Commentary

A New Foreign Policy in Egypt

Middle East In Focus

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Following Egypt’s successful efforts to broker a reconciliation deal between Hamas and Fatah, against the opposition of the Israeli government, many are beginning to note the new direction that the Egyptian foreign policy is taking in the post-Mubarak era. Its features include rapprochement with Iran, a new border policy with the Gaza Strip, and friendlier relations with Hamas.

Commenting on recent events, Hassan Nafaa writes in the Egyptian Al Masry al Youm, “There have been clear shifts in Egypt’s foreign policy since the ouster of ex-President Hosni Mubarak, long considered a ‘strategic treasure’ by Israel, in February. The speed of these changes has come as a surprise to many. Egypt is most visibly shifting its foreign policy on three issues: bilateral relations with Iran, the Palestinian reconciliation process, and the Israeli blockade on Gaza.... The collapse of the succession scheme, which served as the main force behind Egypt’s foreign policy decisions, means that the country's foreign policy can be guided first and foremost by its national interests….The present shifts in Egypt’s foreign policy are only the beginning and promise to be followed by larger transformations.”

Marwa Awad also interprets the recent “Palestinian accord [as] a signal of Egypt policy shift.” In an article for the Turkish Today’s Zaman, Awad writes, “By pushing Fatah and its rival Hamas to end their feud, the generals who now rule Egypt are seeking to gain leverage over Israel, cozy up to regional rival Iran and gain credibility among a largely pro-Palestinian population….Since Mubarak’s resignation on Feb. 11, the interim military rulers have steered foreign policy away from Mubarak’s legacy to show that Egypt now wants to slowly but surely expand its alliances and restore its status as a regional power. Military intelligence supervised the Hamas-Fatah accord, and Egypt said it would send a security team to Gaza soon to implement the agreement.”

There are signs that the new policy shift is moving forward at full speed. In addition to bringing together the two main Palestinian factions last week, Cairo’s efforts at resuming ties with the Iranian regime have received positive signals from Tehran. The Iran News Daily website in a report published this week noted, “[Iranian] Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said here yesterday that Tehran and Cairo are strongly determined to resume bilateral ties. He reiterated that the two countries have announced their strong will to resume all-out cooperation….The two countries’ officials are exchanging views and consulting on opening a new chapter in Tehran-Cairo bilateral relations. Turning to his upcoming visit to Indonesia to attend the NAM [Non-Aligned Movement] foreign ministerial meeting, the Iranian foreign minister announced that he is to meet his Egyptian counterpart on the sidelines of the event.”

Others within Egypt are calling for even more radical changes, especially with regard to Egypt’s relationship with Israel. Earlier this week, in a statement published on the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood website IKHWANweb, MB Chairman Mohamed Badie, “addressing the Palestinian cause,…called for the country’s next parliament to review the Camp David peace accord with Israel…. In his weekly statement titled “Palestine and the new era” Badie stated that the next phase requires Egyptians to unite and demand the ending of normalization and to review the Camp David agreement. Furthermore, Badie called for cancellation of natural-gas exports to Israel and [its] industrial zones describing them as economic interests.”

Cairo’s policy shift hasn’t been received well in Washington, Tel Aviv, or even the capitals of other Arab countries. In the Egyptian weekly Al Ahram, Doaa El-Bey suggests the Egyptian government is only “bowing to popular will,” however, doing so seems to have upset both Israel and its Arab allies. “...A dramatic change in Egypt's foreign policy since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak aims to help reassert Cairo's leadership in the Arab world, establish good relations with all powers in the region, and give priority to Egyptian interests….However, rapprochement between Egypt and Iran is likely also to alarm Arab Gulf states who are worried about increasing Iranian influence in the Gulf. Prime Minister Essam Sharaf had to repeatedly assure the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait during a Gulf tour last week that any improvement in Egypt's relations with Iran would not be at the expense of Arab Gulf states, which have long accused Tehran of meddling in their affairs.”

Jonathan Cook, writing on Sabbah Report, also believes Egypt-Israel relations are in the process of radical change. He argues that the Egyptian government “is consciously distancing itself from some of the main policies towards Israel and the Palestinians pursued by Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president overthrown by a popular uprising in February….Analysts said Cairo wanted to restore its traditional leadership role in the Arab world and believed it was hampered by its ties with Israel….Silvan Shalom, Israel's deputy prime minister, told Israel Radio on 1 May that Israel should brace for significant changes in Egyptian policies that would allow Iran to increase its influence in Gaza. Egypt's chief of staff, Sami Hafez Anan, responded dismissively on his Facebook page to such statements, saying, ‘Israel has no right to interfere. This is an Egyptian-Palestinian matter.’ In a sign of Israeli panic, Netanyahu is reported to be considering sending his special adviser, Isaac Molho, to Cairo for talks with the interim government.”

According to numerous reports, in Washington DC, United States lawmakers are growing considerably uneasy about the tack taken by the interim Egyptian government.  Jim Lobe reports on Al Jazeera, “The foreign policy independence displayed by the new regime since Mubarak was swept from power nearly three months ago has elicited nervous reactions from key sectors here, particularly in Congress, where the influence of the so-called "Israel lobby" is especially strong….[U]nder new foreign minister Nabil Elaraby, Egypt's assertion of independence from both Israel and the United States has gained speed, even as he has repeatedly insisted that Cairo has no intention of renouncing the Camp David Accords.”

In the same report, however, Lobe also acknowledges the public pressure on the Egyptian government to choose a new path: “All of the steps taken by the new regime appear designed to bring Egyptian foreign policy more in line with popular opinion, which, according to public opinion polls, particularly since the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, have shown significant opposition to US policies in the region and hostility toward Israel, in particular. In the latest poll released last week by the Pew Research Center, 54 percent of respondents said they favoured annulling the Camp David treaty with Israel, although 36 percent said they thought it should be retained. A plurality of 43 percent said they would prefer a more distant relationship with the US than that in recent years. The same survey showed strong support for the former Arab League chairman and likely presidential candidate Amr Moussa, who has favoured greater independence from US foreign policy.”

It is not clear, however, how Egypt’s newly found independence might affect others in the region. After speaking with several senior Palestinian and Egyptian officials, Avi Issacharoff and Jack Khoury are convinced that “Egypt [is] pushing Hamas to soften [its] stance on [a] Shalit deal.” In a recent article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz they write, “Egypt is trying to exert pressure on Hamas to soften its stance so that a deal can be concluded, which would include the release of Palestinian prisoners....Palestinian sources said Egypt has been working hard to advance a deal to free Shalit, who has been in Hamas captivity since June 2006, since Hamas and Fatah signed a reconciliation agreement last week, according to the report.  ‘Reliable’ sources quoted in the report said the Egyptians intend to present their plan to an envoy who is due to arrive in Cairo shortly....The Egyptian officials responsible for maintaining ties with the Hamas leadership are Murad Muwafi, Egypt's new intelligence chief, and one of his deputies, Mohammed Ibrahim. Muwafi has the trust of Hamas, and Ibrahim has been involved in Shalit negotiations from the beginning. Since German mediator Gerhard Conrad has failed to get Israel and Hamas to agree on the terms for Shalit's release, Egypt has in effect taken over as the primary intermediary.”

 


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