Egypt has always been an important regional power. During the three decades that Hosni Mubarak was in power, it was a key ally of the west in the Middle East, helping the United States with counter-terrorism and its diplomatic wrangling. The country had a peace deal and unofficial alliance with Israel, generally supporting – or, at least, not actively opposing – its policies. Under Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood president who was elected after Mubarak was ousted, there were changes in this foreign policy. Morsi supported Hamas in Palestine, an organisation with ties to his own movement, and opposed Israel. He strengthened ties to Qatar and moved away from the US.
Since Morsi was, in turn, ousted by a military coup in 2013, following which the former army chief Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi was voted in as president, there has been another reversal. While Egypt has been bound up in internal strife for some time, it is re-emerging on the world stage, with some recent actions demonstrating a change of regional priorities.
This week, Cairo announced that it was brokering a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas to end the bombardment of Gaza that has so far left more than 200 Palestinians dead. Israel said that it had agreed to the deal. Hamas rejected it, saying that it had not been consulted. Before that, as huge swathes of Iraq fell to the extremist group ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham), Al-Sisi pledged that he would give his full support to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki. This was a surprise to some; Egypt relies on funding from the Gulf States, particularly Saudi Arabia, and Al-Maliki is no friend of theirs.
However, a recent speech by Al-Sisi made clear why he was doing this: the threat of political Islam. He warned that ISIS had "a plan to take over Egypt", adding, "I had warned the US and Europe against providing any aid to them and told them they will come out of Syria to target Iraq, then Jordan, then Saudi Arabia." This echoes earlier comments made about Libya. In May, Al-Sisi told Reuters that Libya, mired in factional chaos since the 2011 uprising that ousted Muammar Gaddafi, was becoming a major security threat. During his election campaign, he told the pan-Arab daily Asharq Al-Aswat that Cairo would "not allow the launching of any terrorist activities from inside Libya". He put this in the context of the security threat within Egypt, mainly from Islamist militants in the Sinai, saying that it was important to strengthen the hearts and minds of Egyptians and stop those who abused the discourse of Islam.
Indeed, most of Al-Sisi's regional moves should be seen in the context of the intensely polarised political atmosphere in Egypt. His failure to condemn the Israeli onslaught in Gaza caused anger among some Egyptians. The debate was summarised in an article by journalist and screenwriter Mohammed Amin, who wrote that "there are those who believe [that] our hatred of the Muslim Brothers will cause us to turn a blind eye to the shattering of Gaza, or to be joyful at their defeat." He argued that this was not the case, but others disagree. Of course, Hamas is first and foremost a Palestinian national movement, not a regional offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, but the association is there. The rift between Egypt and Hamas began with allegations that it had helped Brotherhood prisoners to escape from jail before the 2011 revolution, and that it collaborates with the violent Islamist groups in Sinai that have attacked Egyptian military targets. Al-Sisi, whose government has been engaged in a long, brutal crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters, does not want to risk contagion from any front.
Positioning Egypt as a regional policeman guarding against political Islam, though, is a move fraught with complications. Of course, some cases are clear cut; it is understandable that neighbouring states want to guard against nihilistic and violent extremist groups like ISIS, and that they will bolster whichever powers necessary to defeat them. The group's sweep across the region has been reminiscent of the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan in the 1990s; nobody, least of all civilians, wants to see that kind of regime enforced across the Middle East.
However, other cases are not so obvious, such as that of Palestine. Equating all political Islam with terror, as Al-Sisi has done in Egypt, where he declared the Muslim Brotherhood, the biggest pan-Arab political movement, to be a terrorist group, is a dangerous move. It essentially denies the possibility of practicing political Islam through the ballot box and legitimate, legal means. That empowers the most extreme elements. Nowhere proves this point more clearly than Iraq, where Sunni tribesmen who are not particularly sympathetic to the most extreme views of ISIS have not just allowed the group to seize land, but in some cases also actively assisted them because they feel that they have no chance of getting fair representation from the central government.
Al-Sisi, though he has stepped down from his army position, is essentially a military man. As such, it should be little surprise that he has returned to the positions held by Mubarak. His harsh crackdown of political dissent within Egypt's borders also shows that he is unwilling to consider nuance or engagement, an attitude which has been carried over into foreign policy, whether it is Iraq, Libya or Palestine. This is just one part of the picture in an increasingly polarised Middle East.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.