Egypt on the Damascene road

Original Date 3-31-2017


            Ever since Egyptian president as-Sīsī took power in the summer of 2013 he seemed close to Riyadh, but the question raised from time to time how and when this relationship will end. Occasionally rumors and signals surfaced as well, that Cairo would be ready to help the Syrian government in its current crisis. But all such hopes were dashed away so far by the economic and diplomatic cooperation between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. At least until mid November 2016, when the previously harmonious marriage came to a sudden rift manifested in bilateral economic sanctions and a diplomatic debacle. It could have been viewed as a temporal collusion, but as-Sīsī actually poured oil on the fire in his 22 November interview with Portuguese RTP channel, in which he explicitly showed willingness – though some restrictions – to help the Syrian army.[1] So it seems Cairo is in fact on the Damascene road, tacitly changing its course. But why and to what extent is yet to be explained.

            Since as-Sīsī came to power the question was constant, whether will he be the one, who finally brings end to the Egyptian crisis ongoing ever since 2010, and stability to his country. In other words, will he put Egypt back on its feet and make it fill the role Cairo normally fulfills in the Arab World. Since it normally has an “Egypt first” policy in regional affairs. Always having a hand in every issue, but not sacrificing anything to the expense of national interest.[2] Just as well Cairo has a major, almost all-dominant role in the Arab World for a number of reasons. She is the bridge between North-Africa and the Arab East – which otherwise have few things in common. All interaction flows naturally through her. On the other hand Egypt is the biggest Arab country considering its population, economy, size of army and cultural influence. In this regard it is basically the only country capable to be a real counterweight to other regional non-Arab powers, like Israel, Turkey or Iran. As Kissinger once said, “Arabs can’t make war without Egypt, but can’t make peace without Syria”[3], which reflects well its role as a tacit balancing power. There were so far only three occasions, when Egypt didn’t, or couldn’t fulfill this traditional role. The first was the time of ‘Abd an-Nāṣir’s presidency (1953-70) – when Cairo truly sacrificed a lot for fellow Arab lands in expense of national interest. A turbulent and in many ways fruitful, yet at the end failed experiment to truly lead the Arab states. The second was the time when Egypt was excluded from the Arab League for the peace accords with Israel. But even at that period – when other Arab countries competed to fill this void, like Iraq, Syria, or Saudi-Arabia – brought about inner conflicts and wars, which could only be eased at the end with Cairo’s reintegration in 1989.[4] We saw the last occasion in recent years affected by the so called “Arab Spring”, when fundamentalist ideology was spreading in the region and by that Qatar and Saudi-Arabia – bulwarks of this mentality – tried to take the lead. As it is evident by now, however, they failed to stabilize the region on their own ways.

            So the traditional role of Egypt is a generally passive, balancing role, always trying to keep the status quo, never letting any state go beyond the possibilities and resulting war. As much as possible, always defusing conflicts. A role generally passive and scorned by Arab public opinion, yet as it is evident, much needed. A position Cairo could not fulfill in the last years, especially at Mursī’s ill fated presidency, being under strong Qatari economical and ideological control.[5] With as-Sīsī’s accession to power this Qatari influence came to an end, only to be replaced by that of Saudi-Arabia, being the biggest economical and diplomatic supporter.[6] At that time I saw this all-sweet marriage short termed, dependent only on two factors. How long will be Riyadh able to finance the relationship, and when will as-Sīsī feel himself secured enough to end it?

            Now it seems that this honeymoon completely ended. What is more, this new Egyptian-Saudi collusion gives new impetus to the previous Egyptian-Qatari conflict, bringing Doha and Riyadh to the same side once more.


On the Damascene road

            When as-Sīsī took power, he was founding his support basis on national,  patriotic, generally secular groups. Forces which once stood by ‘Abd an-Nāṣir, and on edge with religious power groups. These expressed willingness from the very early days of as-Sīsī’s tenure to carry on the purges against Islamists even in Syria, either by individual volunteering or in groups, even without governmental support.[7] Though that hasn’t manifested yet in big numbers, it was surely pushing the Egyptian leadership in that direction, if that wished to hold on to it’s popular support. In the last two years we could actually see signals from time to time that Cairo aims to get closer to the Russian-Syrian-Iraqi-Iranian block – like presidential visits to Moscow[8], promises of Russian arms purchase[9], or diplomatic support – these were never followed by major steps. In this regard we can deem them as expressing willingness, in case the other side is ready to welcome her in the club. But from mid 2016 on, we could experience more of these signals, showing real readiness from Cairo to actually “switch sides”. Welcoming ‘Alī Mamlūk – director of Syrian National Security Bureau, former director of the General Security Directorate and one of the closest advisors of the Syrian president – was surely a major step in that direction, indicated by the relative Egyptian silence afterwords. Especially since this visit was initiated by the Egyptian side.[10] It was also apparent that in the case of Aleppo’s siege, when many Western countries tried to sanction Syria and Russia, Egypt took Russia’s side in the Security Council. Also – probably not unintentionally – further infuriating Saudi Arabia and Qatar.[11] With all circumstances ready on one hand, two things – among many other – brings this suspected “defection” ever closer and viable now, making it very tempting for as-Sīsī. The ongoing noisy quarrel with Riyadh over an economical case, which can be presented as matter of national sovereignty, and the recent sudden gains of the Syrian forces in their war, making it quite opportune to jump on board. So when the Portuguese broadcast team arrived straight from Damascus to Cairo – hardly a coincidence – for an interview with the Egyptian president, he didn’t miss the chance to push the case even much further. This created shockwaves across the region, between friends and foes alike, much as it was intended.


Strange bedfellows

            As mentioned before, when the current Egyptian leadership came to power, Saudi Arabia instantly became it’s closest supporter, almost sole financial donor and staunchest ally. Which is understandable from Riyadh’s point of view, bogged down in the Syrian, Iraqi and Yemeni crisis’ and quarrels with Iran, deeply in need of an ally with real military capabilities, such as Egypt. From Cairo’s side, however there was always something unnatural in this bond. Being Saudi Arabia one of, if not the strongest bastion of fundamentalist Islamic ideology, Riyadh is actually promoting the very evil for the Egyptian ruling elite and its supporters.

            At that point, however, one should not lose sight from the reality Egypt faced at the time, right after a coup d’etat. In fact the country was in desperate situation. The society after years of internal struggle and three major power shifts was – and still is – tired, in need of stability, yet greatly divided between two major ideological-social groups. The one which by great simplification we can call national-secular forces, and the other – by just the same simplification – Fundamentalist-religious group. As-Sīsī was building on the former – eventhough always presenting himself as a pious and religiously observant leader -, and was purging the latter from all spheres of control, as that was the power basis of the previous, Mursī government. That naturally brought about security concerns and unease, mostly overcame, but still present today, as many of these groups openly called for insurrection, and some of them are waging war against the government on the Sinai Peninsula. Not to mention the foreign support their enjoying and their covert moves. The security situation is still precarious at best with the constant flow of martyrs from the Sinai front, and occasional terrorist attempts in the major cities.[12]

            As for the regional affairs, there is fundamentalist militancy basically in every directions. In Libya, Syria, Palestine and even in the Sudan, in which in the Mursī years thousands of Egyptians took part – with the lightly cloaked support of that government -, who are now ready to come home and carry on their mission. With these wars not easing, it is clear to see that the inner and outer security concerns of Egypt were highly interlocked than, as they are now. Both these fronts had to and has to be dealt with, while it can easily bring on social rift, and international condemnation for a government founded on a coup d’etat. Thought that hasn’t resulted in harsh Western criticism so far, surely makes it vulnerable for it.[13] That alone, with the initial purges which laid the basis for as-Sīsī’s power almost resulted in civil war.

            To make the case even harder, the economy was in ruins. The almost unsolvable case inherited after Mubārak[14] was met with years of internal struggle, incompetency and mismanagement, which resulted in a huge loss of tourism. One of the major sources of income. All these combined with impending foreign loans and no volunteers to give further ones crippled the economy in total.[15]

            All these circumstances added up, it is easy to see, that while every concern was to be addressed, it was impossible to deal with them all at the same time. The Syrian case was surely way back at the list. Especially with a leadership on all too shaky grounds in the beginning. Which concludes that whoever was about to give a helping hand, he was more than welcomed, since support and financial sponsorship were desperately needed. Simply, there were not many options at hand. However controversial the Saudi support was, it simply had to be taken without hesitation. In that sense actually, Cairo was maneuvering well.

            Egypt welcomed the diplomatic backing, and the occasional financial support from Saudi-Arabia[16] and the Emirates[17]. These manifested in the infamous Mistral purchase, when Egypt bought – from Saudi money – the French warships originally manufactured for Russia[18], in the loan for the Suez Canal II Project[19] – partially financed by Riyadh – and in public accommodation building projects planed and payed by the Emirates. These gave Cairo some financial liquidity to live with. For these Egypt payed back in numerous instances. It backed the Kingdom in it’s harsh dispute with Iran following the execution of Nimr an-Nimr.[20] Also supported Riyadh’s stance on it’s Yemeni campaign, even promising troops to help.[21] Though ground troops never made it to the field, some planes and warships actually took part in the conflict, and – by some unconfirmed sources – Egypt sent mercenaries and military advisors there. Yet this was probably far from the support the Saudi leadership had in mind. But the lack of interest alone did not cause rift between the sides. There was no apparent reason the severe relations just yet, but it could be suspected that this is only matter of time. In fact in early 2016 the relationship seemed better than ever, as in April the countries signed a financial agreement.[22] But storm did come in the turbulent summer and autumn of 2016 when suddenly everything turned around, and it was hard to follow the changing currents of the relationship. Only now, after some time can we see a bit clearer, where all this was heading.

            The case which actually caused turmoil, or which gave the perfect excuse for Egypt to disembark – to speculate retrospectively – presented itself in April 2016 about the bridge project through the Straits of Tiran. By this Saudi-Arabia would buy the three islands of straits from Egypt, and would finance the building of a bridge to connect the two country, namely the Saudi city of Tabūk with the Egyptian Šarm aš-Šayh.[23] The project had a number of advantages for Egypt, since the construction itself would move significant capital and help the labor market, and since the bridge would include an oil pipeline and a high voltage electrical wire, that would be a secure way of energy transfer. Yet as this transport way would connect two non-industrial cities with not much connection to one another, one can suspect that the real motives behind the pipeline were, that it was might not even aimed to Egypt in the long run. So the project was tempting for Cairo, but not that much, that it would worth losing such a strategical possession as the Straits of Tiran, and it became a matter of national dignity. By now the program seems doomed, as the Egyptian Parliament started lengthy inspections[24] and the court rejected passing the islands to Saudi.[25] Considering where the real power and decision-making lies now in Egypt, it seems quite unlikely that this could have happened without at least the consent of the Presidency, meaning that it was in fact as-Sīsī who had second thoughts about the bridge. The response from Riyadh was actually not light, as it tried to persuade Cairo by economical means to accept the offer after all. Lengthy disputes and mutual blaming erupted, and by September the relationship already seemed grim. Following a quarrel with Qatar, and siding with Russian in the UNSC, Saudi recalled his envoy from Cairo.[26] The first round of diplomatic barrages was followed by economical pressure, when Saudi-Arabia suspended oil shipment to Egypt, trying to choke its economy.[27] But Egypt didn’t back down as was expected. The Emirates tried to mediate between the sides, as it does even now, but to no avail.[28] When Kuwait announced that it is willing to supply Egypt with the needed oil, the Saudi attempt to make Cairo yield was successfully circumvented. These moves show well, that while Egypt is getting slowly back on its feet, Saudi is losing its hold even on fellow GCC members.

            In the midst of this dispute Egypt received further economical reassurance, which gave some more leverage against Saudi, when World Bank agreed to give $3 billion loan to finance several development projects.[29] This was in fact a clear signal from the West, the it approves the economical reform package announced earlier that year. So Egypt could maneuver, and was less dependent on Saudi support, especially that it only has “economical war” with Riyadh and Doha, but Emirati and Kuwaiti support hasn’t diminished. Meaning Cairo could afford to take chances against Riyadh, and no to give concessions.

            All these conflicts were already ongoing, when in 18 October 2016 ‘Alī Mamlūk payed his mentioned visit to Egypt.[30] Though for some time the visit was not followed by governmental statements, yet it was signaled already at that time, that Egypt is willing to help the Syrian government. The last step in this direction was the mentioned interview of as-Sīsī to the Portuguese channel, in which he himself stated that Libya, Syria and Iraq are important for the internal security of Egypt, and they can expect direct support. Clearly a message just as much for Riyadh as to Damascus or Moscow. Thought certain reports indicate, that this move was planned, since Egyptian army officers are working in Syria since November 2016, meaning preparations are well on the way.[31]

            Since than Saudi-Arabia announced some willingness to grant further financial support, in other words tries to tempt Egypt, but by now Saudi money can only buy Egyptian neutrality, not alliance. As-Sīsī clearly signals readiness to support the other side, if that is willing to take it. While that is yet to be seen, one wonders, why Egypt is moving away from its so far closest supporter, or even willing to turn against it. Actually the reasons are numerous.


The internal reasons

            Most of these were discussed before. In the beginning as-Sīsī needed any aid he could get, so simply could not afford to turn down Saudi support. But this newly built friendship was troubled and controversial from the very beginning. Ideologically the countries could not be farther apart. This alone didn’t promise too much for the sustainability of the alliance. But from this ideological difference comes a security concern not easy to put aside.

            Saudi-Arabia – among some other GCC member states – globally and regionally sponsors and funds fundamentalist Islamic groups both because of ideological conviction and of means to create proxies on which it can rely on. Through them Riyadh has considerable influence in most regional countries, even in those which are at odds with her. Since in Egypt these very groups – mostly the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates – constitute the biggest obstacle and they are the main source of militancy in the region, the ideological struggle is already a security concern.[32] Within the state this threat can be contained, even though it is questionable how much will Riyadh consent to the Egyptian army’s war against them. But as it was concluded, regional militancy and internal security are highly interlocked by the high number of Egyptians who participated in the Syrian, Iraqi, Lebanese and Libyan wars. Therefore it is futile to tackle militants only within Egypt without obtaining some sort of settlement in the neighboring countries, and leveling their spiritual mentors within, being supported by Riyadh. It is easy to see that if Syria falls, it would became a training camp of terrorist organizations, just like happened with Libya or Iraq. In that sense Syrian stability is part of Egyptian security. The same applies to Libya – as indicated in as-Sīsī’s interview -, but there is basically no government to build on, unlike in Syria.

            The contradiction has an economical aspect none the less. It is true, that the Kingdom can be a very effective friend given its vast wealth, the picture is just not that clear. In one hand Riyadh already shows clear signs of weakening.[33] On the other, Egypt’s economy is primarily linked to Western states, both as market and as its investors. Most of the impending loans are from there. So in the long run for Egyptian economical sustainability an agreement has to be reached with them. All other support is temporal. From 2011 on, and especially under Mursī, the main supporters were Qatar and Turkey, but they took hold of so many assets in the Egyptian economy that it was visibly harmful. So as-Sīsī tried his best to curb this infiltration and get back as many of these assets as possible – no wonder Ankara and Doha are so much at odds with Cairo since than. But there is no point to go through all that struggle if at the end it all falls to Saudi possession. Especially further concessions can not be given, like that of the Tirani Project.

            Given the fact that the key of economical progress – and by that social sustainability – is a settlement with the West, Saudi support was doomed to lose its all-convincing charm eventually. Not that it was worthless. Not at all, but not as such as it would worth sacrificing long term interests. That is exactly what happened, when World Bank agreed to a $3 billion loan, or when Western companies agreed to invest to Egyptian oil industry, so crucial for Cairo.[34] So when the “good old Western friends” returned, Riyadh could not just ask whatever it wanted, as was the case in the summer of 2013. Surely Cairo would welcome further cooperation with Riyadh, but only if the Kingdom was willing to consent to a Syrian, an Iraqi, a Libyan, and an internal Egyptian settlement, which – invested so much in these proxies already – Riyadh is so far not ready to do.


The outer reasons

             As mentioned before, the biggest concern for as-Sīsī – maybe even bigger than economy – is security, for which the fundamentalist militant groups are the biggest threat. Their activity in Egyptian soil, their capability to attract large number of Egyptian youth and fanatics, and to come home one day from the regional wars makes Egypt eager to solve these conflicts. Cairo wants firm governments in Damascus, Baghdad and Tripoli. Governments to work with to eliminate terrorist groups, can obtain information from them, and also can influence them. This priority along with the economy points to the necessity to close folders, not to open new ones. But that is exactly what Saudi cooperation brought about. Egypt got involved against Iran and in Yemen only for Riyadh. As for Iran, backing the Kingdom in her dispute bore no benefit for Egypt, and thought Tehran is not a friend – having already several controversies with it as well – it can be such eventually, given the right circumstances. So there is no point of antagonizing relations with the Iranians just for nothing. That is why Cairo supported Riyadh in her diplomatic debacle with Tehran in late 2015, but became neutral after the first barrage. There was no use, to follow up the conflict. The Yemeni case is very similar. Yemen is not a major source of militancy spreading to Egyptian soil, so therefore it is not high on the security agenda. Saudi-Arabia’s campaign there was not only doomed to fail eventually – lacking real exit plan, or the army to enforce a settlement alone -, but also a very unpopular one in the general Arabic opinion. Even those GCC members and Western states who supported it, did so with great reluctance and generally were shy about it. Also this campaign promised no gain more than Saudi favor, but considering the Saudi army was – as it proved itself to be – incompetent to wage this war, it was clear that Riyadh in reality wanted Egyptian troops to fight for her under her banner. Without feasible exit plan, that would have meant the Egypt traps itself in a highly unpopular war amid great economic hardship, with high bigger security issues impending, with no gains on the horizon. What is worse, waging war in Yemen has a specially demonic echo in the Egyptian mind, especially for patriotic forces, since that was something ‘Abd an-Nāṣir tried as well, but failed in.[35] So Egypt gave some backing to the Saudi intervention, even promising troops on the grounds. Whether military experts and mercenaries were sent or not covertly – it is almost impossible to tell now -, but some warships and planes took part in the conflict. After some shelling at Aden[36], however, and a swift clash with Iranian warships operating in area[37], these were pulled out. Once again, after some initial backing didn’t bury itself in a prolonged and fruitless war.

            For all matters concern it was crucial to build viable relationship with the United States. Not just for the economy, but just as much it was crucial to gain American approval for the as-Sīsī government and its activities both internally and regionally. In that relation Saudi measured a lot, since the Kingdom could help building bridges with Washington, initially pessimistic and disapproval of the coup. But in that case big changes happened as well. Cairo tacitly waited for the American presidential elections, since if Clinton won – having excellent connections with the Saudi leadership – would make that link unmeasurable. Trump, however was very critical towards Riyadh in his election campaign, as much as was supportive to the idea to end regional conflicts with Russian-Syrian-Iranian involvement. In other words, contradictory to Saudi strategies. Meaning that Riyadh was not much of an asset for Cairo toward the Americans, but quite the opposite. Indeed, since Trump won, the American support for as-Sīsī is getting more apparent every day. The economy was mentioned, but the Egyptian president was the first Arab leader to congratulate and to be greeted by Trump.[38] Also as Egyptian Foreign Minister Sāmiḥ Šukrī visited Washington in December 2016 he was presented by a letter of support from the Congress to as-Sīsī, as well as he explained in great detail the economic and social reforms his government is undertaking, which was highly endorsed.[39] That indicates Egypt does good enough with the US even without Saudi support. Given that this meeting took place after as-Sīsī’s mentioned comments regarding Syria, it can indicate that Washington is not against the idea. Not vocally at least, or it doesn’t take it seriously.

            Looking at the other way, however, there is also another consideration which might push Cairo away from Riyadh. A year ago I wrote that a new power block is ascending in the region. That of Iran-Iraq-Syria-Lebanon with Russian and potentially Chinese support, which now seems to be in a grim situation, but overcoming the current crisis and age-old distrust between one another will surely be the master new realities thereafter. Such an alliance, almost a confederation, will be something must be taken seriously, and will be able to affect regional ties greatly.[40] By the end of 2016 both Iraq and Syria arrived to a major point in their struggle against Dā‘iš with the liberation of Aleppo and Mosul respectively. With these the war will not end, but a final phase will begin. An ideal opportunity to join, taking much credit at the end, without sacrificing much. At the same time the Saudi-Qatari-Sudani-fundamentalist block is losing the regional conflict, both economically and strategically. So while it is time for Cairo to let one group go – as allies are already distancing themselves from Riyadh -, it is also tempting to join the other. Since with a gift that big, as-Sīsī could pull great favors from Damascus, while he could influence the new realities in the region.

            This tendency from the Egyptian president is of course not new, as he was visiting Putin previously and was ready to buy arms from Russia, but two things so far made Cairo think twice before any major step. The controversial relationship with Iran is one of them. The other is, that when one has a population with major Wahhābī-fundamentalist favoring, which has Riyadh as its moral beacon, it is not easy to join a Shīi-Russian-Chinese military alliance. Or at least as that is labeled by fundamentalists. This can be exploited by the Kingdom, if that wishes to take revenge. This concern is not necessarily a deterrent, since can be used – if cards are played well – to curb fanaticism, showing an alternative against Wahhābī doctrine, but surely something to be taken into consideration.


So will troops go?

            At the end we are yet to see, since the decision is up to personal deliberations, even though preparations seem to be on the way. Still we are safe to say that as-Sīsī blew a smaller bomb with this interview, even if that was not out of the blue. To the question of whom he views as “Syrian forces” to be supported, whether that is the Syrian Army, he clearly said “yes”, which means that the Syrian government is the partner the Egyptian president aims to cooperate with. He mentioned, however certain “sensitivities” to be kept in mind, without elaborating on that point. Which means that he knows very well, that the question is just not that easy.

            First of all such operation however tempting might be, is extremely power consuming. Sending a symbolic force has no value, while sending a serious amount might be beyond the capabilities. Not only the Libyan and the Sudanese border has to be watched carefully, but the Libyan crisis already needs intervention. Egypt is already – acknowledged by as-Sīsī in the interview himself – engaged in Libya, while supporting Tunisia to seal of its border. The Sinai situation constantly needs forces as well. To keep that front contained at least, the Palestinian border has to be controlled with significant forces, while its supply through the Sinai is vulnerable. It also has to be kept in mind, that if such a decision was made and Egyptian forces entered the Syrian arena, Riyadh might try to discourage Cairo by covert operations. Either through Jordan, or straight from her on territories. The same applies to Israel since both states invested a lot in Syria since 2011. Considering the already precarious state of the Sinai, that area consumes great amount of military, supplies and intelligence services, even if no intervention happens, since chances cannot be taken. Though an involvement in Syria could help that case, since the Sinai, Syria and Iraq are highly interlocked, that is surely a vulnerability in need of careful planning.

            It also has be kept in mind, that such a military expedition is very expensive. Even in Yemen the Egyptian government was discouraged by the costs, though there the Saudis would have funded the mission – at least partially – and would have delivered the needed supplies. Such a cost-sharing in Syria is unimaginable. Not from the Syrians, nor from the Russians, so that would be an Egyptian payed expedition. Yet the amount of resistance from local population expected in Yemen is not about to occur in Syria, and the “allies” are much more capable. But long term involvement cannot be allowed, because the economy simply can’t take it. Therefore even if the decision is made, Cairo has to move when the end in relatively close, but it still matters militarily and diplomatically. A long term involvement is also precarious, because if the mission endures, it will surely cause losses. In time, such losses in human life might undermine the inner support of as-Sīsī. In that sense he would take chances whether he becomes a national hero, or cause of thousands of martyrs.

            International opinion also matters, since so far the West in general is against the Russian lead alliance. If Egypt joins, that would might result international condemnation. That should not necessary take absolute weight in the decision-making, since the population is already not a fan of Western approach to the situation, yet with such great dependency on economical support, this cannot be neglected. Condemnation might result in sanctions, and that cannot be allowed. As-Sīsī’s image in the West is already vulnerable by the coup, the subsequent purges, and the relative instability which takes place in the Sinai. These combined with criticism about a Syrian mission can be exploited to the level of sanctions. Therefore Egypt has to evaluate possible Western retaliation before any action is taken. To measure such, the small, but increasing signals, like interviews and statements mentioned before can be ideal. So far, no criticism was aired from the White House, though whether it happened in a non-public fashion is hard to know.

            With all these in mind, the Egyptian leadership also has to consider the reception of such intervention, and not just on the regional or international, but on the local level. Egyptians in general – for historical and cultural reasons – are not popular in Syria. Especially for the high amount of Egyptian fighters who joined the ranks of Dā‘iš, Ğabhat an-Nuṣra or other terrorist groups, and for the support Mursī and such fanatical imams like Qaraḍāwī gave to them. So the Syrian population, apart from the government or military leadership, might not be just too enthusiastic about the Egyptian troops after all. Unlike the Russians and the Lebanese – who are generally welcomed there – Egyptians have to be careful no to anger the population against themselves. If such was the case, the whole intervention was not only expensive, but also impossible to exploit. Also the Egyptian public opinion might won’t support such step. Once again, unlike the Lebanese, the Iraqis, and Iranians – or Russians for that matter – who are involved and take pride in their martyrs for a cause deemed just and almost holy, the Egyptians are not great supporters of Baššār al-Asad. Let us not forget, that for five years in the mainstream media the Syrian president was presented as dictator and bloodthirsty, which highly affected the general opinion. So it is not to easy to change that picture just that much. 


Costs and benefits

            From all that it seems that as-Sīsī hears the call of time and is up to action, yet he wishes not to rush. The situation is opportune none the less for a number of reasons. A good case is given by faith to break the so far close tie to Riyadh, all in the name of protection national sovereignty and dignity. Trump’s victory and his so far envisioned plans are also promising for Cairo. Also now with  Aleppo liberated and Mosul on the way, great victories are to happen in the close future, and that is the time when public opinion is turning. Since late November a number of Turkish steps can be observed as well, suggesting that Ankara is about to mend fences with the Damascus-Tehran axis, as much as it happened with Moscow.[41] Ending Turkish support for the militancy would be valuable as well, such Turkish step would render Egypt almost needless, but surely not something that worths great concessions. So it would be imperative for Cairo to get ahead of Ankara. The circumstances all around make this course much needed anyways, and now the constellation is as favorable as it gets in the Middle East.

            What Cairo does now, is that it counts the costs and benefits. Considers how much support can provide and at what cost. Until then constantly tests receptiveness on both sides of the front, trying to figure out reactions, while not aggravating any side. That could be seen last in 5 December, when together with New Zealand and Spain Egypt presented a resolution to the UNSC about a possible ceasefire in Aleppo, but as it was vetoed by Russia and China, Cairo refrained from showing discontent.[42] Which indicates, that even until Egypt is ready to join the war effort, tries to be a conciliatory force. That is a favorable position for the aftermath of the war, even as-Sīsī never formally joins the coalition. All these steps and statements are not only for Washington and Riyadh, but just as much for Damascus, Moscow, Beijing and Tehran respectively. From that can assesses the Saudi and American reactions as much as those of the other side. So far these are promising. Not only because Washington hasn’t aired any objections, but because the other side is signaling favorable too. It is hardly a coincidence that China agreed to a major currency swap deal on 6 December 2016, accepting each other’s currency in bilateral trade, which helps Egypt to keep her dollar reserves high.[43]

            So will Egypt send troops to Syria or not? So far it doesn’t seem so. Not on the grand scale, thought some troops are already sent. But Cairo is grooming the ground for that none the less, and the shift can happen any, even in the last second. One should not be surprised by that. It is clear, that Egypt is indeed capable to send forces even up to 50 thousand to Syria along with great number of air forces and technology. But as-Sīsī will only make this step when possible Israeli, American and EU retributions are evaluated and neutralized ahead. Since these actors can influence the policies of one another, it is imperative to defuse them all and respectively before this possible major step. But as it mentioned, the omens are promising so far.

            In the last few months we can see, that all is going well for this policy, and Egypt is walking – even if softly – on the Damascene road. Both the Astana and Geneva IV negotiations were promising, much more than ever before to reach some sort of closure to the Syrian conflict. Ideal for Cairo even to take part at the end in the peacekeeping. But when German Chancellor Merkel visited Egypt in March 2017, as-Sīsī clearly stated in the joint press conference, that he is willing to stand by the Syrian government.[44] Not to forget that high level intelligence cooperation already exists, and Egypt sent helicopter pilots to help train the Syrian army.[45] So we may just wake up one morning and find the Egyptian Army already present and involved in Syria.


What to be expected?

            After all pros and contras laid out, we should evaluate what can be expected either if Egypt joins the fight in Syria and if not. Even if Cairo doesn’t send troops, it is quite expectable that at the end she will ask a price from the winning side, if that is the Russian-Syrian-Iraqi-Iranian coalition. Even by now provided unmeasurable help in intelligence and material to Damascus.

            Yet if Egypt indeed joins the fight, that would further speed up the collapse of Dā‘iš and it can be expected that after not more then a year victory can be celebrated. Than the operation can be changed to a peace keeping mission. If all happens that way Egypt will be in a much more favorable position. First of all Cairo will have a saying in the settlement, which means influence in the new power block. By that, and having Russian favor behind her, would have an easier time to deal with her own inner, security concerns since outer support for militancy could be cut. Also that favor could manifest in Russian and Chinese economical help. That would make a hero out of as-Sīsī, at least domestically, and could further stabilize his position. Though the plan has considerable risks, as mentioned before, he hardly has any other choice at this point.

            An Egyptian intervention could and probably would ease the burdens on Egypt, and stabilize the region somewhat, we can hardly expect miracle. At least for not for Egypt. The country is in such deep economical, social and by them ideological turmoil that with everything going by the plan, that wouldn’t pull Egypt out of the abyss. But that is not the question anymore. Stepping in, or at least reaching out towards the Russian lead coalition is a case of necessity. Not much else is left to be done. Some sort of action has to be taken to break the circle of insecurity in all fronts, and now the time is better than ever. In fact the constellation is so favorable that it is not likely that a chance like this will come again. Otherwise, mending fences with Riyadh as-Sīsī would end up as a Saudi employee – at least in the public eye – in a sinking ship, which even if manages to stay afloat, just as much won’t solve Egyptian problems.

            So now we have not much else to do, than wait and see how it turns out, yet for first time in six years with positive foreshadowing. Nonetheless we should be ready for a step like this from Egypt, and to receive it positively.




[2] Seale, Patrick: The Struggle for Syria: A study in Post-War Arab Politics, 1945-58, Yale University Press, New York, 1987, pp. 16-23, 46-57;  Cook, Steven A.: The Struggle for Egypt. From Nasser to Tahrir Square, Oxford University Press, 2012, Oxford, pp. 9-38


[4] Goodrazi, Jubin M: Syria and Iran. Diplomatic Alliance and Power Politics in the Middle East. I. B. Tauris & Co, 2009, London pp. 81-143, 288-289

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[14] Karen Pheifer: Reform and Privatization in Egypt, in: A Journey to Tahrir. Revolution, Protest, and Social Change in Egypt [ed.: Jeannie Sowers, Chris Toensing], Verso, 2012, London

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[35] Ferris, Jesse: Nasser’s Gamble. How Intervention in Yemen Caused the Six-Day War and the Decline of Egyiptian Power, Princeton University Press, 2015, Princeton, pp. 29-35, 70-87, 174-260, 290-294





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