Egypt bets on strategic relations with Trump and Putin

According to sources close to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, next year will be Egypt’s year par excellence

Raghida Dergham
Raghida Dergham
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According to sources close to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, next year will be Egypt’s year par excellence. They say Egypt will be the only Arab country that will have strategic quasi-alliances with both Putin’s Russia and Trump’s America. They say in all confidence that Egypt’s economy will recover but also its strategic role, to the point that it will stop needing assistance from wealthy Gulf governments. The sources claim that there is a nationalistic and patriotic surge in Egypt coupled with a wager on a special relationship between Trump and Putin, and the belief that the Egyptian leadership has made good use of strategic alliances with powers led by Russia. Many in Egypt are celebrating Donald Trump’s victory as though they were American voters. One of the main reasons is the antipathy towards the Democratic candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whom they accuse, alongside the outgoing President Barack Obama, of endorsing the Muslim Brotherhood and their rise to power in Cairo and beyond.

However, the supposedly cozy relationship between Trump and Putin, as suggested by Trump’s campaign remarks, will have a definitive impact on US policy in the Middle East including in the Gulf, the sources argue. They are convinced the biggest winner will be Egypt and the biggest loser will be the Arab Gulf states, and thus Egypt has decided “nationalist pragmatism” requires it to support Russia’s efforts in Syria despite war crimes accusations coming from key European powers. Without equivocation, then, it seems the ruling class in Egypt have washed their hands clean of any moral responsibility vis-à-vis Syrian civilians. The rulers of Egypt seem to have resolved that the fight against Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood is an absolute priority and decided to support the efforts led by Russia, Iran and allied proxy militias fighting to keep Assad in power.

Likewise, Germany is also turning a blind eye to Russian-Iranian violations in Syria. Berlin sees itself as the nexus of Western-Russian/Iranian relations and because it played a key role in making the nuclear deal with Iran happen, the ruling class and the elite in Germany are keen to protect the deal, and therefore Iran, from accountability for its actions in Syria. Egypt in the Arab region is similar to Germany in Europe, in terms of the default exoneration of Iran’s actions in Syria. The difference, however, is that Germany plays a leading role in in influencing US-Russian relations from a strategic standpoint, while Egypt is riding on the coattails of these relations having judged them to be proceeding along a path favorable to Cairo.

Egypt’s leadership has made clear its support for the regime army in Syria and decided that its interest lies in becoming the fourth pole of the Russia-Iran-regime axis

Raghida Dergham

This week, an event held by the Körber-Stiftung Institute in Berlin featured a debate on the nuclear deal. The debate asked whether the deal has made the Middle East more or less stable. A pre-debate poll saw 80 percent disagree with its premise, compared to 60 percent following the discussions. The other 40 said the deal emboldened Iran to carry out military interventions in the Arab countries.

Despite hearing evidence of Iran’s violations, the number of people agreeing to the premise of the debate question doubled. What matters most in this context is therefore the knee-jerk way in which the nuclear deal has come to be defended, coupled with resistance to scrutinizing Iran’s practices in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. Such keenness is obvious in discussions with decision makers in Berlin, not just in terms of bilateral relations with Iran but also in terms of what issues will figure in the agenda of prospective talks with the Trump administration.

Top priority

The top priority in Germany seems to be the Minsk talks with Russia on Ukraine, which German diplomats say they want to keep separate from Syria. Germany does not accept that separating the two issues – something that it will seek to convince Trump of – will have the same effect as the separation of the nuclear deal from regional issues during negotiations with Tehran, which emboldened Iran against Arab countries.

Meanwhile, there is no indication Arab – especially Gulf – governments are thinking about influencing policies being drafted ahead of Trump’s inauguration, be they US or European policies. Russia and Iran are both at the heart of these policies and so there is a vital need to think of an Arab approach.

Egypt is no exception. It is taking out bets, not planning. The political class and elite are furious with the Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, and seem to be willing to gamble relations with them despite the implications for the Egyptian economy. Egypt believes its interests require strengthening the strategic relationship with Russia, an important ally to Cairo in the fight against the Muslim Brotherhood. For Egypt’s rulers, Obama’s departure removes one major foe and obstacle. Donald Trump, they believe, will usher in a new strategic US-Egyptian relationship that will upgrade Egypt’s role in the regional balance of power, without the need for Gulf governments. This is what a visitor to Cairo senses these days. Yet despite hopes for Egyptian economic and regional recovery, it is difficult to be reassured by Egypt’s nationalist wave marred by extreme detachment from the reality of its internal circumstances and regional ambitions.

Egypt’s leadership has made clear its support for the regime army in Syria and decided that its interest lies in becoming the fourth pole of the Russia-Iran-regime axis. Egypt may not be the fourth pole in a military sense, but it will definitely be one in the political and strategic senses. This is a major development, especially as Saudi Arabia and the UAE had rushed to give billions to Egypt to shore up its internal stability and Arab weight in the regional balance of power. But now, things could be altogether different.

The elephant in the room is Donald Trump. Everyone is waiting for the message he will send through his key appointments, led by the state department and the national security advisor posts. Some believe the appointments would determine the trends of Trumps policies. But others believe Trump will personally set the tone for US foreign policy despite being a newcomer.

For its part, Germany is gearing up to influence the Trump administration in a calculated manner, based on policies, relations and strategies. Egypt, however, is betting on changes in the international landscape that it believes would serve its interests, such as the election of Donald Trump and the Russian president’s determination to impose his country’s role in the Middle East through Syria with Iranian partnership. That will be nothing short of a very Egyptian adventure.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on Dec. 2, 2016 and translated by Karim Traboulsi.


Raghida Dergham is Columnist, Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, and New York Bureau Chief for the London-based Al Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is dean of the international media at the United Nations. Dergham is Founder and Executive Chairman of Beirut Institute, an indigenous, independent, inter-generational think tank for the Arab region with a global reach. An authority on strategic international relations, Dergham is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an Honorary Fellow at the Foreign Policy Association. She served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum, and is a member of the Development Advisory Committee of the IAP- the Global Network of Science Academies. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham



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