Cairo distances itself from Riyadh and works with Syria

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is now playing his part in the war in Syria, regardless of Saudi policy. The raïs got closer to Bashar al-Assad, while the tension grows between Cairo and Riyadh which economically supports the country. Cold with the Obama administration, Sisi is strengthened by the support shown for him by Russia, but also Donald Trump, whom he had met before the American presidential election. Egypt intends to better fight the Islamic State when it considers that Saudi Arabia's position vis-à-vis the jihadists lacks clarity and poses a threat to it. Sisi, who is also getting closer to Iran, has initiated, moreover and since his arrival at the Presidency, a friendly diplomacy towards Israel.

Linformation follows one another concerning cooperation between Cairo and Damascus in the fight against jihadists, whatever name they claim. On December 7, the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar , pro-Hezbollah, revealed that Egypt had sent military and security experts to Syria to help the Assad regime "fight the terrorist threat," and that they should number 200 by the end of December. On November 24, the pro-Syrian Lebanese daily As-Safir claimed that eighteen Egyptian military pilots were on a Syrian military base, which Cairo denied, but not Damascus.

Acknowledgment of Egypt's support for Syria

The recognition of Egypt's support for Syria had come in an interview given by President Sisi for the Portuguese public television channel RTP, November 23. President Sisi had declared that it was imperative to support “national armies to maintain control of the territory, manage extremists and impose the necessary stability in Libya, Syria and Iraq”. In other words, support the regular armies and not the militias. To the question posed by the presenter asking him if he was talking about supporting the Syrian government army, the Egyptian head of state replied in the affirmative. President Sisi publicly shakes up preparations for a meeting of countries supporting the so-called moderate opposition to the Assad regime, which was going to be officially announced by the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jean-Marc Ayrault. One way to bypass this meeting which began on December 10 in Paris.

Support displayed after months of tension with Saudi Arabia

On October 8, Egypt supported a Russian resolution, an alternative to the French one, at the United Nations Security Council. Paris had tabled a text calling for an end to the bombardments on eastern Aleppo and which Saudi Arabia approved, but Moscow had vetoed it and submitted another proposal to a vote, which called for the cessation of hostilities without mentioning aerial bombardments. Of the ten non-permanent members of the Council, three are Muslims, Egypt, Malaysia and Senegal, and the last two voted in favor of the French proposal. Saudi Arabia took Egypt's approval of the Russians' text very badly, and its oil company Aramco had, without warning, suspended the delivery of 700 tonnes of petroleum products to its ally ; 40% of the 1,75 million tonnes that Egypt imports from various producing countries. Cairo was forced to urgently launch calls for tenders to source black gold for the month of October. Two days earlier, the Saudi ambassador to the United Nations, Abdallah Al-Mouallimi, had told the television channel Al Jazeera that it was "painful that the Senegalese and Malaysians have positions closer to the Arab consensus, than that of the Arab representative". Aware of its dependence on the Saudis, Egypt had tried to calm things down and affirmed that its "relations with the Gulf countries are strategic and fraternal". This had not stopped Aramco from keep the pressure on Cairo by not delivering oil the following month, a Saudi policy which perhaps accelerated Sisi's rapprochement with Moscow, especially since the election of a Donald Trump favorable to the Egyptian President was able to restore the latter's confidence in his choices.

For several months, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have been living a latent war over Sisi's orientation in the conflicts in the region.

For several months, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have been living a latent war over Sisi's orientation in the conflicts in the region. Cairo, which concretely engaged in air strikes started during the night of March 25 to 26, 2015 in the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, as part of the operation Decisive storm, then the operation Restore hope, participated only little in the conflict, and believes that there is no need to fight the Houthis, to the chagrin of Riyadh who sees behind them the hand of Iran. Three days after the start of the operation Decisive storm, President Sisi, who hosted the Arab League, had offered to read a letter from Vladimir Putin criticizing military operations in Yemen, which had caused the ire of the Saudis. Egypt is reluctant to engage in ground combat there, due to its painful experience in the 1960s when it had become militarily invested in the country, its Vietnam, , to support the opposition to the Imamate, an Islamic monarchy which reigned with the support of the rich Wahhabi neighbor. Sisi has also initiated a policy of rapprochement with Iran to fight against the jihadists, mainly Sunnis.

In February last year, Sisi bombed Islamic State positions in Libya after the latter beheaded XNUMX Christians, including XNUMX Egyptians, and Cairo called Qatar a terrorist state supporting Daesh. . To calm the situation, the Arab League, which condemned Egypt's accusations, then showed understanding for the strikes in Libya.

The two main petromonarchies in the Gulf are not the only states whose relations with Egypt are going through a zone of turbulence. President Sissi, which also multiplies the friendly signs towards Israel - country whose relations with Saudi Arabia are heating up facing Iran, a common enemy, has execrable relations with Recep Erdogan's Turkey, which supports the Muslim Brotherhood and hopes for the overthrow of President Assad. On the other hand, Egypt strengthens relations with United Arab Emirates, and Sissi welcomed in mid-November the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, the largest Emirati principality.

Egyptian media are now virulent when it comes to Saudi Arabia

The Egyptian media are now virulent when it comes to Saudi Arabia, whose support for Cairo changed with the death of King Abdullah and the accession to the throne of his half-brother Salman in January 2015. The new monarch is leading a campaign. policy of rapprochement with Erdogan, strongly displeasing to the Egyptian power which appreciates neither Turkish support for the Muslim Brotherhood nor Ankara's interventionism in Syria. The words of Egyptian political commentator Abdallah al-Sinawi sums up the ongoing divorce perfectly: “We always talk about a strategic alliance between Cairo and Riyadh. This is not the reality. A strategic alliance means an agreement on regional issues. This is not the case for Syria and Yemen. "

Move away from the Saudis and get closer to Putin and Trump

Egypt's rapprochement with Iran and its cooperation with Syria are taking place under the benevolent gaze of Russia, an ally of the two countries. The election of Donald Trump reinforces President Sisi's feeling that he is making the right choice regarding Damascus; the two men had met on September 19 and the Republican candidate had declared that the Egyptian was a reliable ally in the fight against terrorism, and that Washington had to be loyal to Cairo. An allusion to the cold between President Obama, who supported President Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood overthrown by the army, and his Egyptian counterpart. This rapprochement with Russia is concretized by joint military exercises as well as the supply of military equipment essential to fight the Islamists, and the rapprochement between Moscow and Washington desired by Trump is likely to reassure Sisi.

Since the start of the conflict in Syria, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have supported so-called moderate Islamists

Cairo fears that the jihadists fighting in Syria will find their counterparts in Egypt where Islamists often attack the military and the police. ISIS has already infiltrated Sinai, and Sisi does not trust the Saudis - who supported ISIS before feeling threatened by it and making a strategic shift - even though the Saudis still financially support the state Egyptian. Riyadh supported the Assad regime before supporting the jihadists in Syria, and, earlier this year, the oil kingdom even considered bringing in its troops, in coordination with those of Turkey, in Syria after the retreat of the Islamists, an announcement welcomed by Barack Obama. Riyadh intended to open up the rebels surrounded in the city of Aleppo. Since the start of the conflict in Syria, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have officially supported the so-called moderate Islamists who fight the regime of Bashar al-Assad, enemies for Cairo. Russia's intervention in the conflict to support its Syrian ally and protect its access to the warm seas provided by the port of Tartous, resulted in heavy defeats for non-regular combatants equipped by the two most influential Gulf monarchies. Persian. The recent military appointments in the Trump Provisional Administration are in line with the Republican candidate's campaign trail of waging a ruthless war on Islamic State.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi restored relations with Saudi Arabia after deposing Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. The two countries had previously broken off over the support of the Muslim Brotherhood for opposition to King Abdullah. The latter's successor, Salman, is more inclined to cooperate with Recep Erdogan, a friend of the Muslim Brotherhood, to fight Bashar al-Assad, which hardly reassures Cairo, which wants to quickly eliminate the risk of contagion from Syria. Moreover, the Egyptian army itself is favorable to support for Damascus, and the new raïs policy, approved by Moscow and the future Trump administration, provides it with more security than relations with the Riyadh.

Hans-Søren Dag

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