Analysis: Egypt’s hasty retreat on its UN settlements resolution

Egypt wanted to show it was using its membership on the Security Council for the good of the Palestinians.

December 25, 2016 06:03
4 minute read.
Mahmoud Abbas and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas in the Egyptian capital Cairo on November 8. (photo credit: AFP PHOTO)

Consistency was not Egypt’s strong point in deliberations on the UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity.

But Cairo got through it with its relationship with the incoming Trump administration intact, and only short-term damage to its credibility.

Egypt submitted the resolution on Wednesday, withdrew it on Thursday after being pressured by Trump and Israel, and voted in favor of it on Friday when it was resubmitted by New Zealand, Senegal, Venezuela and Malaysia.

Drafting the document – which specified that settlements have “no legal validity” – and submitting it, was an opportunity for the embattled regime of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to show its dedication to the Palestinian cause that resonates throughout the Arab world and is a priority for many Egyptians.
UN Security Council passes resolution demanding an end to Israeli settlement building

“Most Arab leaders try to support the Palestinian cause to further legitimize their regime in the eyes of their own people. Any such resolution would be a good thing in the eyes of the people,” said Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist at al-Azhar University in Gaza City.

Egypt wanted to show it was using its membership on the Security Council for the good of the Palestinians.

The resolution was also an opportunity for the regime to show it is functioning, amid wide economic discontent and terrorism that have shaken it, including the attack two weeks ago on St. Mark’s Coptic Cathedral in Cairo that killed 25 people.

But everything changed when Trump declared on Thursday that the US should veto the resolution. Sisi is counting on Trump’s support to prop up his teetering regime and simply could not afford to go against the president-elect’s will.

To understand this it is worth bearing in mind how weak Sisi’s position is. Even before the church attack he faced myriad challenges, including: deteriorating relations with chief economic patron Saudi Arabia, which suspended subsidized fuel supplies to Cairo due to Egypt’s increasing tilt toward the Assad regime and Russia in the Syrian civil war; the confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood; insurgency in Sinai; and problems of Egyptian youth, including soaring unemployment.

“He is more vulnerable than ever since he became president,” Tel Aviv University Egypt specialist Mira Tzoreff said of Sisi after the church attack.

The only bright spot for Sisi was the election of Trump, rather than Clinton, whom Sisi blamed for supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, and of whom he was wary because of her taking into account Egypt’s human rights record in matters of policy- making. No such problems exist with Trump, who during the election campaign called for targeting the families of terrorists.

Sisi and Trump met in New York in September and each praised the other afterward, with Trump calling Sisi “a fantastic guy.”

“I thought it was a great meeting,” Trump told Fox Business News. “We met for a long time actually. There was a good chemistry there. You know when you have good chemistry with people. There was a good feeling between us.”

Sisi, in remarks to the Portuguese news agency LUSA on November 19, said he was not worried about Trump’s call for a ban on Muslim immigrants. “We have to distinguish between the rhetoric that takes place within presidential campaigns and the real and actual administration of a country after the inauguration.”

He added that Trump has shown “deep and great understanding” of what is taking place in the region and in Egypt, and that he was looking forward to a strengthening of Egyptian-US relations under his administration.

Sisi is setting his sights on desperately needed economic aid and diplomatic support, while Trump is eyeing Egypt as a key ally in the Arab world.

Sisi was certainly not going to ruin all of this for the sake of the UN resolution. So Egypt withdrew it to preserve Trump’s good graces.

Once the resolution was reinstated Egypt voted in favor, in the knowledge that Trump and Israel would accept its explanation that it had done its best by pulling the resolution, but as an Arab country had no choice but to support it when the vote came.

There remained only one problem: how to explain the about-face to the Egyptian public. For this, the Foreign Affairs Ministry came up with an explanation: The withdrawal was only a temporary tactical delay.

Egyptian media quoted ministry spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid as saying: “Egypt wanted more time to make sure that no country would use its veto power to block the resolution, especially after the president- elect called on the current administration to veto the resolution.”

Abu Zeid also offered another explanation in remarks published by Egypt – because it will be a chief partner in any future negotiations between the Israeli and Palestinian sides in coordination with the new American administration – found it important to preserve the necessary balance to ensure it could influence the parties in any future negotiations, so that all Palestinian rights could be restored.

But regardless of the official explanations, one thing is clear: For Egypt, keeping in the good graces of Trump, trumped all other considerations.

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