Next week, when President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi arrives in New York at the head of the Egyptian delegation to the UN General Assembly he will likely seek to put an end to questions of his legitimacy as head of state. He will also, according to the same diplomatic argument, be ending the “diplomatic isolation” that “some countries” – the reference is always made to Qatar and Turkey – have tried to impose on Egypt.
This said, Cairo officials, including the head of the state himself, are aware that when all is said and done, ”the return of Egypt,” as would be portrayed with the arrival of El-Sisi to the podium of the UN General Assembly to address the world on behalf of Egypt is actually an incident that does not come along with many festivities.
“We know that at the end of the day we are being accepted from a sheer pragmatic sense especially in relation to wider regional stability but we also know that it is a rather lukewarm acceptance that is coming our way, especially from the leading world powers whose governments still worry about influential political and public criticism regarding some political developments in Egypt,” said one high-level diplomat.
A clearly absent sign is a meeting that Egyptian officials were hoping would be conducted with US President Barack Obama who is now most likely to just shake hands with El-Sisi during a “corridor meeting” on the fringe of the GA meetings.
“I think we have made a decent breakthrough with the Americans; they are still apprehensive but overall they are less antagonising than we thought they would be,” the same diplomat said.
The prominent diplomatic argument at the Egyptian foreign ministry quarters now is that El-Sisi is already being invited to visit some key world – including Western – capitals only three months after he was sworn in against a backdrop of un-masked international concern over his ascent to the top executive post after having been in charge of executing the ouster of his predecessor a year prior.
The rest of the diplomatic argument is that there is still room for improving the political posture of “Egypt and its president.”
This improvement is bound to come along as Egypt prudently uses the few diplomatic and military cards it has, as the concerned officials argue.
In one attempt earlier in the summer, Cairo executed an intense diplomatic intervention to end the Israeli war on Gaza upon terms that would accommodate the demands of Israel as those of the Palestinian Authority and to an extent those of the Palestinian resistance movements.
During these weeks, according to Egyptian and foreign sources alike, Cairo and Tel Aviv developed an impressive “understanding” – some foreign sources speak of “a chemistry” – that is based on what one source qualified as the “joint awareness that the ultimate political objective of any deal would be to re-integrate the PA and its chief in the political management of Gaza” years after Hamas had expelled the PA in the summer of 2007.
“I also think that the Egyptians found it purposeful to build good bridges with Israel, especially that this is happening through mostly un-announced contacts, some at a clearly high level,” said a Western ambassador in Cairo.
Egyptian sources do not deny that having good relations with Israel could relieve some pressure that would come from Washington but they insist that their primary interest was to end the war on Gaza, “which was putting so much pressure on us,” according to the same high-level diplomat.
He added that it was exactly the same objectives – among others related to intelligence cooperation on the movement of militants in Sinai – that had kept Cairo from reacting to the many leaks that Israeli press was carrying at the time and marginally unprecedented Egyptian cooperation, which according to some leaks included Egyptian spying on the Palestinian factions talks in Cairo during the days of indirect negotiations that eventually led to an end of the war.
“We were not sure why this was happening and to be honest we are not sure what the objective was exactly because we know that the Israelis appreciate our joint cooperation and we never quite understood the point of trying to discredit us,” a presidential source said.
He added that the decision was to “simply ignore and not to give any public attention to the leaks but we made a couple of contacts to relay the message that we were not happy; we did not find it in our interest to get into a confrontation with Israel; this is not the image we want to have now; our target is to be the stabilising force in a region full of turbulence.”
A comment however came this week the Israeli press carried articles suggesting an Egyptian openness to an idea to launch a Palestinian state in Gaza and parts of Sinai. It was mildly and directly denied by the head of state himself.
“This one could not have been ignored simply because it was one of the main accusations that were raised against ousted President Mohamed Morsi,” explained one of the close media advisors to the presidential office.
Another equally composed reaction was offered to the Sudanese renewed claim that the contested border cities of Halyeb and Shalatin would be included in the Sudanese parliamentary elections “as an integral part of the Sudanese territories.”
This too was one of the accusations leveled against Morsi. “It is an old pending problem that keeps coming up and down and it has been the case also under the rule of [ousted] President [Hosni] Mubarak; but as I said we are keen to be the voice of containment and wisdom,” the presidential source said.
In his talks on the side of the UN GA, El-Sisi will focus on regional stability.
The argument he would be making, according to the sources of Ahram Online, is one that would assert political Islam as a destabilising regional player that has to be eliminated.
“And no one who is planning for a mega international action against ISIS would be blaming us for being uncompromising with the Muslim Brotherhood,” said one diplomatic source.
What El-Sisi will propose is a full-fledged Egyptian engagement in combating radical militant Islamism not just in Syria and Iraq but also in Libya and Sub-Sahran Africa.
The president is said by some of his interlocutors not to be interested in direct military intervention with Egyptian boots on the ground but he has not ruled this out.
“But of course there are limited military operations that could be considered especially that we are talking about a serious threat that is happening within a close vicinity to our borders or to the borders of our best allies,” said the media advisor.
Diplomatic sources say that the focus of action now is essentially political. Egypt, they add, is trying to build political bridges with ‘all possible’ players inside Libya, Syria and Iraq that could help “eliminate the threat of these groups.”
Some of the “ideas” and “efforts” that Egypt has in this respect have been shared during the Jeddah meeting that brought together the foreign ministers of key Arab Gulf and Arab Mashreq countries with US Secretary of State John Kerry who arrived to the Middle East to discuss the “war on ISIS” at a time when Obama was addressing the US public on the matter.
“I think things are moving the way we want them to move – rather slowly maybe,” said a source who is informed on the developments of the Jeddah meeting.
Inevitably it is this “partnership to stabilise” the region and this “coordination on the Palestinian file with all concerned players” that Egypt is convinced would prompt Western forces to do two things it wants them to do: reduce the pressure with regards to matters related to human rights and participatory democracy and act on the economic front to support the success of Egypt’s new regime.
“They will soon find it in their interest play with us and not against us,” according to the high-level diplomatic source.
Already this week, and despite the anger directed against Egypt on the sideline of the UN Human Rights in Council in Geneva, Egypt was spared from being included with direct criticism on its human rights practices in the report offered by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
And this is considered in Cairo as a good step even when key European countries are still suspending a good part of their aid to Egypt – as does the US.
Egyptian officials say that the sentiment in Cairo is that this would slowly change and that by the time Egypt holds its international investment conference late in the winter of 2015 or early in the spring of this coming year, things will have already moved forward.