Chapter 7: A revolution without a revolutionary foreign policy

Gamal Hassan explains the remarkable stability of Egypt’s foreign policy during a period of upheaval, and traces its fundamental drivers back to a consensus built during the Mubarak era. He contends that despite fears of a potential realignment, Egyptian foreign policy continues to fall back on positions that Mubarak established.

Egypt’s foreign policy faced enormous challenges as a result of the Arab Spring and the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak, in February 2011. It had to adapt to an unprecedented domestic convulsion and a rapidly changing regional landscape. This chapter seeks to explain how Egypt responded to these challenges, arguing that elements of continuity were far more powerful than propensities for change. Post-revolutionary actors, namely the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Muhammad Morsi and Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, displayed foreign-policy preferences and behaviours that can be traced back to the paradigm established under Mubarak – particularly the final decade of his 30-year rule – and even his predecessors, Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The chapter will first outline foreign policy under Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak. Although Egypt has parted with Nasser’s ideological and strategic orientation, remnants of his doctrine have persisted, particularly the notion that the country should play a leading role in the region, which underlies the state’s ethos and public discourse. It will then discuss Mubarak’s doctrine, itself surprisingly influenced by Nasserist principles, with a focus on three key aspects: Egypt’s relations with the Arab world, Israel–Palestine and the United States.

This analysis will demonstrate that, despite fluctuations, the principles of Mubarak’s foreign policy remain intact four years after he was removed from power. During the 18-month SCAF-dominated transitional period, the fundamental orientations of Egypt’s foreign policy did not change, despite pressure from revolutionary actors. The army’s strict adherence to Mubarak’s foreign policy highlighted its role as an architect of the policy and a stakeholder in the regional order. When Morsi came to power, in June 2012, he sought to use foreign policy as a means to consolidate his shaky and embattled regime, but he still resorted to Mubarak’s playbook, discarding ideological considerations in favour of pragmatism. He exploited Egypt’s role as a mediator between Israel and Hamas during the November 2012 conflict in Gaza the same way his predecessor had in the final six years of his tenure. Morsi’s attempts to introduce changes to Egypt’s regional posture were arguably limited to overtures to Tehran and closer relations with Turkey and Qatar. Finally, the overthrow of Morsi, in July 2013, and the ascendancy of Sisi set the stage for further consolidation of Mubarak’s foreign-policy doctrine. The army now plays an increasingly central role in shaping foreign policy, and Egypt has become more dependent on an alliance with the Gulf countries, notably Saudi Arabia.

Gamal Hassan is an independent Egyptian author who specialises in Middle East politics and Egypt’s foreign policy.

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