In his recently-published memoirs, Egypt’s former foreign minister, Nabil Fahmy, painted a clear picture of the prevalent mood inside Egypt’s ruling establishment concerning the country’s stance towards great powers. In the 2000s, he explains, former president Hosni Mubarak and many of his aides “came to believe” that the United States was pushing for a regime change agenda in Egypt. While Mubarak is long gone, Washington’s unsupportive attitude towards the Egyptian government during the events of the Arab Spring consolidated such views among a large number of Egyptian officials and policymakers. Hence, an “extremely widespread” and potent “conspiracy theory” has come to rule the day with regards to Egypt’s international relations. Fahmy was no proponent of this theory, but in a meeting held with senior officials soon after he took on the mantle of minister of foreign affairs in 2013, he put forth what would become the motto of Egyptian foreign policy: “Over-dependence on the United States or any other state is detrimental to our interests”.
In terms of impact, Egypt’s historic turn to the United States in the aftermath of its 1973 war against Israel was one of the greatest reversals of alliance in the modern history of the Middle East. It paved the way for decades of a deep and multifaceted alliance between the two countries. Since the late 1970s, the US has provided Egypt with at least $80 billion in military and economic aid, cooperated with Cairo in promoting Arab-Israeli peace, combatting terrorism, and evicting Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait. Bilateral cooperation also included significant levels of trade and investment, and biannual military exercises. However, the gradual US retreat from the Middle East over the course of the last decade and rising Egyptian concerns about frequent US denunciations of Cairo’s human rights abuses made the alliance look like it had run its course.
Indeed, seeing US assistance suspended or delayed several times from 2013-17 over its human rights record, Cairo decided to diversify its international allies, heavily engaging with the two rising stars on the stage of world politics: Russia and China. Moscow had upgraded its involvement in the Middle East, propping up Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria and becoming a major player in the Libyan civil conflict. Two months into his presidency, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi visited Moscow. In the following few years, the value of bilateral trade increased, Egypt purchased billions of dollars’ worth of Russian military hardware (including fighter jets and attack helicopters), a Russian industrial zone in Egypt was created, and the two countries signed a strategic partnership agreement. Moreover, Russia bought a 30% stake in Egypt’s giant Zohr gas field, and it is currently constructing Egypt’s first nuclear power plant, located on the Mediterranean coast, pursuant to a deal to the tune of $25 billion. Politically, the two countries are apprehensive about the specter of radical Islamist movements, and they see eye-to-eye on developments in both Syria and Libya. Of all these spheres of cooperation, the military one seems to be the most crucial for Cairo. It includes not only the purchase of sophisticated jets and weapons systems, but also military drills and efforts to enhance the interoperability of the two armies.
If military ties cemented Egypt’s relations with Russia, it was economic and business considerations that brought Egypt and China closer together. Egypt had taken notice of China’s coming into bloom as an economic superpower, and a political superpower-in-waiting. Keenness about upgrading its ties with Beijing led to an extensive deepening of bilateral relations over the past few years. Sino-Egyptian ties now involve numerous and frequent presidential meetings, vigorous trade, investment and industrial relations, a vibrant joint economic zone in Egypt’s Suez region, broad participation by Chinese companies in the construction of Egypt’s new capital, and plans for a vital Egyptian participation in China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. As a result, China has become Egypt’s main trading partner, surpassing the US, Germany and Italy, Egypt’s traditional business partners. Low levels of military and security cooperation have also been put in place in recent years.
A defining feature of Egyptian foreign policy over the decades was the congruence between its policy towards superpowers on the one hand and domestic economic policies and political plans on the other. In the 1950s and 1960s, for instance, Nasser’s socialist policies and his quest for regional leadership compelled him to turn to the Soviet bloc. In contrast, Sadat’s quest in the 1970s for economic development, modernization and peace with Israel dictated closer ties with Western nations, especially the US.
Today, the picture looks more ambivalent, and the lines have not been clearly drawn. After all, America’s single-superpower moment seems to have passed, but no bipolar or multipolar world structure has yet emerged in its place. Cairo is clearly hedging its bets, wishing to have it all ways: US military aid and diplomatic support, Russian military hardware and Chinese capital. Whether simultaneously courting all parties is a viable policy over the long-run, let alone at what cost, still remains to be seen. President’s al-Sisi’s friendly relationship with US President Donald Trump notwithstanding, the US administration had already threatened to impose sanctions on Egypt if it went ahead with plans to purchase sophisticated fighter jets from Russia. At any rate, if the Democratic candidate Joe Biden makes his way to the White House, Egypt may have to make some hard choices.