Having just crossed the Mediterranean and now prepared for a military showdown at the pyramids’ foothills, Napoleon Bonaparte told his troops: “Bear in mind that 40 centuries are looking down at you from the summits of these pyramids.”
Forty centuries have since become 42, but the sense of destiny with which that European intrusion arrived has since made way for an Egyptian sense of mission, as a succession of post-colonial leaders made Cairo a major diplomatic fulcrum.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has changed that, focusing on domestic issues that his predecessors had fatefully neglected. That is why his foray this week into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was seen as heralding major drama. It didn’t.
Besides misunderstanding the Israeli political situation last week, that reading also reflected a misunderstanding of the Egyptian situation. In fact, his emergence this week as a diplomatic broker was the exception. The rule is diplomatic reluctance and strategic recoil.
The exception came Tuesday, when Sisi offered in a public speech to help mediate Israeli-Palestinian talks while calling on the parties “to exploit the great realistic opportunity to peacefully resolve their conflict.”
Diplomatically, Sisi explained he was referring to the French initiative to assemble a regional peace conference this summer, and to the 14-year-old Arab Peace Initiative. “The Middle East will be much more stable and safe” under such circumstances, he said.
Politically, however, Sisi’s statement was part of an international effort to impact the impending expansion of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition.
The Egyptian statement, it turns out, was not Sisi’s initiative but former British prime minister Tony Blair’s, part of an effort to nudge Netanyahu’s government toward the center and jump-start a diplomatic dynamic by assembling a regional peace conference.
Herzog’s circle was bandying around such hints.
One report claimed that he and Netanyahu would fly together to Cairo to meet with Sisi as a prelude to a broader gathering with more regional leaders.
Another suggested Sisi would come to Jerusalem and address the Knesset.
By Wednesday night, however, reality made a mockery of these reports, as it turned out Netanyahu was heading not leftward but rightward, and not just rightward but all the way to ultra-hawk Avigdor Liberman, who is being recruited as defense minister, of all positions.
The former foreign minister’s unrefined statements along the years concerning the region have occasionally sparked diplomatic incidents. Most memorably, 15 years ago Liberman accused Egypt of secretly seeking Israel’s destruction, and said that Israel’s response to alleged Egyptian violations of the Camp David Accords should be to bomb the Aswan Dam. Liberman has since been a persona non grata in Egypt.
Concerning Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who was supposed to play first violin in Blair’s concert, Liberman said recently he is the main obstacle to peace and must resign.
As news of Liberman’s appointment broke, it remained unclear whether there had been any dialogue between Sisi and Netanyahu while the latter negotiated with Herzog, and if so, how Netanyahu intends to explain to the Egyptian leader his maneuver’s unexpected turn.
However, a closer reading of Sisi’s statement Tuesday indicates that even if Herzog had become foreign minister, Sisi was not about to deviate from his diplomacy of introversion. “Egypt will not take a leading role” in Israeli-Palestinian talks, he said in that speech.
Sisi has kept a low diplomatic profile since becoming president two years ago next month, and this was not about to change.
HIGH-PROFILE DIPLOMACY has been a staple of Egypt’s conduct since King Farouk’s overthrow by a junta in 1952.
Gamal Abdel Nasser created with Yugoslavia’s Marshal Tito and India’s Jawaharlal Nehru the Nonaligned Bloc that defied the superpowers’ global hegemony. Anwar Sadat’s journey to Jerusalem will go down in history as one of the most daring diplomatic initiatives ever. Hosni Mubarak consolidated Egypt’s position as the axis of all things Middle Eastern and America’s regional anchor. Egyptian diplomat Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s term as UN secretary- general underscored Egypt’s diplomatic prestige during the Mubarak era.
Sisi has retreated from this legacy. Under his leadership Egypt has sought no meaningful leadership role in global affairs, and in fact has taken a backseat even in regional affairs.
While Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and Qatar are up to their shoulders in the Syrian conflict, Cairo is staying away from it almost to the point of neutrality.
Though nominally on the anti-Assad camp, Sisi has evaded Saudi requests that he take a vocal public stance against Assad. The prospect of Egypt intervening in that civil war militarily, as the Saudis have done by sending warplanes to Turkey, is unthinkable. The same goes for the Iraqi mess and even Iran’s activism, whose containment is led by Riyadh.
Even in the Yemeni conflict, which is in Egypt’s strategic sphere by any reading, certainly the reading of a general like Sisi, Cairo’s involvement is limited to naval patrols.
Egypt has obviously been more intensely involved in the civil war in Libya, which is literally in its backyard, and where six Egyptian F-16’s last year killed 81 local Islamists following Islamic State’s beheadings of 21 Egyptians.
Yet even that action quickly proved momentary.
Rather than assume leadership in an effort to restabilize Libya, a role the rest of the world would welcome, Sisi has offered a formula – to back Tobrukbased Gen. Khalifa Haftar – but refused to lead its execution.
Foreign countries, including Egypt, should arm and back the eastern Libyans’ Libyan National Army but avoid sending troops to fight for him, Sisi told the Italian daily la Repubblica last march. “The world,” not Egypt, should “stabilize all countries in the region that have not yet fallen into chaos,” he said.
For his part, Sisi is focusing on retrieving his own country from the chaos into which it has fallen following Mubarak’s ouster half a decade ago.
That is why Sisi’s focus has been on the economy.
The first thing he did after his installation was to launch a daring retreat from his country’s unaffordable price interventions, slashing gas subsidies in a way that raised by 50 percent and 175%, respectively, the fueling of a regular car and a truck.
It was an attitude that contrasted his predecessor Mohamed Morsi’s neglect of the economy while focusing on constitutional reforms that were widely suspected as sealing the Muslim Brotherhood’s long-term grip on Egypt.
Sisi’s economic focus and resolve have been such that he even cut bread subsidies, albeit by a moderate 13%. The domestic agenda was then highlighted by the launch of a project to expand the Suez Canal. While the financial benefits of this $8 billion scheme will become known only in the future, Sisi has impressed all by giving its completion a one-year deadline and meeting it, when the expanded canal was festively inaugurated last summer.
The economic emphasis was further underscored by the announcement two years ago of a deal with Dubai-based contractor Arabtec for the construction of $40b. worth of affordable housing units in 13 sites, from Luxor in the south to Alexandria in the north.
This is not to say that Sisi has already brought economic salvation. Subsidies had to be further cut this year, in an effort to reduce the budget deficit from 11.5% of GDP to a still-staggering 9.8% of GDP. More structurally, Egypt’s public sector remains woefully bloated, its military remains deeply involved in the industrial sector, and the education system has yet to eradicate illiteracy, as the workforce remains excessively agrarian.
Moreover, politically, Sisi is at loggerheads with the Islamists’ sizable following, and militarily he is at war with Islamist terrorism, which is holed up in the Sinai, swarming in his cities and targeting his airplanes, possibly including the Egypt Air flight that crashed Thursday into the Mediterranean between Egypt and Greece.
Beset by such challenges, diplomatic acrobatics are not Sisi’s priority. Instead, his foreign policy is focusing on the purely Egyptian causes of money, water and blood.
Money means Saudi Arabia, which Sisi has been cultivating as Egypt’s financial bloodline; water means Ethiopia, whose damming of the Upper Nile Sisi is out to contain; and blood means anyone sharing his ongoing struggle against terrorism, including Israel.
Once policy is prioritized this way, fixtures of Egyptian diplomacy, like the alliance with the US, lose significance, allowing arms deals with Russia, and things like an anti-Iranian Sunni alliance become less urgent than snubbing Turkey for having backed Sisi’s Islamist nemesis.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no different. It was marginal for Sisi when the region’s shifting sands unveiled Herzog one morning, and remained such after nightfall, when a new sandstorm buried the latter’s shadow under Liberman’s approaching silhouette.