Egypt and a Complex Regional Dance

Endogamy Sisi
News from Cairo and the neighborhood are puzzling: elections delayed; a quick trip to Riyadh by both Sisi and Erdogan; large weapon deals by Egypt; Yemen collapsing into civil war; Isis fiasco; Iranian American negotiations making progress despite Israeli opposition, and many other news. Trying to understand the complex dance that is taking place in our part of the world is not straightforward.

There are two competing games taking place:

First is the Sunni-Shiite game. Saudi is trying to assemble an anti Shiite coalition that includes Egypt, Turkey and the GCC. The Iranian threat is happening on three fronts. In Yemen, Iran’s threat is growing after the Hawthi’s near take over of Yemen, and a looming civil war that may overflow to Saudi, or at least threaten its southern borders. In Syria, Bashar succeeded in stabilizing the situation and is not likely to go away. ISIS is also creating an ideological challenge for the Saudi’s on who is more fundamentalist! Finally, Iran and the U.S. are on the brink of an agreement that will leave Iran as a threshold nuclear state, which will change the strategic balance in the Arab/Persian gulf.

To assemble this coalition and also face the ISIS threat, Saudi needs Egypt and Turkey to be on the same side of the Sunni coalition, which leads to the second game: the political Islam game. what to do with the Muslim Brotherhood Islamist project? Turkey, along with Qatar and the U.S. Strongly favor integrating the MB (aka in DC as moderate political Islam) in the political process. Egypt, the UAE (and Algeria) were the hard liners who strongly resisted this, and saw them as the mother of ISIS and all terrorist groups. Saudi was the swing voter – supporting Egypt’s position during the reign of the late King Abdullah, and now moving to the other side under King Salman.

The current dance in Cairo, Riyadh and Istanbul is to realign these positions in line with the change in Saudi policy. And of course Qatar plays its favorite role of the mediator.

If this re-alignment takes place, expect the following (signs are already taking place):
– Egypt will allow some MB members to participate in the parliamentary elections. Postponing the elections gives the government time to internally negotiate the size of this participation
– egypt will release MB moderate leaders, and some youth and mid level cadres. But will keep senior leaders as a playing card at least until the deal is negotiated.
– Egyptian-Turkish relations will improve, although the personal animosity between Erdogan and Sisi will keep them from getting too close.
– Saudi and GCC economic support during the upcoming economic summit will be substantial.
– Support for the Egyptian military upgrading its weapon system will continue and grow.
– Don’t be surprised to hear of Egyptian troops at the Saudi borders with Yemen and possibly Iraq. Timing is a big question, but given the rapid deterioration in the Yemeni politics, it likely to happen sooner than later.
– If Qatar and Turkey are aligned, then things may cool down in Libya and a political solution may take place.

All of this is contingent on the success of Saudi in forging its anti-Iran Sunni alliance. Over the short term, Egypt will follow the Saudi’s as it needs their financial aid. However, the internal space given to the MB will likely remain symbolic.

Amin Elmasry
1 March 2015

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