North Africa, West Asia

The weakening of Egypt’s regional role

As time passes, pressure on the regime will mount and a choice will have to be made between a domestic crisis, loss of valuable allies and international support.

Maged Mandour
24 April 2017
Xinhua/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi meets with King Salman of Saudi Arabia on the sidelines of the 28th Arab League Summit at the Dead Sea, south of the capital Amman, Jordan, March 2017. Xinhua/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.In the first meeting between President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Netanyahu articulated a shifting dynamic in the region, that of Sunni Arab regimes viewing Iran rather than Israel as the main threat to their national security.

This was followed by reports that President Trump is supporting the formation of a NATO-like Arab alliance, which would include Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Israel, not formally part of this alliance, would coordinate closely with it.

This idea of an Arab military alliance is not new, it was suggested by President Sisi in February 2015 and set in motion by the Arab League during the Sharm El Sheikh summit in March 2015.

Even though President Sisi publicly endorsed the call for an Arab military alliance, Egypt’s regional role has been eroding over the past few years due to its adoption of a conservative foreign policy, which has been causing tensions with regional allies, most notably Saudi Arabia.

Moreover, Egypt has only played a symbolic role in the war in Yemen. It has also played no effective role in the war in Syria or Libya. On the contrary, Sisi has publicly opposed intervention in both Libya and Syria, following the line of supporting “national” armies; in the case of Syria, offering moral support to the Iranian backed Assad regime.

This should raise concerns regarding Egypt’s willingness to play an effective role in any proposed conservative Sunni Arab alliance aimed at containing Iran.

Egypt, as the most populous Arab Sunni state with the largest army, is expected to play an integral role in any proposed alliance. One only needs to remember the second Gulf War when the Egyptian military played an operative role in the containing Saddam Hussein in the lead up to Desert Storm, in addition to playing an integral part in ground operations.

Thus, Egypt’s leadership is in a rather difficult position between appeasing allies, most notably the United States and Saudi Arabia, and being confronted by a domestic crisis, which restricts its ability to act as a regional power.

These pressures result in contradictory positions. Calling for an Arab alliance, while opposing intervention in regional conflicts, and attempting to appease allies, while maintaining domestic stability. In essence, attempting to straddle the fence in a feeble attempt to solicit international support, while avoiding making any tangible commitments.       

The domestic pressures on the regime can be attributed to two main factors, Egypt’s economic woes as well as the fragility of its domestic front. 

Egypt’s crumbling economy & expanding military empire

In terms of the economy, the regime has followed a dual policy of large prestigious infrastructure projects as well as increased austerity and neo-liberal reforms, which have led to rapid inflation, increased pressure on the lower and middle classes, and the expansion of the military’s economic empire at the expense of the private sector.

The Egyptian regime invested 8 billion USD in the expansion of the Suez Canal, a project that has resulted in little tangible returns to the Egyptian economy. This project was primarily undertaken by the military, helping to finance the growth of its economic empire.

Another example, is the new administrative capital. Another mega infrastructure project, primarily being executed by the military; acting, once again, as a catalyst for the expansion of the military’s economic empire.

These mega projects are accompanied by unpopular austerity measures, imposing regressive VAT taxation as well as a free-floating currency due to a 12 billion USD IMF loan agreement, which has led to a significant increase in inflation, reaching 32.5% - the highest since the 1980s.

These policies have not only increased discontent among the lower and middle classes, increasing pressure on the regime, they have also pushed the regime to rely on debt and aid to counter the growing fiscal crisis.

In spite of receiving billions in aid from Gulf states, the levels of external debt have now reached a whopping 60.1 billion USD , the highest in Egyptian history.

Even though the Egyptian regime controls the largest Arab army, its economic base cannot sustain prolonged military operations in Yemen or Syria. It is simply too fragile and debt ridden to do so.

Funds have been squandered on infrastructure projects that have failed to generate revenue or stimulate wider economic growth, thus negatively affecting the economic base of the regime. 

Wealth is being concentrated in the hands of the military elites and this is eroding the regime’s ability to project power beyond its borders.      

The fragility of Egypt’s domestic front

The fragility of Egypt’s domestic front figures more prominently in the ability of the regime to engage in long-term military operations abroad.

The most notable symptom of which is the increased level of terror attacks across Egypt since the military coup of July 2013.

The total number of terror attacks has increased from 376 in 2013 to 812 in 2016, constituting an 115% increase, with 2015 being the bloodiest year with attacks reaching 1097 across the country.

There are also worrying trends of an increasingly active branch of IS operating in the mainland, which is organizationally distinct from Wilayat Sinai, the IS branch operating in Sinai. This mainland branch of IS has claimed responsibility for a number of Church bombings: one in December 2016, which claimed the lives of 25 worshipers; and the twin bombings on Palm Sunday in April 2017, which claimed the lives of 44 people.

The latest series of bombings have prompted the regime to declare a state of emergency across the country, which will only heighten and legalize already existing repression; widening the regime’s brutal crackdown on its critics and the media.

In addition to the wave of terror attacks, Egypt has been experiencing a wave of social protests and labor strikes, in-spite of mass repression, arrest and media censorship.

As of the end of 2015, the Egyptian regime faced on average five times more protests than the Mubarak regime did in the years from 2008-2010, which resulted in the mass eruption at the beginning of 2011.

Based on a report issued by the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, in 2016 there were 1736 protests and 726 strikes. The most notable examples of which were those by workers of state-owned companies, such as those of the petroleum sector. The strikes revolve around work conditions and economic grievances.

Additionally, 2016 witnessed the first mass protest against the regime in opposition to the transfer of two islands in the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia. A move that has not only sparked anger, but also led to a prolonged legal battle.

Thus, the regime is not only having economic difficulties, it is also facing strong domestic discontent regarding its economic and social policies. As such, any foreign involvement can lead to intensified opposition, especially if it could potentially result in high levels of causalities.

The regime has limited room for maneuver and can offer little in terms of material support to allies. Based on this, one can argue that the value of Egypt as a pivotal state in the region and member of a potential alliance to counter Iranian influence is rather limited.

This raises questions regarding the value of American aid to Egypt, since it only helps to perpetuate the grip of a de-stabilizing regime, which is primarily concerned with the short term goals of elite enrichment and regime security, and is in essence, weakening the ability of Egypt to act as a balancer and guarantor of regional and Gulf security.

Considering external and internal pressure on the regime, it has little choice but to attempt to straddle the fence in an attempt to appease all parties. However, as time passes, pressure on the regime will mount and a choice will have to be made between a domestic crisis, loss of valuable allies and international support.

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