Sisi’s choices: Balancing between Moscow and Washington

The embattled Egyptian president is trying to balance connections with Moscow and Washington amid rising terrorism and economic woes.

US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, US, April 3, 2017. (photo credit: REUTERS)
US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, US, April 3, 2017.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s recent visit to Washington and the warm welcome he received from the Trump administration are set to usher in a new era in the relations between Cairo and Washington, after years of hostility during the Obama years.
Sorely needed assistance was pledged on two crucial issues: fighting Islamic terrorism and stabilizing the economic situation.
It will not be easy. The terrorist attacks that killed and maimed dozens of worshipers in two Coptic churches on Palm Sunday in the heart of Egypt showed how woefully inadequate the security apparatus was in terms of intelligence gathering and protecting threatened targets.
The problem is that, denied American assistance by Obama, Sisi turned to Russia, Egypt’s erstwhile ally, for military and civilian help, which Moscow had been only too happy to provide. Russian assistance included the supply of advanced weapons and joint army exercises as well as financing nuclear power plants to produce electricity. Cairo had been expected to reciprocate by advancing Moscow’s efforts to reestablish itself in the region. Thus, Sisi supported Putin’s position regarding Syria – leaving Assad in power – and voted for a Russian resolution on Syria at the Security Council opposed by Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations and Western countries. He refrained from condemning Iran’s intervention in Syria and its subversive activities in Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon.
Egypt is not taking an active part in the American-led coalition against Islamic State, or in the coalition led by Saudi Arabia against the rebels in Yemen. This has led to a serious rift with Riyadh, Cairo’s staunchest backer in the region, which had helped Egypt’s failing economy with more than $20 billion in outright grants and long-term loans. Sisi also assisted Russia’s efforts to deepen its involvement in Libya and develop links with Khalifa Haftar, leader of the Libyan army, who cooperates with Egypt in the defense of their long common border against Islamic militias and the prevention of weapons smuggling.
Can the Egyptian president now restore and deepen his relations with the United States without jettisoning vital Russian help? Egypt is still the recipient of a yearly $1.3b. in American military assistance, reluctantly renewed by Obama toward the end of his term. It desperately needs massive investments to develop its economy and introduce modern technology. Will President Donald Trump be understanding enough to provide that help, without demanding the severance of the Russian connection? There were attempts at conciliation between Cairo and Riyadh at the Arab summit held in Jordan in March. Sisi invited Saudi King Salman to Egypt, and there are some encouraging signs: Saudi Arabia resumed oil deliveries to Egypt that had been suspended because of the crisis.
However, serious issues remain, such as the new and close relations between Riyadh and Ankara, at a time when Egypt and Turkey are at loggerheads because of the latter’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, Sisi’s arch-enemy. Saudi Arabia and Turkey recently held joint military exercises, which were perceived by Egypt as decidedly unfriendly.
Riyadh is also developing strong links with Ethiopia, a country embroiled in a bitter conflict with Cairo over plans to build a dam on the Blue Nile which might disastrously impact Egypt, which receives 90% of its water supply from the river.
While wrestling with these weighty issues, the Egyptian president is desperately seeking a strategy to defeat radical Islamic terrorist organizations in the Sinai Peninsula, which are also perpetrating deadly attacks in the heart of the country, as was seen on Palm Sunday. His army is still relying on outmoded tactics from the Soviet era: massive troop deployment and heavy guns ill-suited to guerrilla warfare against small terrorist groups that take refuge in hideouts in the mountainous and desert areas. The terrorists launch swift and well-planned raids, plant explosives targeting the many army vehicles plying the roads, and attack police stations inside the cities of northern Sinai and even military roadblocks. The kidnapping and murder of Copts have led to a general exodus of their population from northern Sinai.
A new concept is needed, but will Sisi and his generals let US Army Special Forces train and remodel the traditionally conservative Egyptian Army? And how will Russia react? Perhaps more important yet, will a restive Egyptian people, burdened by an unprecedented economic crisis, give the president time to implement his choices? Sisi’s first promise after his election had been to renew the country’s growth, which had come to a standstill during the years of turmoil following Hosni Mubarak’s ouster.
He had pledged to show results in two to three years and set immediately to work, launching impressive projects such as doubling the Suez Canal, to increase the number of ships crossing that vital waterway; building a second capital east of Cairo, to ease that city’s congestion; granting major oil companies concessions to search for oil fields; building thousands of miles of roads; rendering vast tracts of land suitable for agricultural purposes; and even thoroughly cleaning the country’s huge grain silos of pests and dirt, which destroyed up to a third of their contents each year.
Saudi Arabia helped, as mentioned above, but it was not enough, and Sisi turned to the International Monetary Fund, which granted a $12b. loan with a very low interest rate – but with strings attached, such as canceling food and energy subsidies, introducing value-added tax and floating the Egyptian pound.
As a result, there were severe price rises and much grumbling in the streets. Support for the president declined from 90% to 70%, still a remarkable vote of confidence, and there is renewed economic growth: 4.3% in 2016.
Unfortunately, the president’s efforts are hampered by the security situation. Muslim Brothers are still protesting the regime and try to sabotage infrastructures throughout the country. Islamic State is still fending off the Egyptian Army in the Sinai Peninsula with the help of a steady supply of weapons smuggled from the Libyan border. Its terrorists have carried out successful forays into the mainland, and managed to deal a disastrous blow to tourism by downing a Russian plane that had taken off from Sharm e-Sheikh, a popular resort in Sinai.
Tourism revenues plummeted from $12b.
in 2010 to less than $5.
And if that were not enough, Sisi, who has engaged in a vital effort to eliminate extremist teachings from schoolbooks, is facing stiff opposition from the religious establishment led by Al-Azhar, the country’s and the Sunni world’s most prestigious Islamic institute.
Can the embattled president find a way to balance his conflicting obligations, at a time when Russia and American are on a collision course? His carefully worded comments after the US struck the base from which the recent chemical attack had been launched show how difficult his position is. Can he pull off the cooperation with America that he needs to forge ahead and restore security, while giving his people the better life they expect? The survival of his regime and perhaps of his country are at stake.
The writer, a fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.