For the first time in a decade, an Israeli prime minister is visiting Egypt. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is hosting Naftali Bennett at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, at a time when Cairo has begun to play a more assertive regional role, especially in mediating between Israel and the Palestinians. More important than politics, however, is Cairo’s perception that better relations with Israel may boost the Egyptian economy at a time when austerity measures are weighing heavily on consumers.
With trade surging between Israel and the United Arab Emirates following the Abraham Accords, Sisi may see a compelling case for thawing the cold peace that Israel and Egypt have maintained since 1979.
In 2019, after 40 years of peace, bilateral trade stood at a paltry $267 million. After a single year of peace between Israel and the UAE, trade volume between the two countries reached $712 million.
In March, some 60 Israeli and Egyptian businessmen congregated at Sharm el-Sheikh for the largest bilateral meeting of its kind, to discuss expanding economic cooperation. The conference received “little press coverage, at the request of the Egyptians,” who still fear public shaming of their ties with Israel.
The March conference, along with Bennett’s visit, suggest that Egyptians have realized that their peace treaty with Israel offers economic benefits that they have yet to reap. But not so fast.
While the two countries have full diplomatic ties, Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel has yet to lead to truly normal relations, mainly due to seemingly popular Egyptian opposition. Egyptian politicians tread carefully, often away from the spotlight, when dealing with their Israeli counterparts. In 2018, then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Sisi in Egypt, but the meeting was kept out of the public eye.
With Bennett as the new prime minister, Sisi can use change in Israeli leadership to argue that Egypt has an opportunity to turn a new page with the Jewish state and start collecting the economic rewards of normalization. While Emirati success is the most visible, Egyptians may also be thinking of Turkey, whose government is hostile to Israel politically, but has eagerly reaped the benefits of bilateral trade that is now worth $6.5 billion a year, an increase of $5.1 billion from the days when the ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) first came to power in 2003.
If normalization is driving Sisi’s first-ever invitation to Israel’s head of government – the previous visit by Benjamin Netanyahu came in the final days of the regime led by Hosni Mubarak – it has yet to show in public Egyptian rhetoric. Sisi’s regional policies continue to be portrayed as part of a plan to bolster pan-Arabism, a plan that precludes a partnership with the Jewish state.
According to Egyptian columnists, Sisi’s goals consist of inter-Arab reconciliation and an effort to stem intervention by non-Arab regional powers, mainly Iran and Turkey, in ongoing conflicts in Libya, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Iraq. For this purpose, Sisi has participated in two summits: One in Baghdad that saw the participation of several Arab states plus Turkey, Iran and France, and secondly in Cairo, during which Egypt hosted King Abdullah of Jordan and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.
If Sisi’s overture toward Israel, and his hosting of Bennett, is a first step toward true normalization and economic cooperation, then the Egyptian president will have to do more heavy lifting in selling such concept to his public. Sisi’s job will not be easy or the most popular, but it will be the right thing to do in leading his country in the right direction. Behind the scenes cooperation can only go as far in boosting bilateral economic ties, especially the lucrative tourist trade.
If Egypt is not willing to tap into the prosperity that normalization with Israel has to offer, other Arab countries are queuing in line to do so, from the UAE and Bahrain to Sudan and Morocco.
The Egyptian president can either grasp the opportunity or can stick to Cairo’s old ways of maintaining ties with Israel behind closed doors while appeasing Egyptian public opinion and allowing instigation against the Jewish state.
Egyptians deserve to be told the truth about the economic rewards they can collect from normalizing their ties with Israel. Alternatively, they can just continue doing more of the same, which has so far yielded little, if any, benefits.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy. Follow him on Twitter @hahussain