Egypt has been and remains a key player in the political picture in the Middle East. Egypt was the leading country in the Arab world’s struggle against Israel, and thereby in the Middle East conflict, but entered into a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. Subsequently, Egypt’s role in the Middle East has been less prominent. Even before it had a mainstay in Egyptian foreign policy, panarabism, lost ground.
Egypt, by virtue of its size and geographical location, as well as its history, remains a regional great power. But in the 2000s, Egypt did not play as central a political role in the region as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey in particular, and eventually the United Arab Emirates and Qatar – in addition to Israel.
Beyond the Middle East, Egypt was also a leading country in Africa and the so-called Third World. Egypt’s first president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, was one of the leaders of the Bandung Conference in 1955, which laid the foundation for the Alliance-free movement. With that, Nasser and Egypt entered the international scene as a strong, independent state. This position was further emphasized during the Suez crisis, when Egypt stood up to ancient colonial powers that had dominated the Middle East. Egypt then became a center for anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist struggles, especially in Africa and the Middle East.
Another clear manifestation of anti-imperialist politics was the political philosophy – and foreign policy orientation – that strongly stood under Nasser: Panarabism. It sought to unify the Arab world across the state borders that had essentially come about as a result of the decisions of the ancient colonial powers, especially after World War I. One concrete, but relatively short-lived, impact of pan-Arab politics was Egypt’s union with Syria, in the United Arab Republic, in 1958, which Yemen also joined but dissolved in 1961. In the pan-Arab world, Egypt competed with Iraq for the leadership position.
During the civil war in Yemen in the early 1960s, Egypt engaged militarily, sending forces in support of the Republican side following the coup that abolished the monarchy in 1962. This was a result of President Nasser’s offensive foreign policy, and at the same time part of the anti-colonial and the Pan-Arabian struggle. As a result of the war, a UN force (UNYOM) was deployed, including with participation from Norway. A United Nations (UNEF) force was also deployed in Egyptian territory, in Sinai and Gaza, after the 1956 Suez crisis, including the one with Norwegian participation. Prior to the Six Day War in 1967, Nasser requested that UNEF be withdrawn.
The struggle for a free Palestine began in earnest in the 1960s. Egypt was the main supporter of the Palestinian liberation movement, and a driving force for the establishment of the PLO.
Under President Nasser, Egypt was allied with the Soviet Union, including Soviet support for the construction of the politically and economically important Aswan Dam. A particularly important part of the cooperation was in the military field. Egypt was equipped with Soviet weapons, and Soviet advisers helped to develop Egyptian military power. Thus, Egypt became a central part of the political and military rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War.
Nasser’s successor, Muhammad Anwar al-Sadat, fundamentally changed Egypt’s foreign policy in several areas: first by breaking relations with the USSR, then by approaching the United States, and then entering into a peace treaty with Israel.
Following the defeat of the Six Day War in 1967, the Egyptian defense was rebuilt with the help of the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries, until the October war in 1973. Then the Soviet military advisers were sent home. Egypt lost the war again, and after that Sadat changed his attitude to Israel – and Egyptian foreign policy.
Political contact with the United States after the October war facilitated Egypt’s approach to Israel. The peace process that followed, with the Camp David agreement in 1978 and the peace agreement with Israel in 1979, changed Egypt’s relationship with Israel and the West, but also the country’s position in the region. The agreements strengthened relations with the West, but isolated Egypt in the Arab world for the next decade. There, Sadat was seen as a traitor to the Palestinian and Arab cause.
Egypt regained its position in the region during the 1980s, and especially in the 1990s, when Sadat’s successor Mohammad Hosni Mubarak again made Egypt’s president the central mediator in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Egypt’s good contact with the PLO strengthened Mubarak’s ability to play an active role, and the president presented several initiatives to resolve the conflict. For example, the agreement between the two parties on limited autonomy for Gaza and the West Bank was signed in Cairo in 1994, and the revised Wye River memorandum was signed in Sharm el-Sheikh in 1999.
Middle East conflict
Egypt was also instrumental in the start of the Middle East negotiations in Madrid in 1991. This process ran parallel to, and was partly a prerequisite for, the Oslo process. From 2000, Egypt and Mubarak played a leading role in the international peace efforts as the war between Israel and the Palestinian autonomous authorities intensified. In 2001, Egypt and Jordan presented a joint peace plan, supported by the United States.
Egypt backed the 2003 American Road Map for Peace, but then lost part of its weight in the Middle East peace process. This was partly due to developments in the Palestinian autonomous territories, where Hamas assumed power on the Gaza Strip, which borders Egypt – and which was administered by Egypt until 1967.
In 2007-2008, Egypt played a mediating role between the fighting Palestinian groups Hamas and Fatah, and to achieve a de facto ceasefire between Hamas and Israel.
After Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005, the border with Egypt was reopened at Rafah. With Israel’s blockade of Gaza, Rafah was the only possible access to the outside world. In doing so, Egypt controlled an important part of the situation for Gaza, including the many smuggling tunnels to Egypt. Egypt partly opened the border for humanitarian supplies and trade and partly closed it as a political press.
Egypt attempted to mediate between Iraq and Kuwait after the Iraqi invasion of 1990, then to support the Allied campaign against Iraq, contributing a large contingent during the Gulf War in 1991. Participation strengthened Egypt’s relations with the Gulf states and the West. Egypt had at that time developed a close relationship with Iraq, including through a new organization formed in 1989, the Arab Cooperation Council (ACC), in which Jordan and Yemen were also involved.
Egypt did not support the ongoing war against Iraq and the UN sanctions against the country, and warned the United States against trying to intervene militarily to remove Saddam Hussein. Accordingly, Egypt did not participate in the coalition that joined the United States after the 2003 attack on Iraq.
Egypt’s relationship with Israel did not develop as desired after the 1979 peace settlement, and both tourism and trade remained modest. After Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Egypt withdrew its ambassador in protest. Israel’s bombing of the PLO headquarters in Tunisia in 1986, and the subsequent handling of the Palestinian uprising in Gaza and the West Bank, Intifada, from 1987, further contributed to a weakening relationship. Israeli military action in Lebanon in the 1990s also made the cooperation difficult.
Another problem in relations between the two countries was the question of the right to the small land of Taba by the Gulf of Aqaba in the Red Sea, which Israel retained during the withdrawal from Sinai in 1982. In 1989, the conflict was resolved through negotiations, and Egypt gained control of the enclave. Egypt’s relationship with Israel is governed by developments in the Palestine conflict. The relationship has varied with changing governments in Israel as well as regional political developments. The 1979 peace agreement has been maintained, and the peace force deployed to Sinai in 1982 ( MFO ), under Norwegian leadership, is still deployed.
USA, RUSSIA AND CHINA
United States: Relations with the United States have been close since the mid-1970s. As a result of the Camp David negotiations and the peace treaty with Israel, Egypt became an ally and received extensive financial and military assistance. The US veto on a new term for Egyptian Boutros Boutros Ghali as UN Secretary-General in 1996 created resentment in Egypt. In the 1990s, the country was critical of several US international punitive actions, including the bombing of alleged terrorist targets in Afghanistan and Sudan in 1998. Following the terrorist attacks against the United States in 2001, Egypt supported the United States’ fight against terror, without participating in the fight against al Qaeda and Talibanin Afghanistan. Egypt did not support the US and Allied invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Russia: Relations with the Soviet Union were improved under President Mubarak, including with a trade agreement in 1987. Thereafter, relations with Russia were strengthened on several occasions, including after Mubarak’s visit to President Vladimir Putin in Moscow in 2006.
China: Already in 2006, China had agreed to assist Egypt in the development of its nuclear program as part of an increasingly close cooperation between the two countries, especially in the economic field.
Libya: Egypt’s relationship with neighboring Libya has been very changeable. Up to one and a half million Egyptians have worked there, but Libya under Muammar al-Gaddafi sometimes held the border strictly. The situation improved in the 1990s, when Egypt assumed the role of liaison between Libya and the West, including in the compensation case following the Lockerbie action. During the Libya war in 2011, Egypt effectively supported the rebels in the east by opening the border.
Sudan: Egypt’s relationship with its neighboring country, Sudan, was problematic in the years after President Jaafar al-Nimeiri was overthrown in 1986 and sought refuge in Egypt. One source of conflict has been controversy over the border region Halaib on the Red Sea. In 1995, Egypt deployed military forces and seized control of the area. Egypt has also feared the involvement of the Sudanese Islamic regime in Egyptian affairs, and the contagion effect of the militant Islamic movement in the neighboring country.
Another source of discrepancy was Egypt’s unwillingness to support Sudan militarily in the South Sudan war. On the contrary, the Sudanese government accused Egypt of supporting the rebels. Sudan, for its part, must have supported the armed Islamist movement in Egypt. President Mubarak accused Sudan of participating in the assassination attempt against him in Addis Ababa in 1995. In 1999, Egypt and Sudan restored diplomatic relations, with an intensifying relationship thereafter. This includes processes related to the war in Darfur, where Egypt from 2007 has contributed to the peacekeeping force of the African Union (AU) and the UN, UNAMID.
Egypt’s economy is dependent on the water supply from the Nile, and in its foreign policy, the relationship with the countries that sink to the Nile is therefore important for the management and sharing of water resources from the river. Egypt feels that access to water is to some extent threatened by greater exploitation especially in Sudan, and even more Ethiopia, and has signaled that the country is willing to deploy military resources to secure its water supply.
Following the power struggle in the wake of Mubarak’s deposition in 2011, and the military coup against his successor Mohamed Morsi, new leadership Abdel Fattah al-Sisi strengthened relations with Russia. This happened in part at the expense of relations with the United States, partly because the Egyptian regime believed that the United States had used a good relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood. The US decision to withhold arms deliveries following the takeover of 2013 also helped Egypt strengthen its contacts with Russia, including through extensive arms procurement. Russia and Egypt under Sisi have concurrent views on radical Islamists as a threat.
Egypt has renounced direct involvement in the war in Syria, but has signaled support for President Bashar al-Assad and his regime. Egypt has thus chosen a different policy than Saudi Arabia, with which Egypt under Sisi has strengthened relations. This was confirmed when the country’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, made Egypt his second official visit in the fall of 2018. In 2017, President Sisi handed Egyptian sovereignty over two uninhabited Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia. Egypt has taken a role in the regional Sunni bloc, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, targeting the Shia regime in Iran. Egypt also supports the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar. Under Sisi is the relationship with Turkey has deteriorated, as the Turkish government has an Islamist origin, and has welcomed leaders from the Muslim Brotherhood.
Under Sisi, Egypt has continued and partly strengthened its cooperation with Israel. This is particularly true of security in Sinai, where Egypt has requested – and received – military assistance from Israel in the fight against Islamists.
Relations with Sudan have been strengthened under the new regime, and in 2018 the two countries signed an agreement on joint border patrols to prevent Libya rebels from crossing the border. At the same time, Egypt has refrained from interfering in the war in Libya, as well as in the war in Yemen. Equally, Egypt has taken the side of General Khalifa Haftar in the Libyan conflict, not least because of common interests in the fight against radical Islamists.