Since becoming Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has pursued an admirably erratic approach to foreign policy that has secured major gains for Egypt but left allies and enemies confused and concerned.
Sisi, a former army general, has variously indicated an openness for closer ties and stronger cooperation with seemingly opposing regional and international powers such as the United States, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Given the nature of geopolitics and the tense relationships between some of these countries, it should be impossible to move closer to one without moving away from another.
The United States has traditionally been one of Egypt’s closest allies, providing the country with an estimated $1.3 billion in military aid annually since 1979. Yet Sisi also signed a $3.5 billion weapons deal with Moscow in September 2014 and accepted a $25 billion loan from Russia to build a nuclear power plant. How is Washington to read Sisi cosying up to Russian President Vladimir Putin at a time when US-Russian relations are in sharp decline?
Sisi has also increasingly opened Egypt to China, meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on four occasions in the last two years. In January 2016, Beijing pledged to invest up to $15 billion in Egypt, including assisting in the construction of Egypt’s new administrative capital.
Will Sisi be able to juggle competing claims from three of the world’s largest powers?
Regionally, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf countries have traditionally been among Egypt’s closest allies. Riyadh pledged $5 billion to Cairo in July 2013 and an additional $4 billion in March 2015, in addition to monthly petroleum shipments for five years thought to be worth $23 billion. How is Riyadh to react to news that Cairo is backing Syrian President Bashar Assad to remain in power and even hosted his security chief, Ali Mamluk, in Cairo when Saudi Arabia views Assad’s removal as an urgent necessity?
The approaches of the two countries reflect differences in priorities. For Saudi Arabia, the priority is countering Iran. For Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood remains the main source of concern. Saudi Arabia wants the Iran-backed Assad out; Sisi worries that Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood, will replace him. The same argument was rehashed in Yemen where Riyadh wanted Egypt to join its military coalition to fight against Iran-backed Houthi rebels but Sisi demurred.
Egypt in October voted in favour of opposing resolutions on a Syrian ceasefire, a move that amply demonstrated the increasingly awkward position that Cairo will find itself in as it tries to maintain its strange and contradictory web of alliances.
More important, this gambit simply did not work and Cairo came in for rare public criticism from Riyadh, which halted shipments of petroleum, albeit temporarily. Saudi Arabia and Egypt need each other but few can deny that things are complicated and there is only so much room to manoeuvre.
The economic pressures facing Egypt domestically mean that Sisi must push for as much foreign assistance as possible. However, the prickly patriotism of the Egyptian people means that he cannot afford to be appearing to go hat in hand either.
Sisi’s decision to return two islands — Tiran and Sanafir — to Riyadh in the same week that Saudi Arabia announced a slew of investments exemplified the challenge he is facing and there were unprecedented protests in Egypt in reaction to this. If Sisi had decided to commit Egyptian troops to a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and become part of a conflict that most Egyptians view as nothing to do with them, then such protests and criticisms would only have been amplified.
Sisi is engaged in a difficult and delicate balancing act. He is seeking to avoid lurching too far in any one direction. To move too close to Putin would threaten the military aid offered by the United States. To take too strong a stance on Syria could cause Riyadh to withdraw its backing. All the while his supporters bridle at suggestions that he could be another stooge of the United States or Saudi Arabia, like Hosni Mubarak, and hail his reorientation towards Moscow.
The longer Sisi can sit on the fence, the more gains he can secure for Egypt but given the increasingly divisive geopolitical situation abroad and the economic and social pressure at home, there are questions as to how long he can sustain this approach. One wonders whether it would be wiser for Sisi to pick a side before circumstances take the decision out of his hands.