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With Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule finished and much of the Arab world in a state of revolt, the time is ripe for Egypt to embark in a new, more independent direction in foreign policy. But Egypt will tread cautiously as the conservative states of the Arabian Gulf are not ready for dramatic change and will do what they can to preserve the status quo in the Middle East in a time of unprecedented uprisings.
“At this point, Saudi Arabia is leading a counter-revolution,” says Salman Shaikh, the director of the Brookings Doha Center, an international nonpartisan think tank, referring to Riyadh’s interference in neighboring countries’ uprisings. The main concern is Iran. “For Saudi Arabia, Iran is the number one, two and three issue,” says Shaikh. “It has a very myopic view.”
Shortly after Mubarak left power on 11 February, Egypt’s new military government began to signal that it is ready to change relations with Iran, one of the biggest regional players and a traditional foe of Mubarak, Gulf states, Saudi Arabia and other pro-US forces in the Middle East.
Egypt and Iran have not had diplomatic relations since 1979, when Cairo welcomed the deposed Iranian shah after that country’s revolution. As yet, diplomatic relations have not been restored, but rumors have circulated since February that the process is underway and Foreign Minister Nabil al-Araby announced that he will meet his Iranian counterpart in May on the sidelines of an international conference in Indonesia. The new Egyptian prime minister stopped by Riyadh on 24 April, presumably to explain himself and make assurances to Cairo’s traditional allies in the region.
“He makes a very clear message that Egypt, when it thinks about making normal relations with Iran, will not do so instead of relations with Saudi Arabia,” says Hassan Abu Taleb, an analyst specializing in Gulf issues at Cairo’s Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
Meanwhile, the new Egyptian government seems to be exploring the possibility of modifying its relationship with Israel. Egypt was the first country to sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1979 and has worked with Tel Aviv on a number of regional issues since. Araby announced on 28 April that Egypt will permanently open its border crossing with Gaza, ending its collaboration with Israel in maintaining a blockade on the Hamas-ruled territory for the last five years.
The slight turn away from the US- and Gulf-led conservative coalition may already bearing fruit. On 27 April, rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah came together in Cairo to ink a reconciliation deal. A number of regional factors played a role in the sudden decision compromise, but the change in Egypt was one.
The Mubarak regime, particularly under the stewardship of former intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman, had been attempting to broker such an agreement for years but with no success. This was, according to many analysts and observers, due to the regime’s bias toward Fatah, which is backed by the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and the US.
But even if the new Egyptian government, either under its current military leadership or its future civilian one, aims to reshape the country’s foreign policy, the change will most likely not be revolutionary.
“It’s better for Egypt to ease into any change,” says Abu Taleb, who argues that foreign policy for the most part will stay the same after elections next year. “They will all be pragmatic,” he says of potential new governments.
Egypt’s close ties with pro-status quo forces such as Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries means they have major pressure points they can use try to keep Egypt in check. Egypt is in many ways economically dependent on those countries for investment and aid. Since the 25 January revolution, Gulf investors have promised billions for development projects in Egypt, while economic aid from those countries could help stabilize its new government. With the local economy in turmoil, these offers are important to Egypt.
Meanwhile, Egypt relies on the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia to absorb excess labor. Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians work in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia, sending home billions of dollars in remittances each year. In April, rumors circulated that the United Arab Emirates was denying visas to Egyptian workers in retaliation for warming ties with Iran. Though the Emirati officials and Egypt’s Foreign Ministry denied this, the reports highlighted the importance of the relationship with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.
Saudi Arabia is also a leader in terms of religion in the Muslim world, exporting its conservative brand of Wahhabi Islam to Egypt and beyond. The recent rise in the Egyptian Salafi movement’s political power suggests that Saudi Arabia may be able to play that card. Saudi and Gulf money funds most Salafi television stations and internet forums, and Saudi preachers are widely respected by Salafis.
“[Saudis] are trying to influence the development of the post-revolutionary ideology movement in Egypt, especially through their connections with Salafi movements,” says Ashraf El Sherif, an American University in Cairo professor who specializes in political Islamist movements.
“The Salafis are trying to pressure the Muslim Brotherhood to follow the Salafi model. The Saudis already are doing this,” says El Sherif.
While it may not be as big as the shifting regional balance of power, the issue of Egypt’s political Islamist movements raises another important concern for the Gulf. The success of a secular and democratic state in Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country, would call into question the legitimacy of the conservative, religious monarchy in Riyadh.
“They always presented themselves as the only valid, self-righteous version of Islamism,” says El Sherif. “Right now we can entertain different versions of Islamism that might be more democratic, more accepting than the Saudi Islamism.”