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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Is Egypt Back as a Power Player in the MENA Region?

Egypt Back as Power Player
Iraqi President Barhah Saleh (C) receives his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R), and Jordan’s King Abdullah II, in the capital Baghdad on June 27, 2021, in the first visit by an Egyptian head of state to Baghdad in three decades. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP

Ahmad Abdeen

During the fifties and sixties of last century, Egypt played, under the rule of the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser and during the wave of Arab nationalism, a prominent role in the geo-political circles within the Middle East region.; Egypt supported the liberation movements against colonialism in many of the African countries, and internationally participated in several organizations such as the Non-Aligned Movement. It lost its influence after the defeat in the June War of 1967 and furthermore under the rule of Presidents Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, and the January Revolution which led to the internal political, economic, security and social crises that according to many made Egypt dependent on regional powers, especially the Gulf. However, in the past few years Egypt has returned to play many regional and international roles, so what brought Cairo back to this position?

Palestine

At the end of May 2021, Major General Abbas Kamel[1], head of the Egyptian General Intelligence, was in the middle of the Gaza strip accompanied by the leader of the Hamas political movement and one of its most powerful men, Yahya Sinwar. The meeting occurred after the end of the war between Hamas and Israel after Cairo called for and supported a ceasefire. The image of the Director of the Egyptian General Intelligence accompanied by Sinwar signified the restoration of relationships between the Hamas movement and Egypt, which had witnessed severe tensions in the past after the overthrow of the Egyptian army and the late President Mohamed Morsi. This was also a strong indication that the Egyptian influence was returning to the Gaza Strip, as the Egyptian President also promised to send a grant estimated at half $1 billion to aid in reconstruction efforts.

Egyptian sources familiar with the situation say that the scene of the Egyptian intelligence director in the middle of the Gaza Strip is the result of intense intelligence, political and security efforts that go back to 2015, when the tensions between the Egyptian state and Hamas began to subside and a new phase of cooperation began, especially in the fight against extremist groups on both sides of the Egyptian-Palestinian border. The Islamic State (IS) and its branch “Wilayat Sinai”, are examples which reflect the other political and economic aspects, especially with the increase in the influence of Yahya Sinwar within the movement, a former prisoner in Israel who was released in 2011 with the help of Egyptian Intelligence[2] efforts. Sources say that they did not stop working on the eastern Egyptian border, even in the most difficult times.

Libya

Shortly before that, the Egyptian western border was facing turmoil, as the Libyan situation continued to worsen. Turkey had sent its forces and equipment to support the Tripoli government in the west in the face of Major General Khalifa Haftar and his forces, an ally of Egypt and the UAE. The President indicated that this was a direct military clash between Turkey and Egypt, and stated that a red line had been drawn between Sirte and Al-Jufra, which represented Egypt’s national security and if crossed Egypt would enter militarily. However, this did not happen, major international mediations commenced that led to a complete change of scene and the rise of a new presidential council and government in Tripoli, very close to Cairo, which clearly showed during the visit of the Director of Intelligence, Abbas Kamel, who was keen to roam the streets of Tripoli to show the new change.

Iraq

Last June 2021, Baghdad, the capital of Iraq, watched the Egyptian President’s visit, it was the first visit in nearly thirty years, which indicated a return of the Egyptian role and strong presence in Iraq after decades of tension and absence. This visit is considered an important step in the ambitious tripartite project, an alliance between Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and the so-called “new Levant.” In August 2020, the Iraqi Prime Minister, Mustafa Al-Kazemi, announced the project, saying in an interview with the American Washington Post, “The new Al-Sham project, according to the European version, will be presented to the leaders of Egypt and Jordan, explaining that the project will allow capital and technology to flow freely between the three countries.”

The alliance began with a partnership between an oil-rich Iraq, which will supply Jordan and Egypt with their needs through an oil pipeline from Basra to Aqaba and then to Egypt, where other quantities will be refined and re-exported from Egypt to Europe. At the same time, Egypt will supply Iraq with electricity through the expansion of the existing interconnection projects between Cairo and Amman, in addition to economic and trade facilities that open prospects for oil and non-oil investments and can absorb the large Egyptian workforce. Shortly after, Egyptian Prime Minister, Mostafa Madbouly, visited Baghdad. During his visit he signed an agreement titled “Oil for Reconstruction”, which included the contribution of Egyptian companies, especially the military sector (the Engineering Authority of the Armed Forces, the Ministry of Military Production, and the National Service Projects Organization) along with public and private companies in the fields of transportation, water resources, health, environment, justice, investment, housing, construction, industry, trade, and finance. In return for Baghdad supplying substantial quantities of oil to Cairo, which offers capabilities to refine and re-export it, Cairo will be responsible for offering military support by training the Iraqi army forces, which will aid in the expansion once foreign forces withdraw from Baghdad, which is scheduled to be completed by 2022.

Last July, 2021, the Egyptian ambassador to Beirut, Yasser Alawi, announced that the Arab Contractors Company had won the Tripoli port development project, which is one of the most important and concentrated areas of Turkish influence in Lebanon. He used the occasion to emphasize the recent increase of Egyptian presence stating: “Egypt is in Tripoli today, and tomorrow in Sidon, Tyre, Akkar, Bekkaa and all of Lebanon.” A few days prior, Cairo witnessed the official grand welcome of the Lebanese Army Chief General Joseph Aoun, by the President of the Republic of Egypt and the leaders of the army and intelligence who, during the months preceding the visit, made sure to send several military ships carrying aid to the Lebanese army, in addition to other large aid missions carried out by the Egyptian airbridge after the tragedy of the Beirut port explosion.

Africa

As for Africa, it seemed that there was no way for Egypt to redeem its role or influence after its existence was threatened by the Renaissance Dam that Ethiopia built on the Nile, which was considered the lifeline for Egyptians. However, within a few months, the Egyptian army conducted several joint military exercises with Sudan, and signed military agreements with Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, and Djibouti, who witnessed the visit of the Egyptian president as the first of its kind in history.

Dr. Sayed Ghoneim, head of the Center for International Security and Defense Studies, says that the role of Egypt was greatly reduced not only after the January revolution, but also during the past thirty or even forty years, whether by supporting liberation movements in Africa or through Al-Azhar and the Church and sending missions. Egypt was also sending military advisors to countries as was the case with Lieutenant-General Saad El-Din El-Shazly and Field Marshal Ahmed Ismail, as well as trade exchange, and support for governments loyal to Egypt, which stopped completely, especially in East Africa and the Nile River basin countries, which had almost no influence on them. Egypt’s focus on Africa was on three fronts: The Nile basin and the countries bordering the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa, and the Sahel and Saharan countries in West Africa.

The absence of Egypt’s role in the region is due to several reasons, many of which are in Yemen, where there is a history of the Egyptian-Saudi dispute, as well as in Syria, where the Gulf states played a role in supporting the Salafi-jihadi movements against Bashar al-Assad, as well as the Israeli support for some of these organizations. This contradicts Egypt’s extended strategic vision, which is hostile to any religious force, whether they are Jihadist Salafist or Muslim brothers. Furthermore, with the presence of Hezbollah in Lebanon, the most powerful party and ally to Iran, Egypt wanted to ensure that they are not involved in any of these disputes, especially during the first term of President Sisi’s rule Egypt’s focus which was on strengthening Gulf relations to help resolve multiple conflicts that Egypt was in after the January 2011 and June 2013 revolutions.

It is believed that since the June 2013 revolution, Cairo had worked on playing a role in the region in efforts to obtain a share of the influence, as Sisi assumed the position of President of the Republic of Egypt from the seat of the Minister of Defense. This was achieved through several military agreements with some countries from the Nile basin and the Horn of Africa, and to prove a new presence in the Sahel and Sahara. Egypt has begun setting up a training center focusing on that region. Its influential role in Iraq and Jordan comes as a re-establishment of the Arab Cooperation Council, that was setup between the three countries, and Yemen as a counterpart to the Gulf Cooperation Council in 1989.  But it was unsuccessful due to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, and now it is up to the three countries’ economic, security and political interests again. The success of this alliance depends on the form of cooperation, its stability, and its success in gaining the confidence of the three powers interested in the region: the West, Russia, and China.

Even though Egypt’s role seems to have returned in the form of a reaction, it is a necessary strategy, especially in Africa, and will be strengthened by the expansion of military cooperation through training and presence, similar to what was done in Sudan. Egypt’s influence comes as a vital strategy to ensure its role in both the southern and eastern strategic depths, to preserve water rights in the Nile River, preserve national security in the Red Sea, Bab al-Mandab and the Suez Canal, confront terrorism and organized crime in West Africa, and gain votes and influence within Africa to confront Ethiopian influence, where the African Union is located.

[1] https://arabic.euronews.com/2021/05/31/egypt-intelligence-chief-in-gaza-meets-hamas-leadership

[2] https://www.aljazeera.net/news/reportsandinterviews/2011/10/12/جلعاد-شاليط-صفقة-الألف-أسير

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Dima Elayache
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