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Egyptian foreign policy shifts to reflect popular opinion

Egypt’s foreign policy outlook is changing. Moves such as opening the border with Gaza will have important implications for its relationship with Israel, Middle East experts say.


Egypt’s foreign policy direction has changed dramatically since former leader Hosni Mubarak was ousted and the new course will have a profound impact on its relationship with Israel and the US, according to Middle East experts.

Scott MacLeod, editor of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs, said Egypt was reasserting its leadership in the Arab World and that its foreign policy would henceforth be “much more critical” of Israel.

Egyptian foreign minister Nabil al-Arabi announced the reopening of the Rafah crossing with Gaza on Friday, saying “important steps to ease the blockade” would start in the coming days.

Also on Friday, Palestinian officials confirmed that President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal will meet in Cairo next week to sign a “reconciliation agreement”.

It will be the first time since 2007, when bloody fighting between Fatah and Hamas ended in Hamas taking control of the Gaza Strip, that leaders of the two Palestinian governing bodies have met.

The Gaza Strip has been sealed off since the 2006 kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Both Israel and the US have said they would not negotiate with a unity Palestinian government that includes Hamas, a position that Egypt can no longer share as it reinvents its foreign policy, MacLeod said.

Public opinion and the national interest

“The Netanyahu government has every cause for concern,” said MacLeod, who is also a professor at the American University of Cairo. “This is a substantial realignment in Egypt’s foreign policy. It will become much more critical of Israel.”

Egypt’s deposed former ruler Hosni Mubarak had aligned Egypt on a strategic network including the USA, Israel and Saudi Arabia, added Karim Bitar, a researcher at the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS).

The Egyptian public at large was indignant over the blockade of Gaza, he said, and feels that in the post-Mubarak era, “business as usual cannot go on”.

“Post-Revolutionary Egypt considers that Mubarak’s policy towards the Palestinian question was immoral and undignified,” he said. “He kowtowed to US pressures and that Egypt lost its historical standing in the region.”

And with the revolution, all that has changed.

“Egypt is going through the process of normalising its foreign policy, in line with public opinion and what is in the national interest, rather than what is in the interest of the ruling clique,” added MacLeod.

Both MacLeod and Bitar agree that the change in foreign policy does not necessarily mean the end of the peace treaty between the two countries.

“The Egyptian army remains firmly in charge and maintains good relations with the US,” said Bitar. “The peace treaty with Israel may not be popular but it will not be breached or questioned in the near future.”

And according to MacLeod, Egyptians see the value of maintaining peace with Israel.

“But the free ride Mubarak gave Israel is over," he said. "Israel will have to moderate its policies and if it does, it will be beneficial for the wider region.”

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