Those familiar with our model for the Middle East are likely wondering why we have not included Egypt, the world’s largest Arab state, in our list of the four major regional powers. Despite being the biggest Arab military power, Egypt’s regional influence has consistently declined over the last 40 years and in the past five years Cairo has faced a great many challenges domestically. Egypt is financially dependent on Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council, while it increasingly relies on Israel for its security needs. Therefore, the Arab republic is likely to stagnate for the foreseeable future.
Egypt’s position of weakness is evident through its inability to influence ongoing Turkish-Israeli talks. The Haaretz newspaper reported on Jan. 8 that Egypt has asked the Jewish state to ensure that Turkey remains out of affairs relating to the Gaza Strip. According to the left-leaning Israeli daily, Cairo relayed its concerns to Jerusalem on the ongoing Israeli-Turkish negotiations towards a normalization of relations. In particular, Cairo is deeply worried about Israel granting Turkey access to Hamas-run Palestinian territory.
While the governments of both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attach significant importance to the normalization process, the outcome of these talks remains unclear. However, Cairo’s reaction is very reflective of Egypt’s weak regional position. Working hard to stabilize the political situation in the aftermath of the July 2013 coup and revive its economy while facing jihadist threats from within and from both its eastern and western flanks, the government of former military chief, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, is threatened by Turkey’s efforts to project power in the region.
The Egyptians, like the Saudis, oppose Turkey’s growing clout in the Arab world but there is not much they can do to reduce it. The Arab states need Turkey, a fellow Sunni-majority country, in their sectarian struggle to resist growing Iranian and Shia influence in the Middle East. From the Saudi point of view, Turkey is also useful in Riyadh’s efforts to try and topple the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. For the Egyptians, however, the moves to affect regime change in Damascus are very threatening.
If the Syrian regime falls, then that sets an extremely bad precedent for Egypt, which is also a military-dominated authoritarian regime. For this reason, the Egyptians, despite being financially dependent on the Saudis, have had a very uneasy relationship with the kingdom over the future of Syria. The Turks, however, represent an even bigger problem for the Egyptians in that they know that any future changes in Syria will be overseen by Ankara.
And now that Turkey is in talks with Israel – a process that could give the Turks greater influence in Egypt’s front yard – the situation could get even more perilous. Turkey not only supports Hamas but also the main Egyptian opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. What makes this even more worrying is that Turkey has openly opposed the el-Sissi government. Therefore, Turkey represents both a foreign and domestic policy threat to Egypt.
Cairo has thus prevented Ankara from gaining access to Gaza, which is one of the reasons why the Turks have been engaged with the Israelis and demanded “unlimited access” to Gaza as part of any normalization deal. It is thus in the interest of Egypt that such a deal not go through. Cairo, however, has few options to influence Israeli thinking and will have to wait and see how the Israelis decide to move forward with the Turks. Ultimately, this story, and Egypt in general, is tangential to the major story of the region: the evolution of the Saudi political economy, which can majorly reshape the region.