The Annual Conference of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs Egypt and The Arabs in a Changing Middle East
Over Two days; from 18 to 19 December 2018, The Egyptian Council for Foreign affairs held its annual conference under the title of “Egypt and the Arabs in a changing Middle East”. An elite of ambassadors, academics, researchers, and those interested in regional and global issues, participated in the conference. The conference was opened by Ambassador Dr.Mounir Zahran, Chairman of the Council, and Ambassador Hamdy Loza, Deputy Foreign Minister for African affairs, on behalf of His Excellency Foreign Minister Mr.Sameh Shoukry.
The Council selected the topic of this year’s conference, with its complex and interlacing aspects, taking into consideration the changing regional and international environment and its reflections over the situations in our Arab World; particularly, the continuation of the increasing influence of Non-Arab States (Iran- Turkey- Israel) in Arab affairs and crisis; at a time which the Arabs do not seem to have a major role in causing the ongoing changes in our region, and the Arab League, which represents the official political regional organization bringing the Arabs together, with its declining role; led to aggravation of the challenges facing the Arab Countries such as the risks of fragmentation of some States, terrorism, and many other risks threatening the Arab National Security, which is still a controversial and divisive concept between the Arab Countries that view Iran as the main risk source threatening the regional security and Other States emphasizing that Israel, by continuing its occupation of Palestine and other Arab lands, as well as its aggressive and racist practices, constitutes the major risk that must be dealt with and confronted.
With respect to the First view point; noticeably, there is a clear diplomatic and political Israeli activity towards some states that do not find communication with Israel a drawback, based on its being in the same ditch as such states are; against Iran.
In addition to the aforementioned; the roles played by the major powers in what is taking place in the Arab region are obvious and cannot be ignored. These are mostly conflictive competitive roles taking new military and economic forms. The matter here is not only related to the changes in US foreign policy towards the region’s problems; of which the most prominent was Washington’s shameful irresponsible position on the Arab-Israeli conflict; but also to the roles played by the other major powers (Russia- China- EU), as each is working to advance its own interests which might not necessarily match the interests of the region’s states, or their security and stability needs.
The Major Powers and Their Changing Vision toward the Middle East
During the couple of days over which the Four sessions of the annual conference of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs (ECFA) were held, Speakers put forward their visions and analyses on the reality of what is going on in the Arab region, the role of the major powers, as well as that of the regional powers, and also that of the Arab States. Then the Fourth session tackled the topic of “Egypt and Regional Issues”.
About Twenty Speakers participated in the Four sessions including Ambassadors; Mounir Zahran, Mohamed Tawfik, Raouf Saad, Ali El-Hefiny, Hussain Hassouna, Abdel Rahman Salah, Hazem Khairat, Sayed Abou Zeid, and Salah Halima. Experts and intellectuals who participated in this conference were Aliy El-Din Helal, Bahgat Korani, Niveen Saad, Amr El-Shobaky, Mohamed El-Saeed Edris, Shireen Shams, Gamal Abdel Gawad, Wahid Abdel Mageed, and Hassan Abou Taleb.
Firstly: In the First session the participants presented their vision which viewed that what to be detected from; both the US National Security and National Defense documents issued in December 2017 and January 2018; is that the relative significance of the Middle East region as a whole, including the priority of countering international terrorism, has diminished. The axis of US policy in the Middle East has shifted from the Arab-Israeli conflict to a conflict of the Saudi-Gulf-Israeli side against Iran; a development which is not surprising as it has been gradually crystallized over the last years and decades so that it became an officially announced policy.
However, that does not mean a full US withdrawal from the Middle East but trends toward preserving US interests with a lower cost, Even if this led to giving up certain spheres of influence that are considered marginal by Washington or abandonment of regimes and political groups that are allied to the US. Protection of Israel’s security remains a priority issue in Washington’s policy in the region, as well as guaranteeing gas and oil supplies from the region to US allies in Asia and other areas at reasonable prices, and preserving the security of waterways in the region; primarily Suez Canal, in addition to preventing the extension of Chinese and Russian influence in the region.
In light of that all, the US still has military presence in Iraq and possesses military bases in the Gulf and the Red Sea, whereas these bases provided logistic support to forces of the Allies in Yemen.
The US role, to get the Arab region out of liquidity it is currently facing at all levels, is unreliable. Although the US still remains the world’s and the region’s dominant super power, having huge capabilities and great potential, several internal determinants have negatively affected its role in the Middle East and made the prediction of US reaction more difficult and less accurate. It is no more possible to count on the US concept of peace in our region after having the goal of rearranging it in order to ensure the inclusion of Israel and Turkey, take advantage of the region’s wealth, particularly the Gulf region, and weakening its states so as to make them dependent states in their decisions and policies.
With respect to Russian foreign policy in the region as it represents a significant factor in the equation of Russia-US relations; whereas Moscow seems to be keen to restore the role of the super power in the region, particularly after the Ukrainian crisis and annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the resulting US and European sanctions that aimed at imposing global isolation on Russia. Moscow has returned back with a different face from that of the Soviet one, so that the Middle East became the region where Russian policy has, at least, a tactic advantage making it different from Western policies. No doubt that military interference in the Syrian Crisis last September 2015 that was brought about as a Russian reaction toward the Western attitude from the Ukrainian Crisis; marking a milestone in the Russian policy in the region. In addition, its being the first time for Russian forces to fight outside the former Soviet territories since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has succeeded with great skill to overcome the diplomatic isolation it found itself in, after the annexation of Crimea, through playing the Middle East card.
However, Russian military interference in Syria remains an exception to Russian policy toward the region’s problems as it has avoided, interference in conflicts of the region, sometimes even if diplomatic.
While the Russian role in the region is condemned and considered to be opportunistic by the EU and the US. Great openness and a cooperative more than a competitive or a conflictive nature characterize Russian policy in the region. As the Russians have always emphasized that there is no alternative to international collective efforts for solving regional and international problems.
As Russia’s relation with the US and the EU in the region, in its entirety, is
characterized by competitiveness; on the contrary China stands out as a
major power that firmly stands politically with Russia. It is noticeable here,
the relation of the Two powers with the region, that China
seems to be satisfied by letting Russia play the leading role in the Middle
East, as well as recognizing Russian interests in Syria. As is the case with
Russia, China’s foreign policy is characterized by an obvious extent of
balance between various parties; a position dictated by China’s national
security considerations and supreme interests.
After China has become the Premier trade power and the Second largest
world economic power, It started seeking engagement in international
affairs and actively participating in multilateral institutions through
proposing regional and international initiatives of which the most
prominent was “The Belt and The Road Initiative”. Beijing has put forward
Its vision of the Arab-Chinese relations and Its strategy towards the Arab
region in a paper submitted by the Chinese President during a meeting
with representatives of the Arab States at the headquarters of the Arab
league on the margins of his visit to Cairo in January 2016, inviting these
states to join “The Belt and The Road Initiative” and promoting the
relations with his country on the basis of joint interests and mutual
benefits; considering that the region is central to the initiative.
Indeed, the participants in the Conference had no difference in views on the fact that the Twenty First century is perfectly an Asian century after the space between China and the US has been narrowed in numerous fields. However, certain related questions have been raised before; what would happen when China becomes the First global economic power, and whether it is going to be militarily so, as well?, how would the US and the West react to that, and how would China deal with the developing countries then?.
Regarding the role of the European Union (EU) and the styles governing its relations with the other major powers in the region; the declining role of the US in the region has been in favor of the role of the EU that is witnessing a rise due to its huge economic and commercial interests in the region, including cooperation in the field of energy so as to reduce the EU States’ dependency on Russian gas, and in order to address the challenges related to refugees, illegal migration, transnational crime, as well as the Libyan and the Syrian crisis, and the Iranian nuclear issue. There is continuous coordination and consultation on these issues between Egypt and the EU. The EU seeks confirming its worth and significance in light of Britain’s departure out of the Union next March, as well as the rise of populist and right-wing extremist trends in several European countries raising doubts on the survival of the EU and promoting the concept of national identities against that of the Union and its objectives.
The regional and international organizations are playing a significance and positive role in dealing with regional issues cannot be underestimated; there are UN Peace keeping forces and UN peace missions in a number of Arab States. With respect to the Arab League; all major Arab initiatives such as the Arab Free Trade Zone took place within its frame, and an Arab development summit to be held in Beirut on January 2019. Thus implying that, it is still of importance in the attempts for Arab reunion. In this context, both Egypt and Saudi Arabia, in particular, as being influential in the region must take reform and corrective initiatives within the league, to attract the rest of the member states to adopt such initiatives; let this be on issues such as the sustainable development, climate, and human rights, but first and foremost is the exertion of constructive efforts in order to settle inter-states differences in the region.
How to restore the political balance in the region in favor of the Arab States
During the last three sessions; discussions were held on regional issues, the role of the regional powers, the role of the Arab States, and the real opportunities for Egypt’s foreign policy to be in favor of the Arabs.
During the Second session’s discussions on the role of regional powers:
Based on the participants’ assessment, the political balance in the region is not in favor of the Arab countries at the moment, but rather in the hands of the neighboring Non-Arab countries (Iran, Turkey and Israel). And that each of the US, Israel, Turkey and Iran want the steadfastness of the Mid-East regime at the expense of the Arab system, which would lead to marginalization and dilution of the Arab identity in favor of the Mid-East regime.
The chances of settling the Palestinian issue through a process of negotiations face a serious challenge in light of the Trump administration’s full acceptance of the vision of the Israeli right that totally denies considering the rights of the Palestinian people as national rights. In spite of the settlement policies of Israel and their related procedures in Jerusalem and the Haram Al-Sharif itself, and the encouragement of successive Israeli governments to divide and split Palestinian entities; the normalization of Arab States with Israel, particularly the Gulf States, is no longer related to a just settlement with the Palestinians. Hence, the conference emphasized the need to restore the Palestinian issue to its position in the hierarchy of priorities, as the central and main Arab issue, which is to be achieved through collective Arab effort, in addition to the importance of reviewing the management process of the Arab-Israeli conflict and extracting the policies that have led to positive results in favor of the Palestinian issue. In this context, the achievement of Palestinian national reconciliation must be accelerated and the Egyptian efforts to accomplish it must be strongly supported.
The necessity for communication with Iran and Turkey has been looked at as well, as it was pointed out to by some speakers. Whereas diplomacy was found to deal with both friends and enemies alike, and that cutting off communications between two “central States” in the region was not in the favor of Egypt; therefore, the Egyptian state may allow some sort of a second track diplomacy through a reliable civilian body to communicate with these two states without informing or announcing, and the role that can be played by businessmen in this regard has been mentioned here.
In the Third session’s discussions on the role of the Arab States:
The Arab States seem to be surrounded by different forms of penetration, influence, pressure, and blackmail. The region as well witnesses the emergence and promotion of sub-ethnic identities. This necessitates respecting all sub-cultures, such as the Kurds, that are present in the region. The cultural rights that the Arabs claim for themselves must therefore be fully guaranteed to such sub-ethnic identities as long as they remain an integral part of Arab States.
Declining African and international support to Arab issues has been noted. This requires reviewing some of the Arab rhetoric to make it acceptable to the regional and international communities.
It is important to exert efforts for clearing the air over differences and disputes among Arab States, and putting forward a clear vision on the definition of Arab national security concept and the real nature of the challenges and threats faced by Arab States.
During the Fourth session’s discussions on Egypt and regional issues:
It was agreed upon that major powers, in some instances, do not look at the Arab States individually but as a group of countries in a particular geographic area such as the Gulf region, the Arab Mashreq, or the Maghreb region. Hence, one of the options that Egypt has is to present itself within a frame of collective position which would seem difficult under the existing circumstances, and the other option is to present itself as an influential element that can exert pressure over the collective position.
Egypt’s influence and the significant regional role it has; necessarily requires having the ability to afford that, in both material or human terms, for such role. Speakers emphasized here that the main challenges faced by Egypt are; the economic and social development process, accelerating the economic recovery through implementation of its reform programme, and achieving high growth rates for several consecutive years without depletion of resources which would allow maintaining equal and balanced relations with other states, even if they were allies, and also to speak from a position of strength. In this context, it was pointed out that despite the difficulties and the events the Egyptian state has faced in recent years, it is still the most acceptable state among the Arab peoples, and the influence it has over the states of the region is not limited to official and media channels, but also through unofficial popular channels which are many.
Negative developments taking place regionally and internationally offer to the Egyptian foreign policy real opportunities for the contribution to the reunification of Arabs and to clear the air through rational policies emphasizing the concepts of the national state in the face of sectarianism, and dealing cautiously with the initiatives that might be proposed by the US administration in such uncertain circumstances.
With respect to countering terrorism, the conference focused on three main axes of interest to the Egyptian policy: military and security confrontation, cultural and intellectual confrontation, and coordination with other states in countering terrorism. The greatest success achieved so far is mainly noticed in the first axis, ie; the military and security confrontation, and it is also possible to say that coordination with other parties in the face of terrorism has achieved great success. But the second axis of cultural and intellectual confrontation was less successful, despite its great importance.
Regarding Egypt and the Arab future; President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi expressed Egypt’s vision in this regard since 2014, which is based on the following main elements:
– Egypt views that the future of the Arab world is related to arriving at a comprehensive Arab security strategy.
– Facing external threats.
– The Arab League to remain; as the institution of the Arab system, the umbrella, and the framework that plays an essential role in activating the Arab agreements, arriving at the economic integration, and also achieving the comprehensive Arab security strategy.
In the context above, and at the level of the movement, Egypt currently believes that there is no so-called sole leadership of the Arab regional system, but a collective leadership necessitating a sort of coordination and prioritization with the active States.
It is understood that the participation of the Arab states in shaping their future is of particular importance, although the current situations do not suggest the availability of a collective political will to repulse external interventions in the region. Thence, the Arab countries bear the responsibility of what is happening; and that is the case as with all Arab crisis.