Cairo, Egypt (SCF) – Reports have recently emerged from news agencies that the ban on flights to Egypt by Russian airlines will be extended through 2016. That ban dates back to October 31, 2015, when a Russian airliner, an Airbus A321, crashed in the Sinai peninsula.
Many think that the terrorist attack on the Russian jet was linked to Qatar’s response to Russia’s Aerospace Forces operations in Syria. Since events first began to unfold in Syria, Doha has been an active supporter of the armed anti-government opposition in that country. Ever since 2013, Qatar has been behind the strengthening of the terrorist organization known as the Islamic State (IS). Doha has not only given IS a leading role in the ouster of the Ba’athist regime in Damascus, but in doing so has been trying to weaken the position of Saudi Arabia, which has been using pro-Saudi, anti-government armed factions to battle IS. In 2013 Damascus’s enemies thought that the Assad government’s days were numbered, and they were fighting to divvy up the Syrian spoils. The October 2015 terrorist attack was, in a way, a warning to Russia.
But the terror attack also had another objective: to damage Egypt’s tourism industry. In 2012 Qatar helped propel the Muslim Brotherhood into power in Cairo and provided Mohamed Morsi’s regime with blanket support. By the summer of 2013, when rumors began circulating about the possible privatization of the Suez Canal by companies from Qatar, Egypt was obviously being transformed into a colony of Doha…
But Doha’s plans were upended by the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government in July of 2013. Egypt turned out to be too big for the «Brothers», who did not know what to do with the country. The tensions between the Islamists and the secular forces were multiplying there, and the Islamists were unable to reach a consensus. Egypt’s Salafists were also actively working against the Muslim Brotherhood. By the summer of 2013 chaos was raging wildly in Egypt. Under those conditions it was impossible to invest or conduct business in any kind of normal way. There was a dramatic surge in religious intolerance, and attacks on Shiites became more frequent (the country has a Shiite population of several hundred thousand). At the same time the position of Egypt’s Coptic Christians – who number about seven million and comprise over 10% of the population – worsened. Church burnings and assaults on Coptic Christians became an everyday occurrence. The Islamist government was either unable or unwilling to address the situation. As a result, the grassroots Tamarod movement launched a rebellion against the Muslim Brotherhood government, with the army’s support. General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi rescued Egypt from a civil war.
After the Muslim Brotherhood was deposed, Qatar’s influence in the country took a nosedive. The coup had been backed by Riyadh, which extended a generous line of credit to Egypt’s military government, but Cairo still did not become a Saudi puppet. Under the leadership of General Sisi, Egypt began to turn back to the policy of Arab nationalism. Egypt had been the biggest champion of that movement under the administration of President Gamal Abdel Nasser. It is no coincidence that the most senior Arab journalist, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, who had been Nasser’s friend and cohort, became a presidential adviser to Sisi and the author of many of his speeches. Mr Heikal died recently at the age of 92.
Egypt’s new leaders were very much opposed to the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad, and in September 2015 actually supported the operations of Russia’s Aerospace Defense Forces in that country. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government has backed the secular Libyan government based in Tobruk and headed by Abdullah al-Thani and General Khalifa Haftar, who are leading the fight against the Islamic State terrorists. A strategic Russian-Egyptian alliance has begun to take shape.
Egypt occupies a unique geopolitical position, right between Maghreb and Mashriq, i.e., the East Asian and West African parts of the Arab world. By controlling the passage from the Indian Ocean into the Mediterranean Sea, Egypt is able to influence Syria, Palestine, Arabia (Yemen), and North Africa. The Middle East has not forgotten that every important strategic decision in the Arab world in the second half of the twentieth century was made along the Cairo – Damascus – Baghdad axis.
Egypt, Syria, and Iraq were at one time the most powerful states in the Middle East. Slowly that situation began to change in the late 1970s, when Gulf monarchies with an Islamist agenda took center stage. The disproportionate expansion of their power is one of the causes of the current Middle East crisis. Damascus has endured so much aggression that a long time will pass before that country will be able to take on the role of an independent regional center. And Iraq’s future is uncertain. Cairo remains the only hope for a revival of independent Arab politics.
The threat of terrorism is a big headache for Egypt, but the peril should not be exaggerated. The biggest problems are found in the Sinai Peninsula, where the terrorists from the so-called Islamic State have proclaimed the establishment of the Wilayat Sinai. The country’s other regions, including the major cities, are fairly quiet.
Egypt’s Achilles’ heel continues to be its economy. After Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took power, the government managed to reduce unemployment. Egypt’s new leaders are devising plans to add a new shipping lane to the Suez Canal and to establish industrial zones to manufacture high-tech products. However, these ambitious plans have been stymied by a simple lack of funds. The Egyptian government buys much of the country’s food (Cairo purchases 40 % of its grain from abroad) and is forced to subsidize imports, since poor Egyptians cannot afford to buy bread at market prices. Thus Egypt will either have to apply for loans from international financial institutions (with the risk that the West might make reciprocal political demands) or else devalue the Egyptian pound. The latter step would lead to cuts in subsidies and there could be the danger of a social mutiny.
A cheaper pound could help the tourism industry, but after the tragedy in the Sinai, Egyptian resorts have stood empty. The influx of tourists not only from Russia, but also from Great Britain and Germany, has plummeted. Assistance for Egypt could take the form of investments. Given the current situation, any country that extends a helping hand to Cairo will find itself with a reliable ally in the region.
This report prepared by ALEXANDER KUZNETSOV for STRATEGIC CULTURE FOUNDATION.