Over the past decade, Egypt has exerted extensive and tangible efforts in its foreign policy within various Arab, Islamic, African, and international circles. It has worked towards reclaiming its pivotal position and role for the benefit of its people, the region, and the world.
It has successfully restored its regional and international networks of relations to the desired level of balance, dynamism, and mutual respect. It has also contributed to the achievement of Egypt’s national security goals, strengthened its military and economic capabilities, and maintained its historical and traditional foreign-policy objectives.
The post-30 June 2013 era has added fundamental dimensions upon which Egypt’s foreign policy is based. After a phase marked by the contraction of Egyptian foreign policy due to the tumultuous events that the country experienced starting from January 2011, followed by two years characterised by the lack of a clear vision during the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in which the concept of national sovereignty was overshadowed by the notion of a unified Islamic nation, the June 2013 Revolution aimed to establish a strategic framework for Egyptian foreign policy based on several specific pillars.
The first pillar is that full international and regional cooperation in fighting terrorism and aiming at its sustainable eradication became a major goal of Egypt’s foreign policy in the post-30 June 2013 period. Egypt presented a comprehensive vision for combating terrorism, aiming to uproot it and track its financing and weapons networks. Egypt condemns countries that provide safe havens for terrorist organisations to train fighters and denounces commercial dealings with these groups, as well as media outlets that promote terrorist organisations.
Egypt’s foreign policy in combating terrorism is not solely based on security solutions, however, as it is also based on international cooperation. Egypt has participated in the International Coalition against Terrorism by sharing expertise in supporting failed states in rebuilding their institutions and eliminating safe havens for terrorist groups.
Egypt, through its foreign-policy efforts, seeks to fully support all endeavours aimed at resolving crises in the region and protecting it from extremism and sectarian fragmentation. It has been active in efforts to resolve the Libyan crisis and has contributed to supporting Yemen’s legitimacy through its participation in the Arab Coalition to Support Legitimacy and the Decisive Storm and Restore Hope operations. It has also contributed to diplomatic efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis and has developed its relations with Iraq.
Egypt also continues to advocate for the revival of the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process and played a crucial role in achieving a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in May 2021. Egypt supports state institutions and actively participates in peacekeeping forces, ranking sixth globally in terms of its participation and including the participation of 89 Egyptian women. Egypt’s foreign policy aims to sustainably combat terrorism through cooperation to attain fair and sustainable development.
The second pillar of Egypt’s foreign policy is the support for the unity and sovereignty of nations. The objectives evident in Egypt’s stance towards the Syrian crisis were preserving the territorial integrity of Syria, disarming militias and extremist groups, rebuilding the country, reactivating state institutions, respecting the will of the Syrian people, and finding a peaceful solution to the crisis.
Similarly, Egypt’s position on the Libyan crisis entailed a commitment to the unity and stability of Libya, support for its legitimate institutions, adherence to a political resolution to the crisis in the country, and the categorical rejection of foreign intervention in Libyan affairs by rejecting external attempts at interference in the internal affairs of Arab and Islamic countries or with a view to fuelling the sectarian strife that can serve as fertile ground for terrorism and the collapse of nationalism.
The third pillar of Egyptian foreign policy is the ability of Egyptian diplomacy to interact and positively engage with the new challenges posed by an international system transitioning from unipolarity to multipolarity, with China, India, Russia, and the US as its key poles. Egypt has focused on enhancing its partnerships with major and emerging powers worldwide through a complex network of growing relations. These include with the US in both its North and South American contexts, the European countries within bilateral frameworks or through the European Union, and the Asian nations with which Egypt has witnessed consecutive leaps in its relations in recent years.
It is crucial that alliances with one power do not come at the expense of weakening relationships with others.
The continuation of Egypt’s strategic relationship with the US has been reaffirmed in various fields. This has been evident in meetings, statements, and interviews conducted by former US presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, as well as with US political and legislative circles represented in Congress. Egypt has also succeeded in achieving political convergence and opening avenues for economic cooperation with the Latin American countries, highlighted in the Fourth Summit of the Arab and Latin American States in November 2015 and resulting in the majority of the Latin American countries supporting Egypt’s non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council in 2016-2017.
In parallel, Egypt has opened new horizons for relations with other major powers, such as Russia, which supported the steps taken by the Egyptian people on 30 June 2013. The Egyptian-Russian relationship has witnessed significant developments, marked by mutual visits by the Egyptian and Russian presidents, the signing of several agreements and memoranda of understanding (MoUs), and cooperation across various fields, particularly in the economic, military, and energy sectors. They culminated in the signing of financing and construction agreements for the Dabaa Nuclear Power Plant in Egypt.
Furthermore, new ties with other major powers, such as China due to Egypt’s being part of the Belt and Road initiative, have attracted significant Chinese investments, especially in the Suez Canal area, leveraging its strategic location.
Regarding Egypt’s foreign policy towards Europe, this has witnessed a strong boost over the past four years. This has been manifested both at the bilateral level through the visits to Germany, Italy, Britain, France, Hungary, and Portugal by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, as well as through multilateral frameworks such as the trilateral cooperation mechanism with Greece and Cyprus. Egypt has elevated its relations to the level of a partnership agreement here, and it has also directed its attention towards Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean region.
Regarding relations with Asia, these have been based on mutual interests, and numerous visits by President Al-Sisi have taken place to countries in Asia with a view to boosting economic cooperation. No previous Egyptian president had visited these countries in some cases, and in others President Al-Sisi’s visits led to the resumption of discontinued relations.
Official visits to Singapore, China, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam have taken place, resulting in Egypt’s benefitting from the experiences and expertise of these countries in various fields, including development, education, industry, economic growth, and attracting investment, agreements and MoUs have been signed with India, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and other countries. Egypt also participated in the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
FURTHER PILLARS: The fourth pillar of Egypt’s foreign policy since 2013 has been its openness to overcoming obstacles in bilateral relations and seeking friendly relationships that serve its interests.
The normalisation of relations with Qatar and Turkey, as well as the resolution of disputes that led to diplomatic crises, have both taken place. Egypt aims to maintain open channels of communication with these two countries, both key allies of Washington in the region. Such efforts may enhance the US appreciation of Egypt’s role in regional affairs in the coming period.
The fifth pillar is the economic-development dimension of Egypt’s foreign policy. Economic development and supporting the Egyptian economy, along with creating a favourable environment for attracting foreign investments, have become top priorities of Egypt’s foreign policy. Through the concept of developmental diplomacy, Egypt has used its actions to serve its economy and development processes. It has focused on the benefits to be drawn from successful economic experiences and the exchange of expertise and training with countries worldwide to serve the current rapid development in various fields.
Egypt is actively engaged in the Eastern Mediterranean region, which has gained global strategic significance due to significant natural gas discoveries. With the discovery of the Zohr Field off the Egyptian coast in 2015, the largest discovery in the Eastern Mediterranean with reserves of 30 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, the region has become transformed into a strategic area.
New interactions, alliances, and cooperation projects have emerged. Egyptian foreign policy has been active in the region, demonstrated through summits between Egypt, Greece, and Cyprus, border demarcation agreements, military cooperation, joint manoeuvres in the Mediterranean Sea, and proposals for economic cooperation projects. One such project involves utilising existing liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminals in Egypt, which are not operating at full capacity, to export gas from the region to Europe. Egypt also contributed to the establishment of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum and led efforts to transform it into a regional organisation.
Egypt is contributing to reconstruction and development projects in several neighbouring and regional countries. In 2021, it implemented reconstruction projects in Gaza and the construction of the Julius Nyerere Dam in Tanzania. In November 2022, Egypt announced the implementation of an African version of its Decent Life initiative in several African countries, as well as projects aimed at helping them to mitigate the effects of climate change.
Regarding water security, an integral part of economic and food security and therefore an integral segment of development, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) poses a significant challenge to Egypt’s foreign policy. Various rounds of negotiations have taken place, the first with Ethiopia and Sudan in Khartoum in 2015 that led to a Declaration of Principles calling for mutual cooperation. This included the exchange of information, a commitment not to cause significant harm to downstream countries, and the seeking of advice from a committee of experts before the first filling of the dam reservoir.
The second round of negotiations between late 2019 and early 2020 was mediated by the US and the World Bank. Based on the principle of the need to find a political solution and out of respect for the foreign policy of Egypt that acknowledges the right of countries to development, Egypt welcomed these negotiations and expressed its interest in cooperating with Ethiopia to reach a final agreement that would safeguard the interests of both countries. Substantial progress was made, but when the final agreement was presented, Ethiopia rejected it.
Subsequent negotiations were conducted through the mediation of the African Union, and an online summit was held in July 2020 attended by Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan. However, Addis Ababa announced just one day after the summit that the first phase of the filling of the dam had been completed. It stated its intention to cooperate with neighbouring countries, but highlighted its lack of any intention to slow down the filling of the dam. Egypt expressed its disapproval, and it continues to work to find a solution that will respect Ethiopia’s right to development without depriving Egypt of its water rights.
The sixth pillar of Egypt’s foreign policy is environmental diplomacy, which crystallised in Egypt’s hosting the largest international event in 2022 in terms of size and level of participation — the 27th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27) in Sharm El-Sheikh in November 2022. This event provided significant indications of the international community’s recognition of Egypt’s role and the necessity of listening to its perspectives in achieving stability in the present and shaping the future.
The seventh pillar is the Arab dimension of Egypt’s foreign policy. President Al-Sisi’s first term as president focused on maintaining the unity of the Arab countries. Egypt recognised the close connection between Arab national security and its own national security. Based on this strategic vision, the Arab sphere became a vital and primary domain in which Egypt acted to protect its vital interests and national security. Egypt declared that its security was inseparable from Arab national security and that it had a national and historical commitment to safeguarding Arab national security, considering it as both a national interest and an Arab interest.
Within this framework, the Palestinian issue is a top priority for Egypt. Egypt maintains a steadfast position and strives to reach a just and comprehensive solution to the issue that guarantees the rights of the Palestinians, while emphasising that resolving the Palestinian issue will restore stability to the region. Egypt continues its efforts to see a resumption of the negotiations between the Palestinian and Israeli sides and is working towards reconciling the Palestinian factions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Its aim is the achievement of an independent Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Regarding Syria and Libya, Egypt has adopted the clear stance that military solutions have no place in these crises. It stresses the need to find a political solution that will preserve the unity, integrity, and sovereignty of these two states, expand their social and political base to include all segments of the population, and confront terrorism decisively until its complete elimination.
Egypt supports an agreement among all the Libyan factions and is facilitating their efforts to reach a political solution that will serve the interests of all parties. Stability in Libya and the Libyan state’s control over its resources, land, and borders ultimately serve Egypt’s national security interests. Egypt applies the same principle to supporting any effort aimed at achieving national reconciliation in Iraq, emphasising the unity and sovereignty of Iraq over its entire territory and halting the bloodshed among the Iraqi people. Egypt supports the rebuilding of the Iraqi state, enabling Iraq to fulfil its role in defending Arab national security, promoting stability and peace in the region, and achieving the legitimate aspirations of the Iraqi and Arab peoples.
Regarding the Yemeni crisis, Egyptian foreign policy supports a modern, unified, and just nation-state in Yemen as the way to overcome the crisis in the country and achieve the legitimate aspirations of the Yemeni and Arab peoples. The Egyptian state stands with the Yemeni nation-state, supporting its territorial integrity and opposing any attempts to divide or fragment it on racial or sectarian grounds. This stance is based on the sovereignty of a state protected by the national army rather than armed militias. Egypt continues its efforts to alleviate the humanitarian suffering faced by the people of Yemen and provide support to them.
Regarding Egyptian-Gulf relations, Egypt emphasises the distinctiveness and uniqueness of its relations with the Arab Gulf countries, reflecting a keen awareness that any threat to the security of the Gulf states or Arab security in general is also a threat to Egypt’s security. This necessitates Egyptian intervention to address and prevent any such threats.
The eighth pillar of Egypt’s foreign policy is its African dimension that holds the utmost importance for Egyptian decision-makers, as the African sphere is closely and directly linked to Egypt’s national security. Mutual visits between Egypt’s president and various African leaders have witnessed a significant transformation in Egyptian-African relations. The successful return of Egypt to Africa did not only mean a formal return to the African Union and its institutions, but also an effective and positive reengagement with all the countries and peoples of the continent.
President Al-Sisi has participated in several African summits, visited numerous African countries, chaired the African Union, and presided over the African Heads of State Committee on Climate Change, which formulates a unified African stance on this issue. In defence of the interests and development of the African continent, President Al-Sisi presented Egypt’s vision for enhancing food security in Africa during the US-Africa Summit held in Washington in 2022.
This vision includes the need to consider the impact of international crises on the continent’s economies, particularly external debt, and the imperative need for mechanisms to alleviate the burden of debt through exemption, exchange, or favourable repayments, while intensifying agricultural investments directed towards Africa to develop its production and storage capacities through the transfer of modern technology under favourable conditions while preserving the openness of global trade.
Egypt also hosted the Tripartite Committee meeting of the SADC, COMESA, and EAC organisations (the Southern African Community Development Community, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, and the East African Community) that witnessed the signing of an agreement to establish a free-trade area comprising 26 African countries. In addition, it established the Egyptian Agency for Partnership for Africa.
President Al-Sisi has affirmed that Egypt will continue to support African issues, driven by its pride in its African identity and its belief in the interdependence of its future with that of its sister African countries. Egypt also attaches great importance to supporting all efforts for economic integration among the continent’s nations.
The president has acknowledged the numerous challenges in Africa that need to be transformed into real opportunities through collective work and the mobilisation of all potential in this direction. He has also emphasised Egypt’s commitment to ending divisions and overcoming differences among the Nile Basin countries, focusing in the need to overcome any obstacles hindering joint cooperation within the framework of the Nile Basin Initiative.
He has emphasised that Africa occupies a central position in Egypt’s foreign policy, as it is the mother continent where Egyptian roots run deep and from which we derive our pride in our identity and our genuine sense of belonging.
CONCLUSIONS: Over the past decade, Egyptian foreign policy has been characterised by building relationships with countries around the world based on partnerships rather than subservience. It has aimed to establish and develop stable strategic partnerships characterised by openness, mutual interests, dialogue, political discourse, and mutual respect.
As a result, Egypt has reaped the fruits of its new foreign policy over the past decade, obtaining a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council, chairing the Counter-Terrorism Committee of the Council, leading the Arab Summit, and simultaneously holding membership of the African Peace and Security Council and chairing the African Union Committee of Heads of State and Government on Climate Change.
Egypt was also chosen to assume the presidency of the African Union in January 2019. Egypt’s relations with the major world powers and countries have been solidified, leading many nations to support and endorse Egypt’s national political, economic, and military projects.
The writer is a professor of international relations at the American University in Cairo.
This article also appears in the summer edition of Democracy magazine, published by Al-Ahram.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 6 July, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly