian field marshal Ahmad Ismael, Egypt’s defence minister and commander-in-chief, prepared the attack.
Despite initial gains, Israel eventually counter-attacked and regained some lost terrain, thanks mainly to US military assistance. However, the Egyptians had achieved victory in gaining back their territories occupied by Israel in 1967. This war was a watershed moment in the conflict because it broke the stalemate in peace talks that had prevailed before the war. Following the armed conflict with Syria and Egypt, Israel, acknowledging its defeat, became more open to a peace settlement.
Following the 1978 Camp David Accords, Egypt and Israel signed the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty in 1979. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin signed the deal in the presence of US President Jimmy Carter. The treaty’s key characteristics were mutual recognition, and it made Egypt the first Arab state to recognise Israel publicly, despite being characterised as a “cold peace”, as the Egyptian people have remained solidary of the Palestinian cause.
In recent years, Egypt has frequently acted as a mediator, particularly between Israel and Hamas. Egypt, for example, played a crucial role in arranging a truce during Tel Aviv’s onslaught on Gaza in May 2021. Egypt’s position in Gaza, however, goes beyond mediation because it also controls the Rafah border crossing, Gaza’s only non-Israeli entry and exit point.
Despite the official peace deal, public opinion in Egypt remains overwhelmingly antagonistic towards Israel. According to a November 2021 poll, barely a quarter of Egyptians considered the UAE and Bahrain’s recent peace treaties with Israel beneficial, while most disapproved of the agreements. Furthermore, popular support for further Egyptian “normalisation” with Israel is quite low.
The Gulf States: Rising to the Occasion
The post-Camp David vacuum left by Egypt’s diplomatic choices profoundly impacted the Middle East’s geopolitical environment. Egypt’s realignment created a power vacuum in the region, which other countries, particularly the Gulf States, tried to fill.
With their significant oil wealth, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar took advantage of this opportunity to exercise influence. The participation of Saudi Arabia in Yemen is a clear illustration of this. In 2015, Saudi Arabia led a coalition of nine countries from West Asia and North Africa in an intervention in Yemen, in response to Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s appeal for military assistance after Houthi insurgents drove his forces out of Sanaa. This action exemplified Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical ambitions and willingness to use military force to influence regional politics.
Similarly, Qatar’s involvement in the Syrian war highlights the country’s geopolitical ambitions. Qatar’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War began in April 2012, with the delivery of arms to Syrian rebels. This involvement grew to include military action against ISIL. The Financial Times estimated in 2013 that Qatar had contributed at least $1 billion and “as much as $3 billion” to the Syrian rebellion over the first two years of the civil war.
The influence and geopolitical ambitions of the Gulf States have not been without disputes and confrontations. The source of the intra-Gulf conflict was Qatar’s foreign policy, which Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt saw as a danger. These countries accused Qatar of supporting Islamist militants seeking to destabilise the region’s ruling regimes. They were also wary of Qatar’s tight ties to Iran, which they considered hostile, and Turkey, which they saw as another sponsor of the Muslim Brotherhood and related organisations.
These geopolitical ambitions, however, have resulted in intra-Gulf tensions and confrontations, highlighting the complicated and dynamic nature of Middle Eastern affairs.
Internal Dynamics: The Sisi Era
The economic issues confronting President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi have been significant. Egypt’s economic, social, and political difficulties have worsened during his presidency. Inflation has been about 37%, and the country’s international debt is nearly $163 billion, with total debt predicted to reach nearly 93 per cent of GDP in 2023. Sisi’s administration has been accused by Western media of mismanagement, with critics claiming that his debt-fueled spending spree on mega-projects like the New Administrative Capital has pushed the country into disaster. While politically significant, many projects have uncertain economic value and have become unsustainable economic burdens on the country. Despite these difficulties, Sisi has claimed that the country’s economic woes result from factors beyond his control, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Opposition parties have accused Sisi of repressing dissent and perpetuating an authoritarian regime. A broad coalition of Egyptian politicians initially supported his ascension to power, but his popularity and approval have waned in subsequent years. The administration has attempted to address freedom and human rights issues by establishing a national discussion with civil society leaders and giving amnesty to some prominent convicts. Critics have rejected these efforts as merely cosmetic, claiming that arrests have continued. Sisi’s regime has also been accused of preventing possible candidates who could eclipse him from running in elections, prompting claims of political persecution against political opponents. However, while some of these accusations may have substance, most could be fabricated by Muslim Brothers and their Western supporters after Sissi ousted them from power.
Regional Politics Repositioning
Despite these difficulties, Sisi’s leadership has attempted to portray Egypt as a key participant in regional politics. This has been accomplished through a combination of internal and international policy initiatives, including the execution of mega-projects designed to demonstrate Egypt’s rebirth under Sisi’s leadership. Western nations have backed Sisi despite some accusations, as they have no choice. They came to view him as a guarantee for restoring security interests.
The Palestinian Question: A Strategic Pivot
Egypt’s stance on the Palestinian issue, particularly its refusal to support a US-Israeli initiative to transfer the Gaza population to Sinai, indeed marks a significant shift in its foreign policy. This move can be seen as a strategic attempt to reclaim moral and political authority in the Arab world and to signal to the US and Israel that Egypt’s cooperation should not be taken for granted, thereby recalibrating Egypt’s geopolitical value.
Several factors drive Egypt’s refusal to open its border with Gaza. Firstly, Egypt fears a refugee crisis, financial strains, and the potential for permanent displacement of Palestinians into Sinai, which could lead to possible militancy in the region. Egypt is already fighting extremists in Sinai and fears that an influx of refugees could exacerbate this situation. The country is also concerned about being used by the US-Israeli axis if it accepted the proposal of the transfer to Sinai, to fully suppress the Palestinian cause, which is obviously the objective of all Israeli and American leaders since 1948. This is possibly why President Sissi called the Palestinians to stay on their land and resist the occupation.
Its historical experiences and political considerations also influence Egypt’s stance. For instance, ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak denied reports that he had agreed to resettle Palestinians exiled in Lebanon in Sinai. He rejected a similar proposal in 2010 by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to create a Palestinian state there. Egypt’s refusal to open its border to all Palestinians is also driven by fears that this could allow Israel to permanently reoccupy an ethnically cleansed Gaza Strip and push the burden of a refugee crisis onto Cairo.
Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has described the Palestinian struggle as “the cause of all Arabs,” emphasising the importance of the Palestinian people remaining steadfast and present on their land. Egyptian religious institutions and the public echo this sentiment. Sisi’s stance on the Palestinian issue is consistent with his broader political approach. Since becoming Egypt’s de facto leader in July 2013, Sisi has confronted attacks by Islamist militants, particularly in the Sinai Peninsula, and has launched large-scale operations aimed at rooting out extremists.
However, Egypt’s stance on the Palestinian issue is also influenced by its domestic economic situation. Egypt is facing a profound financial crisis that threatens to disrupt its domestic, economic, and foreign policies. The war in Ukraine has exacerbated this predicament, exposing Egypt’s longstanding dependence on fuel and food imports, which have become too expensive for the country to afford. Nobody in Egypt wishes to see this economic crisis fuel social unrest, making it even more critical for Egypt to carefully manage its foreign policy decisions, including its stance on the Palestinian issue. Egypt’s role is today more important to the Palestinians and the Arabs.
Implications and Future Trajectories
The resurgence of Egypt’s role could lead to a realignment of power structures in the Arab world. Egypt’s population size, military capability, and historical significance make it a natural contender for leadership. However, it must contend with the financial prowess and strategic alliances of the Gulf States. Furthermore, how Egypt manages its relations with non-Arab powers like the US, Russia, and China will also be crucial in determining its future role.
Egypt’s shifting stance under President Sisi appears to be more than just political posturing; it signifies an attempt to reorient the nation’s geopolitical strategy. While challenges abound, there is a clear endeavour to reclaim Egypt’s historical position as a leader in the Arab world.
Egypt’s refusal to support the US-Israeli initiative to transfer the Gaza population to Sinai is a strategic move that reflects its desire to reclaim moral and political authority in the Arab world, its concerns about potential security and economic implications, and its broader political approach under President Sisi. This stance also signals to the US and Israel that Egypt’s cooperation should not be taken for granted, thereby recalibrating Egypt’s geopolitical value.