Next January, seven years will have passed since the old order in the Middle East crumbled. Egypt had been at the forefront of this political order with a pattern of alliances that had shielded it, for better or worse, from threats to its political stability and national security interests. This order had been aligned with the policies of the old regime of former president Hosni Mubarak.
Economically, the regime had adopted policies that were inspired mostly by the free market model that was carried out alongside the gradual dismantling of the public sector. On the regional level, Cairo had been considered a very close ally of Saudi Arabia and most Gulf countries, save Qatar. As far as Israel was concerned, we would not characterise relations between Egypt and Israel as excellent, but working to find a solution for the Palestinian problem had become a common interest regardless of the fact that their respective positions were not always identical. The United States, as a major super power, had enjoyed a dominant role in intra-Arab alliances as well as in the intra-regional ones. The Middle East was not in a state of peace, but nor was it in a state of war. No one could argue that the nations of the Middle East had enjoyed unprecedented political stability, but threats to their national security interests were, to a large extent, contained.
The last seven years, be it in Egypt or in the larger Middle East and North Africa, have seen the whole regional and Arab order shaken, and in some instances, as in Syria, Iraq, and Libya, state institutions were so battered that the state itself in the three countries was on the verge of complete collapse.
Egypt was not spared the ups and downs of the last seven years that were called, initially, the “Arab Spring.” This period has had its adverse impact on the alliances of Egypt, be it with the United States of America or with Arab and regional powers. The classification of allies, partners, friends, adversaries, and foes had been rearranged in a way that is difficult to know who are the permanent allies of Egypt or its friends and who are its enemies. The most direct threat to Egypt’s national security interests today is the ever-shifting pattern of alliances within the Middle East, in addition to the fact that this pattern is no longer predictable. It keeps changing according to circumstances. The ally of yesterday could become the adversary of tomorrow, and vice versa.
Traditionally, alliances are meant to contain and deter long-term threats to a group of like-minded nations that share the same interests and values that they do their best to protect and even promote. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) comes to mind. On the Arab level, the tacit alliance between Egypt, on the one hand, and the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, on the other hand, is a case in point. Alliance in this context should not mean a military one, but rather, a cohesive bloc of countries that share a common vision of threats to their political stability and their national security interests. Adversaries and rivals were, more or less, the same.
It is no longer the case today in the wake of the destabilisation of the Middle East and North Africa, such a destabilisation that has, temporarily, blurred the lines between the true allies and the actual enemies. As far as Egypt is concerned, it finds itself in the unenviable situation of looking for dependable medium- and long-term allies. The decision of the American administration to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has sent shock waves in the Egyptian foreign policy establishment, and the various think tanks in the country that specialise in foreign affairs. The question has become persistent of whether the alliance of Egypt with Washington still serves Egypt’s national security interests? This question has gained additional importance lately, in the wake of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Cairo on 22 December, his second to Egypt in less than two years. His second visit to the Egyptian capital came against the backdrop of a growing Russian role in the Middle East, particularly in Syria. Russian support for the Syrian government serves Egypt’s national security. It is worth noting that the two countries have signed a memorandum of understanding for the use of military airports in both countries by their respective air forces. It is a milestone in Egyptian-Russian relations and it could open the way for future military cooperation between the two armies.
Egypt needs to find solid allies on whom it could depend in defending its national security and borders against a multitude of adversaries and foes, among which is cross-border terrorism. And most importantly, against adversarial alliances and strategic partnerships that pose a threat to its national security. The latest move in this context was the announcement, made in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, on 24 December, concerning a strategic partnership between Sudan and Turkey, during an official visit by the Turkish president. Thus, the avowed adversary of Egypt on the regional scene has gained a foothold on our southern borders. With this visit, Egypt has become encircled from the east, from the west, and from the south. I doubt we could rely on the United States to deter and contain the threats coming from all these directions.
We badly need to rethink our pattern of alliances. Times have changed. A new order is called for.