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Opinion: Sisi’s Foreign Policy | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi waits for a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at the presidential palace in Cairo September 13, 2014. REUTERS/Brendan Smialowski/Pool (EGYPT – Tags: POLITICS)

One hundred days into Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi’s presidency, it is time to count up the country’s achievements—although this is something that will no doubt depend on a person’s political position. But no one, not even Sisi’s opponents, can deny that the president has taken risky decisions on the domestic front and that he has been able to implement and pull these off. Sisi removed subsidies on vital goods, such as fuel, and reduced subsidies on bread. Yet, Egypt remains strong and present and the Egyptian people have been able to bear the price increases based on the government’s promises that this is the only way to save the country from utter collapse.

We were waiting for President Sisi to revitalize Egypt’s role on the foreign policy front, but it is clear that—unlike his predecessors Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Mursi—he is prioritizing the domestic situation.

This gives several indications to the outside world. Firstly, the new president does not run away from domestic problems to focus on international issues, as previous presidents did. Secondly, he has sent a message to foreign powers that he is in control of the domestic scene, including issues relating to security and living conditions. Thirdly, Sisi does not seem to be looking for attention, since most of his meetings with world leaders have been limited and related to domestic issues or to Egypt’s regional interests. We believe that this is a temporary situation until the country develops and moves forward, only then will the president turn his attention to regional affairs.

The most important crisis was the recent war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. During this conflict, President Sisi amply demonstrated that he is not driven by the media or the opinion of the street, which called on him to intervene. Sisi only intervened after he ascertained that there was a particular role that only Egypt could play. Also, he was able to draw red-lines with the warring parties—Israel and Hamas—and make sure that they did not attack Egypt or seek to blackmail its leadership. This is why Hamas returned to Cairo on Egyptian terms, withdrawing a series of inappropriate remarks that it had made when it found that Iran, Turkey and Qatar could not offer it anything. Egyptian intervention was the only way to reach the final agreement. Moreover, the Israeli delegation was only welcomed in Cairo when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stopped threatening a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip in order to score points with Israel’s right-wing political parties.

In my opinion, the real challenge is Libya. The country is in a continuous state of institutional collapse and facing a quasi-civil war. This represents a direct threat to the security of Egypt. It seems that President Sisi did not want to get involved in a dispute between the warring parties in Libya and so he distanced himself from the situation. However, at the same time, he couldn’t allow the fire to reach Egypt’s borders; this is why he has secured an agreement with Libya’s other neighbor, Algeria, over how to deal with the situation in the country. It is clear that Egypt and Algeria’s priority is to restore stability and support the legitimate parliament and government in Libya. Algerian-Egyptian cooperation is the only way to stop the situation in Libya from spiraling out of control and to block foreign interference in the country.

As for the situation in Iraq and Syria, President Sisi has chosen to stay well away from this crisis, except for limited participation in the international alliance that is being formed against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). This is a step that will also help the war that is being waged against armed groups in Egypt and represents a justification for the outlawing of the Muslim Brotherhood, particularly as the Brotherhood opposes the war on ISIS.

On the other hand, Sisi has strengthened his relations with his original allies, namely those he fostered ties with before he assumed the presidency and particularly Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Russia. Egypt’s cooperation with these states drastically increased over the last one hundred days, benefiting Sisi’s domestic reform program. This alliance has also enabled him to strengthen his stance against critics from Western governments in general. In fact, the Americans and the European Union appear to have given in to the new reality in Egypt, announcing their acceptance of the Sisi government and withdrawing their earlier-stated disapproval.

One foreign policy approach that remains murky is Egyptian cooperation with Russia, particularly if it comes at the expense of Egypt’s long-held relationship with the United States. Does President Sisi really want to change history for the third time? The first time was when President Gamal Abdel Nasser shifted to supporting the Soviet Union against the American camp, via the Czech arms deal. The second was when President Anwar Al-Sadat expelled Soviet experts from Egypt and restored positive relations with the Americans. We are therefore not sure if Sisi’s policy represents a drastic shift towards Moscow or is simply a calculated move to serve temporary needs. Only time will tell.