Perpetual motion

For the last four years efforts to diversify foreign relations have continued apace, writes Doaa El-Bey

Days after his appointment as foreign minister in July 2013 Nabil Fahmi outlined his immediate objectives: to portray a “correct and proper image” of Egypt to the international community; to restore the country’s role in the Arab world, Africa, the Mediterranean region and on the word stage, and to identify a credible and sustainable direction for Egypt’s foreign policy to which end Cairo has worked for four years to build a broad and balanced base of regional and international relations.


EGYPT-US RELATIONS: “Post-30 June Egyptian-American relations have passed through ups and downs. They began frostily, but have steadily improved, most noticeably since the election of Donald Trump,” says Rakha Hassan, a member of Egypt’s Council for Foreign Relations.

Immediately after 30 June two conflicting views were prevalent in Washington: one sought to portray what had happened in Egypt as a coup while the other maintained that preserving good relations with Egypt was a priority.

In October 2013 Congress suspended part of its aid to Egypt pending democratic reforms and the administration halted the delivery of 10 Apache helicopters. But as relations eased gradually during 2014 the helicopters were delivered and aid restored.

Last year saw serious moves to resume the stalled strategic dialogue between Egypt and the US and new fields of cooperation were opened. Barack Obama met with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.

Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri met on a number of occasions with Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry. These visits concluded with Shoukri’s trip to Washington last December when he met senior officials from Congress and the old and new US administrations.

The election of Trump saw a noticeable thaw in relations and an invitation from the incoming US president for President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to visit Washington.

“The two states agreed to greater cooperation in combating terrorism and resolving the crises afflicting the Middle East, there was talk about a return of joint military manoeuvres and far greater military cooperation,” says Hassan.  


COSYING UP TO MOSCOW: As early as September 2013 there were signs of a breakthrough in relations with Moscow when Fahmi travelled to Russia for talks with his counterpart Sergey Lavrov. Lavrov and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu then visited Egypt in November of the same year, holding a 2+2 meeting with Fahmi and Egypt’s then defence minister Al-Sisi.

A second 2+2 meeting was held in Moscow in February 2014. The two visits, together with Al-Sisi’s trip to Moscow following his election, opened the door for greater cooperation especially in the military and nuclear fields. Moscow expressed willingness to help Egypt realise its nuclear energy aspirations and sounded a positive note on other development projects.

The honeymoon ended, says Hassan, with the downing of a Russian passenger jet over Sinai in October 2015.

“Following this incident Russia made exaggerated demands to secure Egyptian airports, demands that should not have come from a friendly state,” he says.

But this month’s visit by the Russian ministers of defence and foreign affairs to Cairo should be seen as a positive development.

“It is an attempt to try to put relations back on track especially and comes in the wake of recent improvements in ties with the US relations. Unfortunately it failed to set a date for the return of Russian flights, and tourists, to Egypt.”


THE PALESTINIAN ISSUE: Egypt’s stance on the Palestinian issue remained constant during the last four years. Cairo supports the right of the Palestinian people to establish a state within the pre-1967 borders with Jerusalem as its capital.

Egypt has repeatedly condemned the building of new Israeli settlements, to no avail.

“The last four years saw broken promises from the US administration on Palestine. Trump has talked about a comprehensive solution but no details have been revealed. He may reveal some details soon but in the absence of tangible developments on the ground I do not expect any positive developments,” says Hassan.


A THAW IN AFRICAN RELATIONS: After years of neglect under Hosni Mubarak post-June diplomacy has focused on improving relations with African states in general and with Nile Basin states in particular.

A breakthrough in Egyptian-African relations occurred with Al-Sisi’s participation in the African Union Summit in Equatorial Guinea in June 2015. The summit saw the African Union’s Peace and Security Council lift its ban on Egypt and a marked thaw in Egyptian-Ethiopian relations.

Al-Sisi met with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and the two issued a joint statement detailing the basic principles governing Egyptian-Ethiopian relations. Ethiopia acknowledged the importance of the Nile to Egypt while Egypt acknowledged Ethiopia’s right to development.

Subsequent steps to build confidence include the signing of Khartoum agreement in 2015 and a series of tripartite technical meetings between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan to assess the impact of the Renaissance Dam on Egypt and Sudan. The last meeting was held in April.

The long-awaited Nile Basin Summit in Entebbe, Uganda is expected to conclude in an agreement between Nile Basin states that will include the recognition of Egypt’s right to its historic annual share of 55.5 billion cubic metres of Nile water.

Nile Basin foreign ministers met on Tuesday, and foreign and irrigation ministers met yesterday, in preparation for today’s summit.


EYES TO THE GULF: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates offered immediate political and financial support to Egypt after the 30 June uprising. Cairo’s relations with Riyadh, however, cooled following the death of king Abdullah in January 2015 and differences over the best way to deal with the crises in Syria and Yemen bubbled to the surface.

In October 2016 Egypt voted for a Russian-sponsored UN Security Council resolution on Syria. Although the resolution failed to pass Cairo’s stand infuriated Riyadh and Saudi oil giant Aramco told Cairo that it would be unable to supply Egypt with subsidised petroleum products, reneging on a deal agreed during King Salman’s trip to Cairo.

Tensions also surfaced over an agreement to transfer the two strategic Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia signed during the same trip. When it was made public the deal sparked protests in Egypt and subsequent legal actions placed the government in a quandary when the courts annulled the deal.

“In spite of the differences Cairo and Riyadh both realise that without cooperation between them many challenges facing the region will not be resolved,” says Hassan.

Last month the two countries united efforts to combat terrorism during the Riyadh Islamic summit and most recently joined forces to simultaneously cut diplomatic ties with Doha.

Qatar, a strong supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, was opposed to Mohamed Morsi’s removal and withdrew the economic support it had provided during the one-year rule of the Brotherhood. The Qatar based TV channel Al-Jazeera has spent the last four years attacking Cairo and Doha has played host to Muslim Brotherhood leaders wanted in Egypt.

The deterioration in Egyptian-Qatari relations culminated this month with the decision — simultaneously taken by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain — to cut diplomatic ties with Doha.


EGYPT-EUROPE: The EU, and especially Germany, was critical of Mohamed Morsi’s ouster. The position, though, began to shift when Cyprus, Greece and Italy showed support for the new Egyptian regime.

Following his election Al-Sisi paid two important visits — one to Italy and the Vatican and the other to France. The visits boosted political, military, cultural and economic relations between Egypt and several European states.

Improved relations with Germany culminated in Al-Sisi’s visit to Germany earlier this month to participate in the African summit held in Berlin. He met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and senior German officials to discuss bilateral relations and pressing regional issues. The trip came three months after Merkel visited Egypt to inaugurate the first phase of a Siemens megaproject in Egypt.

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