Former ambassador: U.S. must repair ties with Egypt
CAIRO — As Abdel Fattah al-Sisi becomes Egypt's president, analysts wonder how he will lead his troubled country and a tumultuous region.
The answer is critical for Egypt's neighbors and the United States.
“I think one thing we will see him talk about … is foreign policy and bringing Egypt back on a regional level,” Issandr El Amrani, regional director for the International Crisis Group in Brussels, said before Sunday's inauguration.
With more than 85 million people, Egypt is the most populous Arab nation. It's a key to three decades of relative peace between Israelis and Arabs, and a vital U.S. ally — at least until now.
Its Suez Canal is essential in world trade, including oil for the West.
And with U.S. policy in “free fall,” according to one American expert, Egypt is even more important to regional politics.
Sisi, 59, a military careerist, was elected two weeks ago on a tide of goodwill and hope for stability.
Egypt has been chaotic since a 2011 revolution and the 2013 ouster — led by Sisi, then the army's chief of staff — of Islamist President Mohamed Morsy.
Hisham Kassem, an Egyptian publisher and human rights advocate, reflects the desperation for normalcy: “These are the times when security considerations and fears of ethnic strife must be taken very seriously. I don't want to carry a Kalashnikov every day to my work and back.”
But deadly, disruptive conflict abounds.
Syria's civil war has killed more than 100,000 and sent more than 2.5 million refugees to other countries; Libya is on the verge of civil war again.
Israelis and Palestinians are at daggers since the collapse of peace talks led by Secretary of State John Kerry.
Sectarian violence is rising in Iraq and Lebanon.
“The region is in the middle of hell right now,” said Jordanian parliamentarian Rula Hroob. She hopes Egypt, “the leader in the Arab world,” will stabilize and enable more countries to do so.
Mohamed Soliman, who heads the foreign relations committee of Egypt's liberal Al Dastour party, agrees: “I see Egypt as the top state when it comes to the major issues in the Middle East — Libya, Palestine and Syria.”
The Crisis Group's Amrani believes Libya is Sisi's “most pressing foreign policy issue,” followed by jihadist threats in the Sinai peninsula spilling into Israeli-Palestinian clashes and Egypt's dispute with Ethiopia over water rights.
Egyptian intelligence, diplomatic and military officials formed a working group on Libya in January. The two countries share a long, porous border and tribal connections that favor smuggling; Libyan fighters have kidnapped Egyptian diplomats, killed Egyptian guest workers and last week shot six Egyptian border guards.
“It is a huge, huge headache,” Amrani said.
Libyan Gen. Khalifa Haftar, battling Islamists in eastern Libya, said he welcomes Egyptian intervention — mindful, no doubt, of Egypt's crackdown on its own Islamists since Morsy's fall.
Amrani says it is a pressing issue because “if Libya becomes a failed state, you will have even more ungoverned spaces for jihadists, more weapons smuggling.”
Egypt, he added, could have “a stabilizing effect.”
“Libya is already a failed state,” said John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and an American Enterprise Institute fellow. “America knows this painfully clearly as well after the Sept. 11, 2012, attack in Benghazi” that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
“I entirely sympathize with Egypt and those who hold the view of Libya's importance,” Bolton said. “It's an example of how, just a few years ago, we would have worked with Egypt to help resolve that problem … but (President) Obama doesn't seem to give it a priority.”
Instead, he said, “Obama's policy in the Middle East is in a free fall everywhere,” including Egypt, for the first time since its U.S.-brokered treaty with Israel in 1979.
‘A Damocles sword'
Strained relations between Washington and Cairo could lead Egypt to make new friends or act on its own.
The United States has dominated the Middle East since 1956 but now “is leaving and pivoting toward Asia,” said Kassem, the Egyptian publisher.
That places Egypt “historically and geographically to become the hub of the new regional security order.” He lists “money laundering, arms and human trafficking, and drug smuggling” as its core challenges.
Arab armies are mostly tribal, Kassem explained, but Egypt's ranks as the 13th-most-powerful on some military charts. Although its army aligned closely with the U.S. military after 1979, the Obama administration has frozen much of the nation's $1.3 billion annual aid since Morsy's ouster.
That led Russia to make overtures to Egypt, and Cairo has hinted it might buy Russian arms.
“The (U.S.) gesture of holding back aid and using it as a Damocles sword over our necks has gone down very badly on all levels,” said Ali Abdel Wahab, a member of Egypt's Council of Foreign Affairs.
It also bothers U.S. experts such as Bolton.
“Egypt is a very important relationship, and we have let what we have built up, in 30-plus years, evaporate in less than three years,” he said. “The opportunity to turn the page exists once Sisi is inaugurated, and that would be the sensible thing for Obama to do.
“Especially given the significance of dealing with Egypt, in dealing with the broader Middle East.”
Betsy Hiel is the Tribune-Review's foreign correspondent. Email her at email@example.com.