Egypt’s openness to expanding relations with Israel is fully displayed during Lapid’s visit

It is quite clear that Egypt approaches its relations with Israel differently today than it did during most of Benjamin Netanyahu’s tenure as prime minister.

Then-President Hosni Mubarak met with Netanyahu openly in 2011, but his successor, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, was only willing to openly meet with the Israeli leader on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly. and apparently in secret in 2018.

Sisi’s approach to the government of Naftali Bennett-Yair Lapid is markedly different. He publicly met Bennett in September and Thursday with Lapid. The president’s office issued an official statement and the visit received extensive media coverage in Egypt, which could not have happened without the regime’s approval.

In addition, key Egyptian decision-makers attended the meetings with Lapid. In addition to Sisi and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, Abbas Kamel – the Egyptian spy chief and henchman on the Hamas issue in Gaza – was seated with Lapid.

“This is a leap forward in Egypt’s willingness to openly present its ties to Israel and absorb internal criticism in light of the strategic advantages,” said Moshe Albo, modern Middle Eastern historian and researcher. at the Dado Center for Interdisciplinary Military Studies.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid speaks with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in Cairo, December 9, 2021 (Shlomi Amsalem / GPO)

The strategic gains that Sisi sees in improving ties with Israel are manifold.

Ever since US President Joe Biden won the November 2020 election, Sissi has worried that Biden is putting pressure on Cairo on human rights issues. As a presidential candidate, Biden tweeted about Egypt: “No more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favorite dictator’. “

“I have no doubt that the Egyptians have concerns about the Biden administration,” said Eran Lerman, vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and former deputy director of the Security Council national Israel.

Sisi publicly seated with Lapid and Bennett shows Biden a united, pro-US regional alliance, while further inciting Israel, Washington’s closest ally in the Middle East, to argue in the halls of Congress and the White House against pressure on Sissi.

New regional energy

The emerging regional alliance for energy and security – which Egypt sees as essential to its future – is also pushing Egypt and Israel to come together.

For nearly a decade, Turkey has embarked on a bitter rivalry with Egypt that began when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan backed the Muslim Brotherhood after the group was ousted from power in Cairo when Sisi took power. power in 2013.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks ahead of the eighth Greece-Cyprus-Israel meeting alongside Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis (left) and Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades (Amos Ben Gershom / GPO)

The rivalry between the Sunni Muslim powers metastasized to other regions and divided the Middle East, with Turkey and Qatar at the head of a pro-Islamist faction, and Egypt siding with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in a pro-Western camp.

In the Mediterranean, Egypt has aligned itself with Greece and Cyprus, which accuse Turkey of illegally drilling natural gas in their exclusive economic zones. With Israel, the countries formed the EastMed Gas Forum, headquartered in Cairo, and they conducted joint military exercises.

Lapid’s visit came days after the annual trilateral summit between Israeli, Cypriot and Greek leaders. In October, the annual Egypt-Greece-Cyprus summit was held in Athens. Meetings between Lapid and senior Egyptian officials link the two recent summits of the Eastern Mediterranean allies.

The EastMed alliance extends beyond the four main countries. “You have the French as your western anchor and the United Arab Emirates as your eastern anchor,” Lerman explained.

Under Sisi, Egypt sought to position itself as a leading Mediterranean power at the center of this alliance, while downplaying its Arab and Islamic identity in some ways.

One manifestation of this trend is a series of events focusing on Egypt’s pharaonic – and non-Muslim – past, most notably the Golden April Pharaohs Parade which saw ancient kings and queens being transported to the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilization. Another is the visit to Sisi by Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati on the same day Lapid was there.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi speaks during a joint press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace, Monday, December 7, 2020 in Paris. (AP Photo / Michel Euler, File)

Israel is also key to Sisi’s determination to modernize and revitalize the Egyptian economy. Seeing the potential of Israel’s warm and open relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco has only underscored how much more Egypt could gain from an improved relationship with Israel as Sisi tries to attract investment. foreigners, modernize the economy and reduce unemployment.

Natural gas is a central part of the economic vision of both countries, especially with an increase in demand for natural gas in Europe and the need for an alternative to Russia as a fuel supplier. Israel is already pumping natural gas to Egypt to liquefy it before it is shipped to Europe and Asia, and the two countries are in talks to increase throughput through submarine and land pipelines.

But increased links between the private sector are necessary for there to be significant growth in trade between countries. More trade delegations are expected in the coming months, and Egypt has asked Israel to expand the flow of goods through the Nitzana border post.

The positive trend does not mean that Egypt and Israel are fully aligned, however. The Egyptian street and professional class remain hostile to Israel, and true normalization is not in sight.

Their most pressing concerns don’t align either. While Israel focuses on the Iranian nuclear program and its armed proxies, Egypt is more concerned with the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic State terrorism in Sinai, the Libyan conflict on its border and the proposed barrage of Ethiopia upstream of the Nile.

Yet Egypt sees Iran as one of its main adversaries and worries about its threat to regional stability.

Israel Antiquities Authority Director Eli Escozido (left) watches as Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (CL) presents Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry (CR) with stolen Egyptian items that were smuggled into Israel and returned to Egypt, during their meeting at Tahrir Palace in Cairo on December 9, 2021. (Mohamed HOSSAM / AFP)

Lapid, for his part, appeared to be playing his cards well during his recent visit. Sisi’s willingness to meet him is an indication that the Egyptian leader expects him to indeed succeed Bennett as prime minister, and that he wants to build the relationship.

Additionally, Lapid’s gesture of handing over 95 Egyptian artifacts when he met Shoukry was well received by the Egyptian press and earned him points.

Egypt’s increasing openness to its relations with Israel is expected to continue during Bennett’s tenure and, by all indications, during that of his successor as well.


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