Egypt’s rulers have relied upon for their foreign policy on foreign patrons and rent seeking behavior to reinforce their position. This policy is stubbornly persistent in the face of changing Global and Regional realities.
The main reasons being the relative success enjoyed by both President Nasser and President Sadat in obtaining geo strategic rent during the Cold War, first from the Americans, then the Soviet Union, after 1973, the Americans again, this time with more backing from Europe. The last hurrah of this strategy came in 1990 to 2001, when Mubarak sent troops to Kuwait to participate in the US-led Desert Storm operation to throw Iraqi troops back across the border. He garnered about USD 25 billion in debt forgiveness for what was symbolic rather than real military participation. This dramatic event was virtually coterminous with the end of the Cold War, which undermined one pillar upon which Egyptian government geo-strategic rent-seeking had rested.
The second, more important pillar for success of their strategy was Egypt’s relative power, primarily hard but also soft. When Egypt could threaten neighboring states with substantial, even overwhelming Military Power, and could mobilize Arabs via Arab League, wherever and whatever they are (notice Djibouti’s and Somalia’s vote in the recent Arab League resolution on the Nile). This could either be opposed or supported, but both East and West had to deal with it. The current threat on the Ethiopian Dam and the dragging of the US into it using this strategy is a classic example, even if Ethiopia is no banana republic that can easily submit to it.
Generally, it was easier to pay both for the East and West to pay rather than fight with the exception of 1956, 1967, and 1973, which was modus operandi in relations with Cairo. Egypt became one of the World’s largest recipient of public foreign assistance and in 1980, the World’s second largest beneficiary of military assistance, the first being Israel. But the relative value of that assistance has declined in tandem with Egypt’s shrinking power, both hard and soft. Preoccupied with its own welfare, the military has lost its capacity to genuinely address the core national issues and with a growing opposition, and moving to scenarios of foreign military adventure. Soft power of Egypt as Arab Center of Gravity has also shifted in General to the Gulf and to State Based Nationalism, even if phony votes and empty rhetoric still persist in the Arab League such as the one on the Nile. While the Arab League is insignificant in addressing the plight of Palestinians, Syrians, Iraqis, Libyans, Yeminis its voting on the Nile shows the highest level of political hypocrisy and its dishonesty. Egypt no longer has much to offer potential patrons, so they are offering more rhetorical as opposed to substantial support to it. Western support and aid have declined steeply in proportional terms and even in nominal ones, where as key GCC countries, originally willing to Bankroll the Egyptian Military as a useful counterweight to the Muslim Brotherhood, have decreased the resource flow. The Egyptian Regime is providing too little in their investment, and in any case could do little to threaten them with the exception of the Iranian card.
This leaves Egypt having to depend for continued rent on being seen as either too big to fail by its traditional supporters, Key of which are the US, Europe, and the GCC states, or being viewed by opponents of those supporters, including China and Russia, as a new entry point into the Region, or as a counterweight, in the case of Iran, to its Regional antagonists and the US. Neither option is likely to produce geostrategic-rents in the magnitude of the glory days of the cold war, nor even the very recent past when Gulf States supported the Egyptian Military to crush the brotherhood. The Military adventure in the Red Sea with the objective of keeping Ethiopian interest out, will also not work due to the significance of the Ethiopian Economy and Military interest as well as Ethiopia’s neighbors whose interest is more with peaceful cooperation and development with Ethiopia as opposed to Egyptian adventurism in the Horn and the Red Sea.
The too-big-to-fail scenario is based on relatively small stick and carrot. The major stick is undocumented immigration. Egypt can flood Southern Europe with boat people, a potential threat which has been a driving force in Italian policy toward it since at least in the 1990s. As if to remind European decision makers of the threat, and in response to US criticism of the Egyptian increasing role in human trafficking, the government passed an anti-trafficking law in 2016 while also reporting more cases of interdiction of human smuggling even as the numbers of those transiting from Egypt continued to increase. Just as the legislation was being enacted, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry responded to the Italian Government’s suspension of delivery of F16 spare parts in retaliation for non-cooperation in investigating the murder of Giulio Regeni, by stating that the Italian government’s choice “would affect bilateral, regional and international cooperation between the countries, particularly concerning immigration across the Mediterranean Sea.” The implied threat was plainly obvious. The far bigger threat is simply that Egypt Collapses, becoming a failed State like Libya, but with the population almost twenty times larger. In this scenario, the eastern Mediterranean would swarm with boat people and also the possibility of some regions in the Nile Valley and Delta become terrorist heaven within easy striking distance of Europe and Israel.
As for the carrots, the key one is cooperation in “counter terrorism,” whether in Egypt itself or more widely in the region, most notably in Libya and Gaza. As regards to the latter, Egypt has built upon cooperation with Israeli security authorities to contain Hamas that their Egyptian Government’s relation with Israel has become the country’s most vital regional tie, in large measure because of support extended to Egypt by the pro-Israeli Lobby in the US. The strength of the relationship was demonstrated in December 2016, when Egypt, holding the Chair of the UN Security Council, sought unsuccessfully to postpone a vote condemning Israeli Settlements on the West Bank as illegal. In the event New Zealand led a group of four countries overturning Egypt’s decision and the vote was held, with the US abstaining, hence allowing the resolution to pass, 14-0. That Egypt had become more supportive of Israel than even New Zealand was cause for outrage in the Arab World. (One wonders where the Arab League was at this drama).
This episode illustrates the limits of a rent seeking Foreign Policy in today’s complex, conflict ridden Middle East and Horn of Africa as well as the Gulf region, as the payoffs serving the interest of external parties are relatively small and typically come at the cost of losing payment from others competing parties.
As for potential support from challengers to Western domination in the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, the Gulf as well as Horn of Africa, led by China and Russia and including Iran, Egypt has been in pursuit of it, but with mixed results. One problem is that gains from these sources are offset by losses from the other backers, including the GCC and Western States. The rent seeking strategy towards Saudi Arabia as it applies for Iran as well as supporting US and Israel vis-a-vis Iran, the gains are miniscule. This type strategy has been used to get concession from Ethiopia on the Renaissance Dam which will not work.
Egypt is a second-order priority for both China and Russia and their financial support for it will necessarily be limited. Russia may not be willing to provide the magnitude of support Egypt is looking for while China will not invest heavily in geo-strategic rents, as opposed to entering into commercial relations from which it also obtains benefits, and is unlikely to make an exception in Egypt’s cases its withdrawal in February 2017 from the project to construct new capital suggests.
Egypt’s foreign Policy under President el Sisi, is similar to that of his predecessors in that it is based primarily on pursuit of geo-strategic rents. But the growing magnitude of Egypt’s needs, combined with the changed regional and global environments, render this strategy redundant. The likelihood of diminishing return from this rent seeking strategy is real. Apart from the current flattery, the US backed by Europe will exert pressure in the future on Human Rights and other abuses (at least the Congress) and other abuses, including the failure to deliver on the promise of democratization. That is what exactly happened to President Mubarak.
Foreign Policy is also determined by what is taking place domestically, the Egyptian military ruling class is busy extending its reach into the organs of the state and the patronage networks through which organized political life had long been controlled. Constitutional changes, intimidation of the independent minded politicians and public, direct intervention into the judiciary system to effectively subordinate the legal branch to the all-powerful military class is the order of the day. Civil society organizations were being choked by a more restrictive legal framework and interdiction by the government of their sources of funding, primarily foreign. The media grudgingly accepted the regime’s more tightly drawn “red lines.”
Over the past few years, the military played the mongoose against the Brotherhood cobra, first handling civilians’ power to it as a check on the more radical, democratic secular forces, then skillfully undermining it before dramatically overthrowing it by coup d’état in July 2013. In the interim the officers and Brothers collaborated to rehabilitate the much-discredited security services, as both sought to use them against the other and against their common enemy, the civil society activists who had initially triggered the uprising. They also cooperated in drafting a new constitution that awarded the military powers it had never previously exercised, the trade off being an electoral law that virtually guaranteed the Brothers victory, hence control over parliament. State institutions, including the Judiciary, parliament, and virtually the entirety of the public administration, suffered extensive collateral damage from this struggle for power that frequently played out within and between those institutions, destroying any pretense to their impartiality and professionalism.
Therefore, the Egyptian peoples uprising turned out to be not a color revolution, but a “couprevolution,” aptly named such by an analyst of the country’s armed forces. The military had “sucker punched” both civil society activists and the Muslim Brothers, leading the former to believe that officers would midwife fundamental political reforms, and the latter to surmise that those officers would depend upon the Brotherhood as its chief instrument
of civilian rule. Once the military elite consolidated its power it employed more draconian means than Nasser had. Once power is secured discredited Mubarak-era officials were gradually rehabilitated.
The regime’s foreign Policy therefore, in short, is intended to maximize rent while preserving the regime. Neither is a suitable or appropriate objective. The rents are increasingly marginal, while the primary threats to the regime are overwhelmingly domestic, beyond the capacity of any external actor to substantively influence or counter. Therefore, posturing against Ethiopia or biting the Drums of military threat provide only short-term benefits that could have medium- and long-term disastrous negative consequences. Ethiopia is quite content and capable of coming with its own strategy to counter all round covert and overt attack from Egypt and in the Long run it can be extremely costly to Egypt as well as Ethiopia. In this rapidly changing Global and regional environment Cooperating between the two is the only long-term solution and the Egyptian better think twice. Both Ethiopia’s and Egypt’s primary challenges are developing their respective nations. Seeking an external enemy to divert attention is no solution. They both need to think out and direct a cooperative national development effort. Stop selling trying to sell an ice to an Eskimo.
Therefore, Egypt will continue losing time that could have been used rendering classic development. Ethiopia is also affected by the implication of Egyptian Foraging policy. Global competition in agriculture, industry, services, information technology, and indeed all economic sectors requires closer cooperation than confrontation or rent seeking political maneuvering.
Ed. Note: Tegegnework Gettu (PhD) has served as the United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Associate Administrator of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) replacing María Eugenia Casar. He previously held the post of Under-Secretary-General for General Assembly and Conference Management. He was appointed to this position by the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki- moon on 25 March 2013. He was the Country Director for Southern Africa and Indian Ocean countries and Acting Resident Representative in Liberia and Sierra Leone before becoming a Senior Economic and Political Advisor in UNDP›s Africa Bureau. He later served as Assistant Secretary-General and Regional Bureau Director for Africa at UNDP. Tegenework has lectured in a number of academic institutions, including Addis Ababa University, Hunter College, and the University of Rochester, New York. He was also a Fellow at Columbia University. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter Magazine.