As a key player in the recent Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire and with its diplomats more active than they have been in years, Egypt is back as a major influencer in Middle Eastern affairs.
From Gaza to Libya, the Eastern Mediterranean to the Horn of Africa, Cairo is now key in a host of contentious disputes that will make the difference between regional war and peace.
This comes after a long period in which Egypt was almost ignored by many neighbors and partners, as a string of domestic crises overwhelmed the country’s presidents.
Now though, “We’ve started to see a very different kind of Egypt emerging,” Riccardo Fabiani, the International Crisis Group’s North Africa Project Director, told Asia Times.
This “different” Egypt finds itself in a different Middle East, too – one far from the convulsions of the Arab Spring that largely knocked Cairo off the regional diplomatic map.
Now, however, as the divisions of that tectonic shift fade, Cairo is coming back in from the cold.
“Egypt’s ruler, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, can look at the Eastern Mediterranean, Libya, Palestine and other issues with much greater comfort these days,” Sami Hamdi, managing director of consultancy The International Interest, told Asia Times. “As a result, in future, we’re going to see a much more engaged – and ambitious – Egypt.”
While clearly many challenges remain to those ambitions, the recent Egypt-brokered ceasefire may signal a significant shift – with repercussions far beyond Gaza and East Jerusalem.
When Israeli forces began battling Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank last month, international efforts to end the fighting quickly turned to Egypt.
Cairo has good relations with both Israel and Palestinian group Hamas, which runs Gaza, the narrow strip of Palestinian territory to Egypt’s east.
The other Arab state that could have played this mediating role – Qatar – was ruled out by Israel, which has good relations with Doha’s rival, the UAE, and has long mistrusted Qatari support for Hamas.
“Egypt was able to show it has exclusive connections with both Hamas and Israel,” says Hamdi, “and was perfectly placed to mediate.”
This was quickly recognized by the US, too, with President Joe Biden then calling al-Sisi for the first time since the US leader had taken office.
“When Biden called, it came as a great relief to Cairo,” says Hamdi.
Indeed, al-Sisi announced that it was with “the utmost happiness” that he first spoke with the US leader, on May 20, as Egyptian officials had been increasingly worried that they had been losing influence in Washington.
This had manifested itself most recently far away in the Horn of Africa.
There, beyond immediate southern neighbor Sudan, Ethiopia has constructed a giant, hydroelectric dam across the Blue Nile.
This is the largest branch of the famous river that runs through Egypt, supplying the livelihoods of some 100 million Egyptians, according to Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri.
Last June, he dubbed the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) an “existential issue” for Egypt, articulating popular Egyptian fears that the partially Chinese-funded project might impact the country’s water supply.
The giant reservoir feeding GERD is due to start filling this summer, setting a ticking clock for any measures to prevent it.
Yet, “Cairo feels that Washington hasn’t done enough to help Egypt in this confrontation,” adds Hamdi – a dispute which has been simmering for years.
Meanwhile, another area where Cairo has concerns about the strength of its relationship with the US – and the presence of other foreign powers – lies next door in Libya.
There, to the west, Cairo has historically backed the eastern-based forces of General Khalifa Haftar, along with Russia and the UAE.
These recently fought the Tripoli-based and Turkey and Qatar-backed Government of National Accord (GNA).
Now, though, an interim government has been formed that is bidding to bring the country back together.
Egypt’s candidates to lead that administration, however, were rejected in the US and UN led-effort to bolt together the transitional authority back in February.
“Egypt is uncomfortable with how this is all going,” says Hamdi.
In particular, the influence of the US, Russia and Turkey over the process in Libya worries Cairo.
Ankara’s sway is also a concern to Egypt in the Eastern Mediterranean.
There, to Egypt’s north, Cairo has been close to Turkey’s rivals, namely Greece, Cyprus and Israel, and joined them in the EastMed Gas Forum (EMGF).
Based in Cairo, the forum seeks to exploit the region’s undersea natural gas deposits, but is widely perceived in Ankara as an anti-Turkish grouping.
Turkey has also been trying to revise maritime boundaries in the region.
On this score, Ankara signed a controversial deal with the GNA on this in late 2019, while it has also offered Egypt and Israel extra maritime territory, largely at the expense of Greece and Cyprus.
Yet, so far, al-Sisi has not responded to these unilateral Turkish offers, prompting a recent move by Ankara to improve its relations with Egypt.
“Egypt isn’t the one making the moves on this, though,” says Fabiani. “Cairo sees Turkey as the country that is isolated here and so Egypt will wait and see what Turkey is prepared to do to come closer to Egypt.”
So far, that has included the muting of Egyptian oppositionists who fled to Turkey following al-Sisi’s take-over in 2013.
“Egypt has been very clear that they want to see these people extradited or otherwise dealt with,” says Fabiani. “Cairo also wants Turkish troops out of Libya.”
Egypt is also moving elsewhere to leverage this newfound strength. This month saw Egyptian missions to Djibouti and Uganda in Africa, the first an Ethiopian neighbor, the latter also a key state on the Nile.
“There’s been a flurry of diplomatic activity from Cairo around the GERD issue,” says Hamdi.
At the same time, Cairo is underscoring – for the US and Europe in particular – its indispensability in Israeli-Palestinian relations.
Thus the recent visit to Gaza by Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel, where he met with senior Hamas official Khalil al-Haya – the first such meeting since the early 2000s.
“Egypt is positioning itself as the main power to speak to when it comes to Gaza,” Hamdi adds.
Yet, while al-Sisi is now in a strong position diplomatically, questions remain about the stability of his domestic base.
“There is a question over how stable the Egyptian economy is,” says Fabiani. “There is a huge current account and fiscal deficit and major debt problems, while a large section of the Egyptian population is unhappy and struggling.”
At the same time, al-Sisi has continuing battles with factions within the Egyptian military.
Yet, for now, “He is stronger than he ever has been,” says Hamdi. “Despite all the challenges, Cairo firmly believes it is in the ascendancy.”