Sunday, January 4, 2009

Egypt's Pathetic Foreign Policy

Three years ago, an expert on Egyptian politics argued that Egyptian foreign policy "sometimes seems like an aging movie star." Last month, Egyptian Foreign Minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, confirmed this argument by emulating aging celebrities who blame others for their loss of glamor and attention. The Iranians, he said, are trying "to impose and spread their own ideology in the region" by using the card of the Palestinian question. He warned Hamas and other Palestinian factions of coming under the influence of the Iranians who "provide nothing for the Palestinian cause, save hollow speeches and unfounded allegations."

Apparently, there is always someone Cairo blames for the ineptness of its foreign policies. The protraction of the Lebanese crisis in 2006-8 was blamed on Syria, the unfriendly decision of the US Congress in 2007 to freeze $200 million of US aid was blamed on the influential Jewish lobby, and the collapse of the Palestinian reconciliation talks is now blamed on Iran.

The pointing-fingers discourse could be reflective of the kind of planned propaganda campaigns without which political processes rarely function, but it is a dangerous sign when rhetoric replaces politics or is considered synonymous with politics.

In Lebanon, Egypt contentedly remained in the spectator seat, leaving the playground to a myriad of international and regional players, such as the United States, France, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the sheikdom of Qatar. Egypt gave the Saudis a carte blanche to meddle with the crisis on behalf of moderate Arab regimes and focused on shouting anti-Syrian slogans. Likewise, Egypt's stance toward the rival Palestinian factions is biased and inflexible, therefore more conducive to failure than success.

Perceptions of power and legitimacy are important to any country's foreign policy, but the Egyptian leadership is keen on losing both. First, blaming other parties is a self-defeating approach because, in essence, it admits that important matters are controlled by these parties thus exposing the helplessness of oneself. So when Egypt accuses Iran of sabotaging national reconciliation in Palestine, it implicitly acknowledges that any development on the Palestinian file would not be achieved without the latter's acquiescence.

Secondly, legitimacy in the Arab state system is derived from championing Arab causes and standing up to the nemeses of the Arab world. Egypt willingly forfeited both since it had opted for the go-it-alone approach with Israel and the rapprochement with the United States. In the 1980's and 1990's, Egypt tried to regain its legitimacy by returning to the Arab fold and mediating to solve the Palestinian question, but the commitments of its strategic alliance with the US exposed her acute legitimacy deficit more than once. Joining the US in a military alliance that attacked a sister Arab country and blocking humanitarian relief from reaching the Gaza Strip, which Israel had turned into a big prison, are two cases in point.

Egypt's legitimacy coffers are today emptier than ever. Serving narrow state (or regime) interests, there is no 'patriotic' role it can boast of on the national level. And just like a bankrupt merchant would re-check his accounts in desperate search for an old, unsettled debt that would balance his financial records, Egypt does nothing but reminding others of its 'past' sacrifices for Arab causes, imprudently revealing her current policies' lack of legitimacy.

Syria's Assad can boldly preach Arab nationalism and can call some Arab leaders "half men" because they colluded with Israel while his Lebanese protégés courageously withstood the offense of the mighty Israeli war machine in 2006. And the Iranians, who offer the Palestinians nothing but "hollow speeches and unfounded allegations," can take pride in developing 'Islamic' nuclear capabilities, and resisting the 'malicious designs of imperialist powers', thereby risking an imminent American/Israeli attack. On the other hand, the best the Egyptian regime can do is brag about the majestic grace of permitting – infrequently, of course -- the entry of basic foodstuff into the besieged, poverty-stricken, Gazan territory, now under barbaric attack.

Minor blunders could be beautified but sheer failures are resistant to cosmetic surgery. Mubarak or Aboul Gheit's warning that "Egypt cannot accept outbidding over its stance on the Palestinian cause" is tantamount to George Bush's insistence that invading Iraq was politically wise and legally sound. Both statements are funny and pathetic; funny because they are so out of touch with reality and pathetic because the marriage of poor policies with poor rhetoric deserves nothing short of resentment and scorn.

In international relations, power can survive without legitimacy, and legitimacy can survive without power; lacking both is disastrous. Hence, what other than blaming Hamas could one expect from Egypt in response to Israel's brutal war on Gaza?

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on January 2, 2009.

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