By Eran Lerman
Egypt has been present in various ways, both directly and indirectly, in the events and developments that have resulted in the current alignment of forces in the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond:
1 Following the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Greece and Cyprus, under pressure from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s neo-Ottoman ambitions in the eastern Mediterranean, saw the need to engage with the new Egyptian leadership under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Israel. They share their concerns, whereas much of the European establishment does not.
As a result, tripartite summits and numerous ministerial and professional meetings have been occurring regularly since 2015 in the two triangles of Greece-Cyprus-Israel and Greece-Cyprus-Egypt, resulting in the establishment of two parallel secretariats in Nicosia.
With the U.S. increasingly involved in military and other aspects, the Israeli triangle is now known as the 3+1 alignment. While Egypt has yet to agree to joint strategic consultations, Egypt’s future is on everyone’s mind.
2 Egypt played a direct, leading role in establishing the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum as an internationally recognized regional organization, initially in 2019 and formally in 2020. This reflected more than just a shared interest in energy. Originally, a 3+3 arrangement involving Italy, Greece and Cyprus, as well as Egypt, Israel and Jordan — with a problematic Palestinian add-on — is reminiscent of the Western Mediterranean Forum, commonly referred to as the 5+5 Dialogue, which included Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia, along with five EU countries. But unlike it, it is an alliance of nations with similar ideologies. Later, France became a member, and the United States and the European Union became observers.
3 The Palestinians, in their folly, blocked the United Arab Emirates’ participation, but the Emiratis and Saudis did come in as Mediterranean players for their own reasons. The UAE contributed to forming a foreign ministers’ consultation group, the Paphos Forum, which brought together the UAE, Israel, Greece and Cyprus.
While Egypt is not fully present, its national concerns and long-term goals are clearly on the agenda. The same can be said of the more recent breakthrough in Greek-Saudi cooperation due to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Athens.
4 The so-called “Negev Summit” was actually a meeting of American and Israeli foreign ministers, along with Egypt, Morocco, the UAE and Bahrain. It will be held twice in 2022 — once in Sde Boker in Israel’s southern desert and once in Bahrain. Unlike Cairo’s stance in previous decades, which tended to express concern about Arab “normalization” with Israel, el-Sisi gave his full support to the Abraham Accords and their consequences, and even hosted an Egyptian-Emirati-Israeli summit in Sharm al-Sheikh in March.
5 During U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel, a new multilateral building block for this regional security architecture emerged: India’s idea of a “Western Quad,” translated into the so-called “I2U2” group virtual summit. Prime Ministers Narendra Modi of India and Yair Lapid of Israel, President Mohammed bin Zayid of the UAE and Biden met on Zoom and authorized a common agenda.
While there is no apparent link to the Mediterranean, one of the UAE and Israel’s long-standing concerns has been to support Egyptian stability and mitigate the potential effects of great power competition in the Mediterranean, the Red Sea and beyond. All of this has long piqued the U.S.’s interest, which is now spreading to India as it seeks to exert influence over the regional balance of power and counter the ambitions of China and its Belt and Road Initiative.
What Makes Egypt so Important?
A thread connecting the majority, if not all, of these recent interactions is a concern for Egypt’s future (and the related issue of control of Libya). Indeed, while there are several compelling reasons for the rise of these alliances, ranging from energy cooperation and other economic and environmental initiatives to military exercises, two strategic issues stand out.
One has to do with Egypt’s political stability and orientation following the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood. The other is Erdogan’s bid for regional leadership under the banner (until recently) of support for Islamist political forces such as Hamas in Gaza and the Government of National Accord in Libya. Until recently, Erdogan’s position toward Israel and her Sunni Arab allies was clear and posed an aggressive challenge to Egypt and Israel.
Indeed, Sisi’s ascension to power in 2013 fueled the increasingly common perspectives that brought Israel, Greece and Cyprus together. So too did the outbreak of war in Libya in 2014, which quickly devolved into a proxy conflict between Sisi’s Egypt and Erdogan’s bid for regional hegemony. Under Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey came to see itself as the overarching patron of Muslim Brotherhood movements in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Gaza and elsewhere, fueled by Erdogan’s AK Party ideology.
Despite the decline of its direct influence, Egypt remains the most critical part of the regional order. The days of former Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser casting a long shadow across the Arab world are long gone; former President Anwar al-Sadat transformed the conflict, first in war and then in peace; and President Hosni Mubarak was America’s most important ally in the region, despite his population’s deep anti-Americanism.
But Egypt remains the region’s most populous country, the only one to have crossed the 100 million mark between Pakistan and the Atlantic (and, for that matter, between the Sahara and the Russian border). It is also situated at a critical strategic crossroads because China’s Belt and Road Initiative must pass through the Suez Canal. Last but not least is Egypt’s role as host and leader of the Arab League, which was founded in Egypt in 1944 and has been led by Egyptians for most of its history.
The interconnected issues of Egypt’s stability and economic viability are thus critical. At this point, two specific questions loom: Will Egypt benefit significantly from the eastern Mediterranean gas fields’ potential? And, as a result of the assault on Ukraine, will there be widespread deprivation, even famine, that threatens the stability of Sisi’s rule and provides totalitarian Islamist radicals with opportunities for mischief?
Col. (ret.) Dr. Eran Lerman, the former deputy director of Israel’s National Security Council, is the vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. This article was originally published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.