As part of efforts to tend to the aftermath of the explosion, on Saturday Egypt sent a plane packed with aid to Beirut, the second in less than a week.
General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi himself offered his condolences and on Tuesday the Egyptian foreign minister met the Lebanese president to discuss efforts to reconstruct the country.
“We are ready to stand by our brothers the Lebanese people and have confidence in their ability to overcome this crisis and face the challenges posed by the port explosion,” said Sameh Shoukry.
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic it was possible to trace a map of Egypt’s alliances by following where it was sending aid – medical gowns for its Western benefactors the UK and the US and protective gloves for Italy, who it is trying to appease following the torture and murder of Italian student Giulio Regeni at the hands of its own security agents.
All of this, despite repeated warnings from its own doctors that the Egyptian health care system is on its knees due to years of chronic underfunding, and that they were in vital need of medical supplies at home.
As a key member of the US-backed Saudi-UAE camp, which opposes Qatar and Turkey because they look favourably on the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s relief efforts in Lebanon may be a bid to counter Turkish influence in the country.
In 2013, as Turkey forged closer ties with Lebanon, some drew attention to Kaweishra, a village in northern Lebanon adorned with the Turkish flag where residents speak Turkish.
Several Turkish officials have visited Kaweishra, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself in 2010; the Turkish government has built a water plant there and established a school.
During the 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon, Turkey sent aid to Lebanon; since the explosion, Ankara has sent 400 tonnes of wheat as well as medical equipment, and told Beirut not only that it will help rebuild the country but that in the meantime it can use its own Mersin Port.This likely struck alarm bells for Egypt, which has also been squaring up to Turkey over its activities in neighbouring Libya. Turkish backed forces have helped the Government of National Accord (GNA) make significant gains, experts say this if for commercial gain, but also partly to counter Egypt and the UAE’s influence there, since they support the rival administration led by Khalifa Haftar.
The Turkey-Egypt conflict playing out in Libya and Lebanon is also present in the Eastern Mediterranean, said to hold approximately $700 billion worth of natural gas. Turkey has cast Egypt and Greece’s recent EEZ accord as a “pirate agreement”.
That Egypt has extended the hand of friendship to Lebanon at this time is made all the more pertinent if we consider how it treats others along its borders.
During the May 2018 bombardment on Gaza, Palestinians called on “sister Egypt” to supply hospitals in Gaza with medicine, send through surgeons and medical crews and transfer the wounded to hospitals in Egypt.
When Turkey responded to the call, Egypt authorities blocked the aircraft landing in their airports. So much for their Palestinian brothers over in Gaza.
Egypt’s overture towards Lebanon can also be looked at through the lens of its ally Saudi Arabia and its regional rivalry with Iran. The US-backed Egypt-Saudi-UAE alliance’s main objective in Lebanon is reducing Iran’s influence via Hezbollah and before the explosion Gulf states denied Lebanon economic aid with the aim of achieving just this.
If Hezbollah is out of the picture, this would have the added benefit of serving a central US interest: maintaining Israel’s security.
To this end a new French-US-Saudi initiative aims to back the formation of a new government in Lebanon which would win the confidence of the international community through major reforms aimed at moving Lebanon out of its economic crisis, according to one analyst I spoke to.
There are conflicting reports about whether Hezbollah would be included in this coalition government and whether Egypt will back this initiative remains to be seen. However, it is clear that it’s not in Egypt’s interest to see Lebanon collapse as this would in turn boost both Iran and Turkey’s influence there.
At the beginning of this week, head of the MENA programme at Chatham House, Lina Khatib, wrote in the Guardian of the international community’s role in sustaining Lebanon’s corrupt political class through unconditional foreign support which gives the administration no incentive to reform.
For years, experts have said the same of Egypt, calling on their patrons to leverage political and military aid on a promise that the regime abide by the rule of law. It was not that long ago that Egyptians themselves took to the streets to protest corruption in the ruling party.
Whilst Lebanon needs humanitarian aid, for its long-term stability and for real reform to take place it should be given with integrity and accountability, rather than ideological ambition.