Egypt's Sisi and foreign policy: 4 challenges

CAIRO – Newly-inaugurated President Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi, Egypt's second head of state since the 2011 uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak, will face a host of challenges pertaining to the country's weakened security situation, deeply polarized political arena and foundering economy.

Regional and international experts, however, believe al-Sisi's foreign-policy challenges will be no less daunting.

Al-Sisi – who led the army's ouster last summer of elected president Mohamed Morsi – won last month's presidential polls by a landslide, securing almost 97 percent of vote, according to Egypt's electoral commission.

-Libya-

Recent fighting in next-door Libya between irregular forces loyal to renegade army general Khalifa Haftar and armed militias in the eastern city of Benghazi means Egypt will have to tighten control over its long, porous western border, a diplomatic source told Anadolu Agency.

"The situation on Egypt's [western] border with Libya is even more sensitive than the border tension with Sudan due to the longstanding dispute over the [southernmost] Halaib Triangle region, which Egypt controls," the source said.

During a televised interview last month, al-Sisi – still a presidential candidate – said he had "a formula for restoring stability to Libya" but declined to provide details.

He added, however, that the West had a responsibility to "collect weapons in Libya and rebuild the security agencies there."

The deteriorating security situation in both Libya and Egypt over the three years following the 2011 "Arab Spring" uprisings has led to an uptick in cross-border arms smuggling.

"The Libyan authorities expressed readiness to establish a buffer zone [on the border] during previous communications with Egypt's [military-backed] interim government," another diplomat told AA.

-Into Africa-

Since the installation of Egypt's army-backed government following Morsi's ouster last July, its top diplomat, Nabil Fahmi, has visited 15 African countries on six different tours.

Observers have attributed the flurry of activity to a desire to ease Egypt's diplomatic isolation in Africa – caused by the army's ouster of an elected president – and reassure African investors.

"Egypt's leadership is seeking a breakthrough in its relations with Sudan and Ethiopia most of all," said one diplomatic source.

Relations between Cairo and Addis Ababa soured last year over Ethiopia's construction of a $6.4-billion hydroelectric dam on the upper reaches of the Nile River. The project has raised alarm bells in Egypt, which relies on the river for almost all of its water needs.

Both Cairo and Addis Ababa have been vocal in their criticisms of each other's policies vis-à-vis dam.

"The new Egyptian leadership is expected to carry on Cairo's aggressive strategy towards the Ethiopian dam crisis," said Marina Ottaway, a researcher at the U.S.-based Woodrow Wilson Center.

"If this happens, Cairo's relations with other African countries – including Sudan – could further deteriorate," she added.

The African Union (A.U.) Peace and Security Council, the A.U.'s equivalent of the U.N. Security Council, froze Egypt's membership in the organization two days after Morsi's forcible removal office by the army.

The decision was described as standard procedure in the event of an unconstitutional change of government in an A.U. member state.

"Repeated diplomatic visits to African countries by Egyptian officials recently might be indicative of an attitude of rapprochement towards the African file," said Ahmed Morsi, Middle East researcher at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment.

-Turkey/Qatar-

Meanwhile, a senior Egyptian diplomat said the country's new leadership would prefer not to escalate against Turkey or Qatar – both of which had been key regional allies of the Morsi administration and which remain highly critical of his ouster and subsequent imprisonment.

The interim authorities in Cairo have repeatedly accused Doha and Ankara of "interfering in Egypt's affairs."

"Cairo's incoming leadership will try to neutralize relations with Turkey and Qatar," the diplomat said.

Analyst Morsi agrees.

"Egypt won't seek confrontation with Turkey or Qatar, but relations won't improve anytime soon," he said.

-Washington or Moscow?-

A visit to Russia earlier this year by al-Sisi, who had been serving as defense minister at the time, raised questions as to whether the general was mulling a shift away from Egypt's traditional alliance with the U.S.

A few months later, with al-Sisi as president, observers are now inclined to believe that al-Sisi will seek further cooperation with Russia to offset what many supporters see as an overreliance on Washington.

"Despite the hype surrounding al-Sisi's visit to Russia, Egypt's relations with the U.S. are too complex to break from," Ottaway said.

"Cairo-Washington relations will return to normal with the election of a new parliament [expected sometime this year]," Morsi said.

Egypt has received an annual $2.1 billion in aid from the U.S. – $1.3 billion in the form of military assistance – since the ratification of the 1979 U.S.-brokered peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.

Last October, however, Washington froze part of the annual aid package – including the sale of Apache gunships and other military equipment – pending the "democratic transition" pledged by Egypt's army-backed interim government in the wake of Morsi's ouster last July.

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