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The Egyptian president has promoted disastrous foreign policies throughout the region

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi speaks in Sharm el-Sheikh on 25 February (AFP)

The international community, most recently in the form of the European Union, has embraced the Egyptian regime of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Various European leaders were happy to glad-hand the general-turned-dictator at the EU-League of Arab States summit he recently hosted in Sharm el-Sheikh. The final declaration was framed in terms of “investing in stability”.

The notion that the Sisi regime can bring stability has long been pushed by trying to convince the world that a democratic Egypt, especially under former President Mohamed Morsi, could not.

Morsi’s impact

"Choatic and autocratic" were the words used in the recent 60 Minutes programme featuring an interview with Sisi to describe Morsi’s regime. In fact, a quick Google search of “Mohamed Morsi” returns an almost endless string of pejorative articles and opinion pieces lambasting the democratically elected leader as just another Middle Eastern strongman.

Unfortunately, such critiques of his year in office lack nuance. What was the actual impact of Morsi’s presidency in the international arena? I was privileged to have a front-row seat, and it was clear that Morsi brought a much-needed element of stability to the region.

Morsi’s position on the Syria conflict also demonstrated his uncanny ability to represent the views of his constituents, while maintaining and balancing international relations

Morsi successfully navigated two complex crises in the Middle East - the shelling of Gaza and the escalating violence in Syria. In both situations, he managed to strike a balance between remaining true to the will of the Egyptian people, while also upholding alliances and agreements with other stakeholder nations. The result was a significant de-escalation in Gaza, and a tempering of the conflict in Syria.

In November 2012, Morsi played a leading role in ending a week of shelling and devastation that killed 115 Palestinians in Gaza - the majority of them civilians, including 27 children - by successfully executing what many observers considered diplomatically impossible: brokering a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel.

He sent important messages to the international community and to the Egyptian people - who were largely sympathetic to the Palestinian cause - by setting a new tone towards Palestine.

Common interests

First, he sent his prime minister, Hesham Kandil, to Gaza to offer moral support to the Palestinians. Next, he opened Egyptian border crossings with Gaza to allow the movement of goods, food and people to help alleviate the impact of Israel’s blockade, and thus help to remove Hamas’ need for underground tunnels. Third, Morsi appeared on television in a show of solidarity with Palestinians.

He took all of these practical, tangible steps in favour of the Palestinian people, without appearing strident or intransigent. He pledged to continue to adhere to the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty and, even as tensions mounted, kept lines of communication open with Israel and the United States.

Former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi meets Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Cairo on 9 January 2013 (AFP)
Former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi meets Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Cairo on 9 January 2013 (AFP)

This balancing act earned him public praise from former US President Barack Obama and even the Netanyahu administration, with former deputy prime minister Dan Meridor noting that together, they may have designed a “new architecture” of common interests. The result was a cessation of hostilities that allowed Palestinians in Gaza significantly more breathing room.

And while he advocated for Palestinians in Gaza, Morsi successfully walked the tightrope of internal Palestinian politics. He insisted that the first state visit to Cairo by a Palestinian leader be from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, rather than Gaza leader Ismail Haniyeh.

Syria’s war

Morsi’s position on the Syria conflict also demonstrated his uncanny ability to represent the views of his constituents, while maintaining and balancing international relations.

In his keynote speech at the August 2012 Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran, he underscored the need for “active interference” to force the Assad regime to step down. As the then-poster-child for the success of the Arab Spring, he called for support of the Syrian struggle against the Assad regime “an ethical duty and a political and strategic necessity”.

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In the same address, he revealed plans to form a Middle Eastern “contact group” involving Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to find a solution to the brutal civil war in Syria. The group’s aim was to ensure that Iran was brought directly to the table and forced to be part of the solution, rather than continuing to be part of the problem.

Ultimately, the work of the contact group was thwarted, not by Iran, but by Saudi Arabia - and it became clear that the Saudis were not interested in any resolution to the Syrian crisis that would result from the Egyptian leadership.

As the hopes for a diplomatic resolution faded and it became clear that President Bashar al-Assad was committed to consolidating his power by force, Morsi moved to cut off diplomatic relations with Syria, closing Egypt’s embassy in Damascus and withdrawing the Egyptian charge d’affairs from the Syrian capital.

He began organising an urgent summit of Arab and other Islamic nations to discuss the crisis, called for the implementation of a no-fly zone over the war-torn nation, and said Cairo would begin providing Syrian opposition forces with financial aid.

Egypt ‘crumbling’

While firmly backing the opposition in Syria, Morsi also juggled Egypt’s diplomatic interests and the views of the Egyptian people - 81 percent of whom had an unfavourable view of Assad, according to a May 2013 Pew public opinion poll.

Yet, as he made announcements on Syria, he reiterated that his government would remain faithful to past agreements, including those with Israel. He also used timing to his advantage, severing diplomatic relations with Syria just as Obama declared that the US would begin providing Syrian revolutionaries with weaponry.

Egypt’s foreign policy under Sisi has not merely enabled these disasters, it has promoted them

Morsi’s leadership continued and enhanced Egypt’s standing as a regional powerbroker - an anchor of real stability in the region.

By contrast, stability under Sisi has been reduced to controlling and reducing illegal migration to Europe. Palestinians in Gaza have suffered unspeakable horrors since the coup that removed Morsi, and Syria has become a playground for Russia and Iran, both of whom have consolidated their hold on that country.

Iran has been emboldened and embroiled Saudi Arabia in an endless war in Yemen. In Libya, democratic transition was derailed as regional powers attempted to replicate the Egyptian coup scenario through General Khalifa Haftar, and opposition Libyans learned that an unarmed opposition is quickly massacred.

Egypt’s foreign policy under Sisi has not merely enabled these disasters, it has promoted them.

As the 60 Minutes interview put it, Egypt has been “crumbling” since Sisi took office. The notion that this regime can bring stability speaks far more to the wishful thinking and myopic views of European and other Western leaders than to any facts on the ground.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

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