In the last three months, Egypt has intensified its diplomatic rapprochement with upstream Nile African countries. It hosted heads of state from Eritrea, Djibouti, South Sudan and a high-ranking delegation from Kenya. Egyptian president Abdulfettah el-Sisi visited Uganda and Kenya on December 18, 2016, and February 18, 2017, respectively. Decades ago, during the reign of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egyptian foreign policy had three pivots: the Arab world, the African continent, and the Islamic countries. Nasser’s successors, Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak drew a new course for Egyptian foreign policy by lifting Egypt’s relations with the West and the Middle East to new strategic heights and allocating fewer diplomatic resources to the African continent. The disentanglement from Africa had cost Egypt a hefty diplomatic price. Egyptian foreign policymaking has lacked anchoring in a core national security strategy that prioritizes the country’s water security as a matter of national security. As a consequence, when Ethiopia decided to start the construction process of the Renaissance Dam in 2011, Egyptian policymakers found themselves at loss as to how to handle it. In light of this, does its recent diplomatic charm offensive signal a shift in its geostrategic priorities or is it a desperate search for any form of relevance and attention? How can its move in conjunction to its precarious position in the Middle East be understood?
The primary geopolitical driver behind Egypt’s recent heightened diplomatic activity in East and Northeast Africa is its perennial concern with the Nile waters. Egyptian foreign policy behavior is always intertwined to the security of continuous flow of the Nile. Egypt considers its historical entitlement over the rich river are guaranteed by the two treaties signed in 1929 and 1959 between Britain, Egypt and Sudan, which guarantees it and Sudan the rights to 87% of the total flow of the Nile, and a right to veto any upriver project. However, this arrangement is contested by most of the other Nile basin countries, especially Ethiopia that contributes almost 80% of the Nile water.
Taking the profound crisis that plugged Egypt in the wake of the popular uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak from power as a propitious moment to strike, the Ethiopian government made the construction of a grand dam public in March 2011. Ethiopia’s announcement could not come in a better time than that. The volatile transition period in Egypt stripped the country of an effective leadership to counteract the Ethiopian move… To add insult to injury, President Morsi’s meeting with various Egyptian politicians about the Nile issue was publicly aired where some of the participants were heard suggesting military attacks against Ethiopia unaware that the meeting was aired live on television. Therefore, one way to look at the recent Egyptian diplomatic activities in the Nile basin countries is as attempt to encircle Ethiopia to dissuade it from completing its grand dam project. If Egypt manages to sustain its renewed diplomatic engagement it can reap some strategic benefits. However, as to the issue of stopping Ethiopia from completing the construction of the dam is concerned, the reality on the ground is almost a fait accompli. Whatever it does, Egypt cannot realistically roll back what its neighbor has done.
Another reason for Egyptian turn of face towards Africa can be its increasing weakening position in the Middle East. Unlike in its hey days, Egypt’s importance has waned in the region and replaced by regional power houses such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Iran. The shifting sand of Middle Eastern geopolitical situation has radically rearranged the decks. The region has become a Hobbesian state of nature where almost everyone wages proxy wars against everyone. Multiple countries are competing for regional dominance, playing outsized roles in surrounding countries such as Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Meanwhile, previous regional powerhouses, Egypt, Iraq and Syria, are now constrained by domestic weaknesses. Egypt’s foreign policy reaction to the situation in the Middle East is symptomatic of its waning power. Initially, Egypt tried to touch the hem of Saudi’s foreign policy garment. It abstained from publicly supporting the Syrian government and received billions of dollars from Saudi Arabia in return. However, both countries are not natural bedfellows. They have been rivals for regional dominance and Arab leadership for a long time. So the cozy relationship was bound to falter.
Relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia showed discord when Egypt refused to send boots to Yemen in the Saudi-led fight against Iran-backed Houthi rebels. But the relationship reached a crisis point when Egypt voted in support of Russia’s draft resolution concerning the situation in Syria on October 10, 2016. The Russian draft resolution called for bringing humanitarian aid into besieged areas, urging all parties to halt offensive operations and stressing that moderate Syrian opposition forces must be separated from the extreme elements. Naturally, Saudi Arabia rejected the resolution and was furious that Egypt had accepted it. As a punishment, it cut oil supply to Egypt.
One main reason why Egypt sacrificed billions of dollars in aid from Saudi Arabia by supporting the Russian draft is its desire to affirm an independent path. It is attempting to walk a tight rope between the United States and Russia and is diversifying its geopolitical options. According to the senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a New York-based research institute, Michael Wahid Hanna, el-Sisi foreign policy parameters are revolving around strong anti-Islamist movements. This is the very reason which is gravitating Egypt towards the Russian-Syrian nexus. Egypt is still suspicious of Syria’s ally, Iran, but for now, it is putting concerns about Iran on the back burner and focusing more on Sunni Islamist movements, which it sees as a bigger threat. Also lending support to Syria helps a weakened Egypt evoke its glory days as the leader of Arab nationalism in the 1960s. Thus Egypt’s main preoccupation is seeking allies and relevance wherever it can find them and that partially explains its shifting alliance in the Middle East and Africa.
Egypt’s declining regional power is not solely of recent origin. Despite being the biggest Arab military power, its regional influence has consistently declined over the last 40 years. Since its 2011 uprising, the country has faced pitched political, security, and economic problems—ranging from a failed state on its western borders (Libya), rising domestic militancy and terrorism, severe fiscal and foreign exchange crises, and dwindling water resources. These problems have severely weakened its historically leading geopolitical importance in the region. It is to reverse this negative trend that Egypt is attempting new alliances in the Middle East and strengthening its diplomatic relations with countries of the Nile basin. So far, its attempt has not qualitatively changed its geopolitical position. Egypt is still gyrating on the margins of regional power dynamics and its access to the vortex of strategic hotspots is only mediated through its much stronger regional and international allies.
Joe Hammoura, “The Writhing of the Battered Pharaoh: Egypt’s Geopolitical State”, MEIRSS (Middle East Institute for Research and Strategic Studies), March 13, 2017.