Sunday, June 14, 2015

Sisi’s regime and Egypt’s Foreign Policy towards Yemen and Israel, by Styliani Vlachopoulou

On June 8, 2014, Field Marshall Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was sworn in as Egypt’s seventh president. His triumph in the presidential elections held in May 2014 was not a surprise, given the public support he received for his role in the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood regime on June 30, 2013, and the fact that the Brotherhood was declared illegal and was banned from participating in the electoral process.

As far as Sisi’s statements regarding Egypt’s foreign policy are concerned, he did not diverge from the classic three circles portrayed by Nasser in his Philosophy of the Revolution back in the 1950s: the Arab, the African, and the Islamic. Yet, some differences can be spotted. First, in addition to the usual linkage made between Egyptian and Arab national security, Sisi placed particular emphasis on the connection between Egyptian and Gulf security, to the point of equating the two. Second, regarding Egypt’s roots in Africa, Sisi paid special attention to the flow of the Nile River to Egypt and promised to establish a special Egyptian commission to manage this issue. Third, he identified Sudan and Libya as countries that can give Egypt the necessary strategic and economic depth. Finally, Sisi called for the transformation of the Arab League into an integrated regional organization[1]. While Sisi continued to respect the 1979 peace treaty with Israel and seek a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict based on a two-state paradigm allowing the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, he added two new targets to Egyptian-Israeli relations: first, the goal of establishing a regional security system that would secure the borders of all of the region’s states; second,  the possibility to develop his country’s  relationship with Israel based on the common interests of both states, given the fact that the peace between Egypt and Israel has already been beneficial for them.
As far as the Egypt-Yemen relationship is concerned, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is once again contemplating the dispatch of ground forces to Yemen, this time supporting the Saudi-led assault on the Houthis[2]. If President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi knew his country’s history, he should hesitate to lead Egypt to another ground war in Yemen. However, the temptation to restore Egypt’s diminished importance in the region must be a great motive; as it was for Nasser in 1962. There are three lessons that the intervening powers can draw from the Egyptian experience in Yemen. First, they should not expect the full support of the United States. The interests of a superpower like the United States in the area are more complicated compared to those of any regional actor. Second, the intervening powers will have to line up a sizable army if they wish to conquer and hold Yemen. Third, there are no permanent allies in Yemen, as Yemen today is a broken state[3].
When speaking about the Egypt-Israel relationship we must take into consideration some important points. Since the end of the summer 2014 Gaza war, Egypt has increased the political and economic pressure on Hamas. After all, Hamas originally grew out of the Gaza branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Egyptian government claims that the broader group is part of a well-organized international conspiracy against Egypt and its destruction is an existential necessity[4]. Treating the Gaza Strip as a source of a possible national security threat and pushing both Hamas and the broader population into desperation, Sisi only increases the likelihood that Hamas’ stance towards Egypt will become more aggressive. Last summer’s 50-day war between Hamas and Israel was a result of the Egyptian-Israeli movements around Gaza. For Cairo, that war was the best possible outcome of its Gaza policy. Hamas went to war with Israel, not Egypt. Since then, the Egyptian government has restricted outflows of goods and people through the Rafah crossing. Along the Sinai-Gaza border, the Egyptian government has tried to cope with instability by keeping the border crossing mostly closed. Both actions increased Gaza’s isolation. Following the extensive war damage, the Gaza Strip urgently needs massive rebuilding and reconstruction. Meanwhile, rising societal tensions, prolonged strikes, and protests against UN Relief and Works Agency facilities in response to a suspension of aid are all indications of the general mood’s souring. The problem is bigger than Egypt, of course. There is no denying that the situation in Gaza is derived from an unfortunate combination of the inability of Hamas and Palestinian Authority–dominating Fatah to work together, Israel’s slow pace of border openings, and the general reluctance of international donors to send aid[5]. Still, Egypt’s current activities run against the political and economic openings to which Hamas and Israel agreed—under Egyptian support—at the end of their short 2012 conflict. Indeed, the unwillingness of both Egypt and Israel to completely meet the 2012 cease-fire terms was one of the reasons behind the 2014 war. A divided Hamas may be seen as good news from Egypt’s perspective, but it’s possible that this scenario will be disproved[6].
For Hamas, Egypt’s involvement must go further than reinstating a simple cease-fire based on “quiet-for-quiet” between the two sides, while leaving the improvement of the political situation for future discussions. The recent proposal is strikingly similar to the 2012 agreement, which began to fall apart soon after it became clear that the promised normalization of Gaza would not be forthcoming. Stability between Hamas and Israel will require a long-term political approach for Gaza. Hamas could reasonably conclude that, if the sympathetic Morsi government could not achieve such an outcome, there is little chance that the anti-Hamas Sisi government will accept such a paradigm shift. And, to date, it is indeed unclear that they will[7].

Styliani Vlachopoulou earned her bachelor and master degrees in International and European Studies at the University of Piraeus. She wrote the present article for RIMSE.

[1] Abdel Monem Said Aly, “Deciphering Abdel Fattah el-Sisi: President of Egypt’s Third Republic”, July 2014, Middle East Brief No. 82, Crown Center for Middle East Studies, Brandeis University,
[2] Jesse Ferris, “Egypt’s Vietnam”, Foreign Policy, April 3, 2015,
[3] Jesse Ferris, “Egypt’s Vietnam”, Foreign Policy, April 3, 2015,
[4] Benedetta Zerti and Zack Gold, “Hamas nears the breaking point”, Foreign Affairs, February 18, 2015,
[5] Benedetta Zerti and Zack Gold, “Hamas nears the breaking point”, Foreign Affairs, February 18, 2015,

[6] Samuel Tadros, “The sources of Egyptian anti-Semitism” The American Interest, April 21, 2014,
[7] Benedetta Berti and Zack Gold, “Expendable Egypt: Why Cairo can’t broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas”, Foreign Affairs, July 14, 2014