Analysing the evolving trajectories in contemporary Egyptian foreign policy is not simple for several reasons related to its history, the cultural importance in the Arab and Muslim world, the geostrategic relevance of the country, and, finally, for the role of military in national and international politics. There are several determinants that explain Egypt's foreign policy behaviours and its peculiar approach in the external dimension of the state.
Egypt is on the threshold of becoming a natural gas and electricity export hub, a development which, if it materializes, carries the potential to radically reconfigure the pattern of energy connectivity between Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Reorienting the energy architecture at the intersection of three continents, Egypt’s program to develop its energy exports has already started to reshape geopolitics from the eastern Mediterranean to the Horn of Africa.
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.
The Nile River conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia still appears to be at an impasse. But even if an agreement is reached on the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Egypt will be on the losing side. For decades, Cairo had opposed any expansion of the water infrastructure on the upper reaches of the river. However, the country was unable to prevent dam construction in Ethiopia. Such dams are particularly dangerous from an Egyptian perspective because over 85 percent of Egyptian Nile water comes from the Ethiopian highlands.
Egypt’s brief dalliance with free elections after the 2011 uprising led, perversely, to the most authoritarian government since the 1970s. Under the presidencies of Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, the country had started a slow and uncertain transition from the full authoritarianism of the Nasser period to a halting semi-authoritarianism: it had reopened the system to party competition, although it continued to ban the organization with the largest popular support, namely the Muslim Brotherhood. It allowed some, though limited, freedom of the press and of speech.
Check-points guarding the entrance to a village or road junction. In January and February, I crossed many of them in the southern regions of Egypt, on the Luxor-Aswan-Abu Simbel axis. The guards do not appear very attentive. Helmets are worn loosely, bullet-proof vests are laid on a mobile shield, coffee mugs lay around, vehicles are under canopies, and there are few mobile barriers. From a turret, the muzzle of a Kalashnikov emerges, but upon closer observation, there is no guard ready to embrace it. The rifle is instead fixed to a firing slit.
Since 2011, the Egyptian armed forces have played an unusual political role, at the center of Egyptian governance on a very wide range of matters. The set of crises imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic is shaping — and even diminishing — parts of that role in some ways that are subtle but still very clear from the public record. The result is the emergence (or re-emergence) of a wider field for the cabinet and civilian technocrats.
One of the key developments in the Middle East in the last few decades has been the growing alliance between Egypt and some of the Gulf Cooperation Council states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates/UAE). For most of the 1950s and 1960s Egypt, under President Gamal Abd al-Nasser, viewed the Gulf’s ruling families as reactionary and medieval regimes whose days were numbered. Meanwhile, the Gulf leaders felt threatened by Nasser’s vision of Arab nationalism and socialism.
Almost ten years after the Arab Spring, Egypt is experiencing a counter-revolution that has swept away the momentum of the democratic revolts to make room for a military-dominated autocracy. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi appears to be Egypt’s strongman, but the foundation of his power is fragile and closely connected to the trajectory of the military élites.
After an uncertain political transition following the 2011 revolts, Egypt seems ready to reshape its geopolitical role in the Mediterranean area and fulfil its geostrategic goals, always maintaining their national security principle to be an essential objective of its domestic and foreign policy. The two main closely and interconnected scenarios, where the country’s strategic ambitions are projected, move from Libya to the contested waters of the Eastern Mediterranean.
The decision making in Egyptian foreign policy reflects the strategic and geopolitical culture of the State. Remarkably enough, it never loses sight of the long-term considerations. Therefore, it is often reluctant to cut the gordian knots. Security considerations are more important than economic and commercial ones. Of course, the president is the ultimate decision maker, but most decisions are the fruit of considerable brainstorming in the regalian institutions and the foreign policy community.
The spread of COVID-19 has hit countries and regimes in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region at a time already characterised by deep-seated issues, such as ongoing conflicts, widespread popular protests and economic crises. These ongoing insecurities partially explain what is behind several governments’ attempts at minimising or dismissing the real threat posed by the pandemic, as presidents and rulers attempt to maintain a hold on increasingly unstable societies and political systems.