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Egypt after Mubarak

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Egypt’s Enduring Challenges as it Faces the Middle East

July 11th 2011

Egypt - map of Egypt

In recent years, Egypt has seen its regional influence erode precipitously. Decades have passed since Cairo was the diplomatic, cultural, and intellectual hub of the Middle East. But the extent of Egypt’s decline has become even more pronounced of late, as the state has focused increasingly on internal matters related to political transition. Today, on almost every front--and regardless of the recent political upheaval-- Egypt evokes a waning regional power.

Until Mubarak was deposed, Washington consulted with this elder statesman on regional issues. Indeed, the Obama administration invited Mubarak—one of only two Arab heads of state—to the White House to attend the resurrection of Israeli- Palestinian peace talks in August 2010. But there were few illusions as to his ability to influence either the Israelis or the Palestinians on key matters. It had been years since Mubarak could compel a Palestinian leader—like then rais (president) Yasser Arafat in 1995—to sign an Oslo II agreement with Israel that Arafat considered unpalatable.

Cairo’s diplomacy on regional issues has also proven largely anemic. On Sudan, not only did Egypt have nothing to say about the Darfur genocide—in March 2009, Amr Mousa, the Egyptian secretary general of the Arab League, “reject[ed]” the International Criminal Court (ICC) warrant for the arrest of Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir—the former government projected ambivalence about the impending breakup of its southern neighbor. In its final years, the Mubarak regime showed vigor on basically one foreign policy issue alone—that of Iran, along with its terrorist allies Hamas and Hizballah. Since 2008, Cairo took some modest steps to shore up its strategic position vis-à-vis Tehran.

With Mubarak gone, it is possible that the next government of Egypt will be intensely focused on internal matters. Alternatively, the new government may find that foreign affair—and its attendant populist appeal—is a useful distraction from stubborn domestic economic issues.

At the same time, Egypt’s rivals will likely look to test the mettle of Mubarak’s successor. Indeed, less than a month after the president’s departure, the Iranians exploited the vacuum to take the highly provocative step of sending two warships through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean Sea. It was the first time since 1979 that the Iranians had sent military vessels through the canal. The ships’ passage would have been unthinkable during the Mubarak era.

Some of the more challenging matters the next Egyptian government will have to contend with are relations with its neighbors, including Libya, Sudan, and Israel.


Relations between Cairo and Tripoli have fluctuated over time. In the late 1970s—when a peace deal between Egypt and Israel seemed imminent—Libya initiated terrorist attacks and provoked a border conflict with its eastern neighbor. More recently, Mubarak and Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi reached a modus vivendi built on common interests in Sudan and the free movement of expatriate workers.

As of March 2011, popular uprisings in Libya had divided the country and returned the formerly “rehabilitated” Qadhafi to his previous status as international pariah. While it is unclear how the situation in Libya will develop, a civil war or failed state may ensue. Not only will Cairo be forced to deal with instability on its western border, should the violence continue, Egypt may also have to absorb hundreds of thousands of Libyan refugees.

The crisis in Libya provides an opportunity for the new Egyptian government to play a positive, stabilizing role. Through its humanitarian efforts and even perhaps by sending troops, Cairo can help a post-Qadhafi Libya rebuild on a secure basis. Notwithstanding its possession of 220 F-16 aircraft, as of March 2011 Egypt was not one of the seven Arab states participating in the military coalition supporting the UN-mandated no-fly zone over Libya. It is possible that Egypt can play a productive role in the future.


The new government of Egypt faces a similar challenge to its south, where the state of Sudan is slated to be divided in two in July 2011. Northern Sudan, led since 1989 by ICC indicted war criminal Omar al-Bashir, has pledged to institute sharia (Islamic law) after the south breaks off. Bashir faces a number of challenges, including a threat from the (even more militant) Islamist Hassan Turabi, as well as from Sudanese tribes, which have little interest in seeing Sudan become a truly Islamic state. Meanwhile, demonstrations in support of reform have also reached Khartoum. Amid these tensions, the concern is that after July, Northern Sudan will also deteriorate into civil war.

As with the situation in Libya, the new government in Cairo can help stabilize Northern Sudan, either by deploying additional troops to the small Egyptian contingent already on the ground or by working to convince Bashir to not impose sharia after the south splits.


While Egypt and Israel have been at peace since 1981, the relationship has vacillated between warm and chilly over the years. Recently, however—although the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and Israeli settlement building in the West Bank have proven irritants—the Hamas takeover of Gaza and the Iranian nuclear threat seem to have brought the states closer together.

On the ground in Gaza, improved Egypt-Israel ties reportedly have been manifested through increasingly close intelligence and security coordination.109 Not only has Cairo taken steps to shore up its Gaza fence and curtail weapons smuggling through tunnels but the Egyptians have also been a reliable partner to Israel in ensuring the naval blockade of Gaza aimed at preventing “humanitarian” overland and sea shipments to the Palestinians and instead ensuring that goods enter Gaza via proper channels. In the summer of 2010, Israelis and Egyptians apparently coordinated the offloading of supplies from the Libyan-chartered vessel Amalthea, which was diverted south from Gaza by the Israeli navy.

In the same vein, Mubarak’s Egypt and Israel cooperated to counter the Iranian threat. In June 2009, shortly after the announcement of the arrest of a large Hizballah cell planning attacks against Egyptian and Israeli targets in the Sinai, an Israeli Dolphin-class submarine sailed from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea via the Suez Canal. A few weeks later, one of Israel’s Saar 5-class corvette missile boats traversed the channel. These ship movements made headlines in the region, not because they were unprecedented but because they came during a moment of heightened regional tensions vis-à-vis Tehran.

Almost universally in the Middle East, these developments were interpreted as a message to Iran. Transit through the canal saves Israeli vessels the timeconsuming trip around the Horn of Africa, providing access to the Red Sea that brings Israeli missiles closer to Iranian shores. Correspondingly, on July 14, Iran’s Press TV website posted a story titled “Egypt, Israel Coordinating over anti-Iran Act.”

The former regime in Egypt and Israel appeared to be on the same page regarding both Hamas and Iran. While little was publicly stated on the nature of the coordination on these fronts, the optics were unmistakably positive. Indeed, whereas President Mubarak only visited Israel once during his thirty years in power—to attend Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral—his intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, was a frequent visitor to the Jewish state.

While the states have had periodic spats—in September 2010, for example, Egyptian officials said Israel had a lot of “chutzpah” for accusing Cairo of not signing an agreement in support of a nuclear-free Africa—for the most part, the disagreements have not been on core bilateral strategic issues. Now that Mubarak is gone, the trajectory of the strategic cooperation between Israel and Egypt is unclear. The Egyptian military would no doubt like to see it continue, while the emerging opposition consensus leans toward downgrading the cooperation.

Even as state-to-state relations were productive during the Mubarak era, the longtime president failed to foster peace between the Egyptian and Israeli people. Three decades after the Camp David Accords, the consequence of this failure is that most Egyptians remain hostile to Israel. Regrettably, in terms of foreign policy, should Egypt’s next government want to differentiate itself from the former regime, changing the policy and the atmospherics of the bilateral relationship with Israel may be seen as a popular option.

Tangling with Hamas

Consistent with its declining regional influence, Egypt’s diplomatic sway with Hamas has waned over the years. Ever since Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007, Cairo has tried unsuccessfully to convince the organization to join a national unity government with Fatah and to agree to a prisoner swap with Israel. Then, in January 2008—a year after Gaza was effectively isolated by its neighbors—Hamas destroyed its border fence with Egypt, allowing a reported 700,000 Palestinians, or roughly half of Gaza’s population, to enter the Sinai Peninsula.

For Cairo, the border incident raised fears of ideological contagion—in particular, the concern that the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) might somehow radicalize its more docile Egyptian wing. So, less than two weeks after the Gaza breach, the Mubarak regime took draconian measures to return the Palestinians to Gaza. It arrested more than a hundred—including a group of Palestinians armed with explosives and grenade launchers, reportedly planning to attack Israeli tourists in the Sinai—and quickly resealed the border with miles of barbed wire. In response, Hamas pledged it would not allow the border to remain sealed. In February 2008, two Egyptian border guards were injured by Palestinian gunfire and several more were treated for broken bones after being hit by rocks thrown across the border. In March, Hamas officials accused Egypt of torturing its detained members. Subsequently, Egypt announced its plan, with $23 million in U.S. assistance, to build its own fence along the Gaza border with help from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Cairo’s expeditious steps to better seal off Gaza were driven primarily by concerns about Hamas. But there was also pressure from Washington; for more than a decade, weapons had been moving freely into Gaza via smuggling tunnels linking the Sinai to Palestinian areas. After Hamas’s Gaza takeover, however, longer-range Katyusha rockets transported through these tunnels started falling on Israeli cities. During its 2008 budget discussions, the U.S. Congress was so concerned about perceived Egyptian inaction on the tunnels that a clause was inserted to condition nearly $100 million in U.S. aid on Cairo obstructing these smuggling routes.

At the time Mubarak fell, Egypt no longer viewed Hamas—a terrorist organization based some 250 miles from Cairo—as just a nuisance but rather as a bona fide threat to be contained. These concerns translated to a policy of interdicting not only military materiel but also personnel and funding for the cash-strapped terrorist group. In February 2009, for example, Egyptian officials forced Hamas official Ayman Taha to deposit $11 million in a bank in al-Arish rather than bring it into Gaza.113 Likewise, that April, government authorities arrested the brother of a Hamas spokesman after he entered Egypt through a tunnel.

The new Egyptian government will immediately be faced with several challenges and opportunities in Gaza. Mubarak’s position on Gaza—which Egyptians broadly saw as the regime serving as a co-jailer with Israel—was very unpopular. It appears that the post- Mubarak government will no longer cooperate with Israel in isolating Hamas in Gaza. Less clear is whether the new government would consider changing the longstanding policy of Egypt refusing to take responsibility for Gaza by not only providing food, water, electricity, and humanitarian goods to the territory, but also serving as Gaza’s outlet to the world.

Standing Up to Hizballah

In addition to viewing Hamas as a threat, Mubarak’s Egypt also increasingly saw Hizballah, the Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite militia, as a menace. On April 8, 2009, Egyptian authorities announced the arrest of dozens of Hizballah operatives in the Sinai plotting attacks on Israeli tourists at Sinai beach resorts. According to Egyptian officials, the group was conducting preoperational planning, and establishing a surveillance network to monitor shipping traffic in the Suez Canal.

Although the arrests came as a shock to many, the seeds of this Hizballah undertaking had been planted months earlier, when Egypt refused to open the Rafah border during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in winter 2008–2009. Cairo’s position was sharply denounced by Hizballah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah, who appealed to Egyptians to challenge their government and “open the Rafah border crossing with your own bodies.” Then Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Abul Gheit described the statement as a “declaration of war.”

In addition to condemning Cairo, Nasrallah claimed responsibility for the operatives. Contrary to Egyptian claims, though, he said the cell was smuggling arms and explosives to Hamas in Gaza and had no intention of carrying out attacks on Egyptian soil. “If aiding the Palestinians is a crime,” Nasrallah added, “I am proud of it.”

The response to Nasrallah’s speech in the Egyptian government–controlled media was swift and harsh. On April 12, 2009, al-Gomhuriya, the leading government daily, called the Hizballah leader a “Monkey Sheikh” and the “son of Qom” (i.e., an Iranian), who is “not the leader of the resistance” but the head of a “terrorist organization” that is “an ideological ally of al- Qaeda.” The editor of the government-affiliated Rose al-Yousef magazine added that Lebanon should “surrender [Nasrallah] as a war criminal.”

A year later, in April 2010, twenty-six members of Hizballah—four in absentia—were sentenced by an Egyptian court to lengthy jail terms The approach of Egypt’s next government toward Hizballah and Hamas cannot be predicted. Surely, the military’s concerns about these organizations will be represented in Cairo’s future policies. At the same time, however, the next president of Egypt will be unlikely to share Mubarak’s visceral dislike of Tehran or his concerns about Hamas. The same is likely true of Syria. As of April 2011, there were already signs that Cairo was looking to repair its longstrained relationship with Tehran’s strategic partner, Damascus, a state that pursues policies Mubarak considered unhelpful if not inimical to Egyptian regional interests.

Concerns about Iran

If anyone doubted that the arrests and the war of words with Hizballah were an Egyptian message to Iran, Mubarak dispelled these doubts during an April 2009 speech to military officers in Ismailia. Speaking of Iran and its client, Hizballah, Mubarak said:

They are trying to enforce their agenda on our Arab world. They see the division in the Arab and Palestinian worlds and they’re pushing their agents to the region to threaten Egypt’s national security and undermine its stability. We will not allow them to bring the region to the brink of an abyss … We are aware of your plans, we will uncover all of your plots and we will respond to your ploys. Stop using the Palestinian issue and beware the wrath of Egypt.

Tensions in Egypt-Iran relations date back to the 1978 Camp David Accords. In the aftermath of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, Egypt provided sanctuary to the deposed shah; in Tehran, a street is named after Anwar Sadat’s assassin, Khalid Islambouli. More recently, during Israel’s Cast Lead operation, an organization affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps put a $1.5 million bounty on the head of President Mubarak, posting this message on the website of the Iranian government’s Fars News Agency.

For Egypt, though, the bad blood has been more about the present than the past. In particular, Mubarak’s Cairo was concerned about Tehran’s progress in acquiring a nuclear weapon. Mubarak, according to U.S. government cables released by WikiLeaks, had “a visceral hatred for the Islamic Republic”—not surprising given the assessment that “Egypt sees Iran and [sic] its greatest long-term threat.” The regime also appeared apprehensive about Iranian subversion in Egypt. As President Mubarak told Charlie Rose in August 2009, “I say to Iran, if you complain of interventions from external forces in Iran … don’t do it with other countries.”

The former regime was also troubled about Iranian attempts to “spread Shiism” to the Nile Valley. Cairo leveled this accusation at Tehran following the Hizballah cell incident in 2009. In September of the same year, thirteen individuals in Egypt were charged with promoting Shiism and receiving funds from Iran. More recently, in April 2010, the governmentappointed Sheikh al-Azhar, Dr. Ahmed al-Tayib, highlighted his fear that conversions to Shiism had penetrated the Sunni Muslim youth in Egypt.

These concerns seem to have driven an Egyptian initiative in late 2007–early 2008 to improve bilateral relations with Tehran. In December 2007, Iranian National Security Council head Ali Larijani visited Cairo. Subsequently, Mubarak called his Iranian counterpart, President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad. But the fledgling effort to repair relations was halted by the roundup of the Hizballah cell.

In addition to sending a tough message to Tehran, the public announcement of the arrests—coming three months after the cell’s interdictions—seems to have been calculated to influence the electorate in Lebanon, where the pro-Western March 14 governing coalition faced a tight race against the Iranian-backed, Hizballahled opposition in the June 7, 2009, elections. Indeed, Iranian foreign minister Manoucher Motaki suggested that the government of Egypt had fabricated charges against Hizballah cells expressly for this purpose.

The Mubarak regime took the threat posed by Tehran seriously, not only in its statements but also through actions. According to former Egyptian General Intelligence Services chief Omar Suleiman, as of July 2009, Egypt had been actively recruiting agents in Iraq and Syria to undermine the clerical regime on its own soil.129 More ominously, in 2008, Mubarak confirmed to a visiting U.S. congressional delegation the long-suspected Egyptian response to Iran procuring a nuclear weapon. “Egypt might be forced to begin its own” program, he warned.

Today, it is difficult to assess whether the Egypt-Iran dispute was really a Mubarak-Iran dispute fueled in part by the close U.S.-Egypt strategic relationship or, rather, a conflict reflecting core Egyptian concerns. Now, with Mubarak out of the picture, Cairo will almost certainly set a new policy toward Tehran. And while the new government may be inclined to strike a more conciliatory posture, if Egypt wants to play a bigger role in the region, Cairo will have an interest in checking Iranian inroads into the Arab world.


In addition to its problems with Iran and its terrorist clients, Egypt is facing an unprecedented challenge to its water access. According to a 1929 agreement dating back to the British presence, Egypt receives nearly 70 percent of the Nile River’s flow and has veto power over all water projects in upstream riparian states. In recent years, however, this longstanding Egyptian dominance of the Nile has come into question as several members of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI)—those states touching the Nile or its tributaries—have agitated for a more equitable arrangement.

Among the more vocal states has been Ethiopia, the origin of some 85 percent of the river. In 2009, Prime Minister Meles Zanawi spelled out his opposition to continuing the 1929 agreement: “Some people in Egypt have old-fashioned ideas based on the assumption that the Nile water belongs to Egypt,” he said. “The circumstances have changed and changed forever.” Such thinking underpinned the signing on May 14, 2010, of a new cooperation framework by five NBI member states that ended nearly eighty years of Egyptian supremacy over the river.

Given the possibility of a reduction in its quota of 55.5 billion cubic meters of water—and that the state could lose its titular veto power over all upstream water projects—Mubarak’s Egypt refused to sign on to the convention. Indeed, in April 2010, even before the agreement was penned, Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Muhammad Allam seemingly threatened military action: “Egypt reserves the right to take whatever course it sees suitable to safeguard its share” of the Nile.133 At the same time, then Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit promised legal action in the event of a move without Egypt’s consent.

While Egypt continued to demand NBI recognition of the state’s “historic rights” to the lion’s share of the Nile, as of October 2010, Cairo’s pressure campaign had not yet forced a change. Instead, the Mubarak regime responded with another tack, seeking to pressure NBI member states into continuing the current arrangement by lobbying the World Bank to cut project funding to these states should they not rescind their demand for a revised cooperative water management system.

Along similar lines, revelations contained in the WikiLeaks cables suggest that Cairo was concerned that its Nile access might be endangered should a weak state emerge following the January 2010 Sudanese referendum. Instead of engaging directly with neighboring Khartoum and appropriate authorities in the country’s south, however, Cairo requested that Washington intercede on its behalf, a further sign of the regime’s diminished diplomatic clout.

The fact that the Mubarak regime could neither persuade nor intimidate NBI member states to continue the longstanding Nile arrangement spoke volumes as to Egypt’s standing in Africa. With its population predicted to surge to 100 million by 2025, water will continue to be an Egyptian concern for the foreseeable future. Indeed, according to Egyptian government estimates, by 2017, the state’s water requirements will already outpace available resources, with 86.2 billion cubic meters of water needed per year for agricultural, industrial, and personal purposes.137 In 2007, Egypt’s total water resources—including its annual allocation of 55.5 billion cubic meters of Nile River water— totaled just 69.69 billion cubic meters.

Challenges posed by Egypt’s diminished standing in Africa and water scarcity have not been resolved by the ouster of Mubarak. The government that succeeds him will in short order have to contend with these problems, as well as other external threats to the state. The answer to the water difficulty will probably be a dramatic decrease by Egypt in its exorbitant water wastage. Regardless of which political trend controls the state, however, Egypt’s next government may not be any more prepared to face this and other tasks than the former one was.

David Schenker is the Aufzien fellow and director of the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute, from where this monograph, of which this is part 4, is adapted. Previously, he served as Levant country director, the Pentagon’s top policy aide on the Arab countries of the Levant, in the Office of the Secretary of Defense; in that capacity he was responsible for advising the secretary and other senior Pentagon leadership on the military and political affairs of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories.

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