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. Cairo may be too cautious or risk-averse, a consequence of the 1967 war and of recollections of the Yemen trap. It has a very strong preference for state-to-state relations. Its relations with Egyptian public opinion are more complex than what meets the eye. We do not have polls, but we believe a significant majority tends to trust the State on foreign policy issues. Nevertheless, political opponents can be very vocal and virulent. Almost on all counts, this opposition is much more radical that the State.
Regarding the Israeli/Palestinian issue, Egypt’s policy rests on stable principles: it is committed to the peace with Israel. This commitment has resisted the “test of time”. The two countries can and do cooperate on a lot of issues, including security and gas, even if Egypt does not consider Israel as a “real” friend and is deeply hostile to Israel’s stand on Jerusalem and sensitive to Palestinian plight. Cairo is also committed to the two-States solution, and opposes firmly the “one-State” option, as it is a recipe for new intractable problems that will emerge sooner or later. It also opposes any unilateral decision, especially if it is as important as an annexation of parts of Palestinian territory. It is committed to direct negotiations, even if nothing comes out of these. Negotiations at least considerably weaken the case for unilateral decisions. Moreover, this option emphasizes the need for Egypt’s expertise and ability to mediate. Therefore, Cairo understands, but disapproves the Palestinian Authority’s decision to stop them, and believes the outcome of years without a peace process strongly proves this was wrong. I often read Egypt has no interest in finding a solution, as this would reduce the western need for Cairo, but this was never true. It is even less so now, as many revisionist powers challenge the status quo: Egypt’s moderation is as indispensable as ever.
Now consider Egypt’s geopolitical situation. It is surrounded by hostile forces: Turkey on the Northern (the Mediterranean gas fields) and Western (Libya) fronts, and may be also on the eastern one (Turkey’s relations with Hamas and Sinai’s jihadists). Ethiopia’s dam project is a crucial threat, and Sudan and Read Sea’s security are also a huge source of concern. Cairo already feels the heat on two fronts, Libya and Ethiopia. The annexation of the Jordan Valley could inflame Gaza and/or the West Bank, and would give Turkey’s and the Muslim Brotherhood’s propaganda grain to grind. Usually it is safe to say the Egyptian public opinion no longer believes the Brotherhood, which is too aligned on Turkey’s to be audible, but things could change. This annexation could also induce the Palestinian authority to burn its bridges. It might even consider new alliances – although this, for the time being, looks unlikely.
It is interesting to consider how Cairo handled Trump’s peace plan. Cairo saw it coming. For many months, foreign policy circles discussed thoroughly all the possible options. Nobody liked the plan. The question was “what to do about it”. It became quickly clear a frank “yes” or “no” were unpalatable options. Almost nobody pleaded for a “yes”, and in any case nobody wanted to test the public opinion on this. The main argument for a “yes” was double: First, Israel expected an Arab “no”, which would have allowed it to reap the fruits, to obtain most of the benefits of the deal, without giving anything. Second, on the ground conditions kept and keeps on worsening. Trying to stop the deterioration was worth a try. But accepting such an unfair deal was too much to stomach, and pressurizing the Palestinians for it was also unacceptable. Neither a “no” was an option: Egypt did not want to antagonize neither President Trump nor the Gulf monarchies. it needed US support in its severe dispute with Ethiopia and in Libya; it could not afford to lose the support of one of its friends in Washington. It needs the Gulf for obvious reasons.
Cairo opted for a median way: First, it promised to study Kushner’s plan carefully and invited all the concerned parties to do so. Second, slightly later on, it reiterated its lasting support for a Palestinian State with Eastern Jerusalem as its capital. As far as we can guess, it planned to start negotiations on it, to discuss almost all the clauses, to propose alternative solutions, to ask difficult questions, to raise many objections: instead of a deal without negotiations, it would go for lengthy negotiations, gaining time, hoping either to better the deal or to let it die. It would try hard to get the Palestinians at the negotiating table, but it would not pressure them to accept anything.
What can Cairo do? It will try to convince Netanyahu and President Trump the move is too risky.
What if Israel proceeds with this? Turkey has emerged as the main threat, the main revisionist power and aspirant to hegemony. It has repeatedly proved its willingness to use force, and its president has displayed a constant and sometimes shrewd brutality. Moreover, Mr Erdogan has repeatedly expressed his hatred for President al-Sisi. Israel has also reached the same conclusion: Turkey is no longer an ally, even if on some issues (Syria) both countries have common (anti-Iranian) interests. Turkey’s challenge has incited Egypt and Israel to strengthen cooperation and security ties. This, and the other threats Cairo has to confront, preclude any strong and significant concrete stand/retaliation against annexation. Any response will likely be restrained. Cairo will condemn it in different forums and reiterate its traditional position. It may leave some space to Israeli bashers in the Egyptian media. Unless the Palestinians spark off a new intifada, Cairo may even avoid to take small measures expressing its deep discontent. However, a new intifada is a real risk.