During his first four months in office, U.S. President Joe Biden did not speak with his Egyptian counterpart, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi—a notable departure from precedent given the history of close security ties between the two countries. But after months of silence, Biden spoke with Sisi twice over the course of five days in May, extending his “sincere gratitude” to Egypt “for its successful diplomacy” in securing a cease-fire that ended 11 days of intense fighting between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian faction that runs the Gaza Strip.
Two days later, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Egypt and Jordan as part of a regional tour to cement the cease-fire. Cairo’s key role in securing the truce propelled it into the diplomatic spotlight once more, allowing the Sisi administration not only to reassert itself in the region and check the rising influence of rival powers, but also to improve its initially sour relations with the Biden team in Washington.
The awkward silence between American and Egyptian leaders immediately after Biden’s inauguration had been telegraphed beforehand. While Trump famously called Sisi his “favorite dictator” despite numerous reports that Sisi’s security forces were harassing, arresting and torturing dissidents, Biden promised to place human rights concerns back at the center of U.S. relations with Egypt. Last July, then-candidate Biden promised “no more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favorite dictator.’”
But as fighting raged last month between Israel—America’s closest ally in the region—and Hamas, Sisi figured out how to get Biden’s attention. In a stark shift from Cairo’s past rhetoric toward Hamas, which Egyptian courts have branded as a terrorist organization, Egyptian state media began characterizing Hamas and other armed factions as “resistance movements” and Israeli forces as “occupiers.” In mid-May, the Egyptian government opened the Rafah border crossing, Gaza’s only passage to the outside world not controlled by Israel, and sent over 3,000 tons of humanitarian aid in convoys adorned with Sisi’s image.
Egypt also promised $500 million in aid as part of efforts to rebuild Gaza after the latest Israeli bombardment displaced some 91,000 Palestinians and destroyed 450 buildings, including 51 educational facilities and six hospitals, according to the United Nations. As one of the few regional powers that engages with both Hamas and Israel, Cairo was able to use this warmer approach toward Gaza, as well as its long-standing security ties with Israel, to broker a cease-fire and signal to Washington that it remained capable of “handling” the Palestinian file.
Egypt’s peacemaking efforts came amid signs of Gulf Arab states’ growing regional influence. Particularly worrisome for Cairo’s commercial and strategic interests was the recent agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates to normalize diplomatic relations. Known as the Abraham Accords, the deal threatened Egypt’s traditional role as the primary mediator on issues related to the Palestinian territories.
In the near term, Egypt’s recent diplomatic reawakening could provide some much-needed balance to regional security.
The Abraham Accords also opened the door to many new Israeli-Emirati economic initiatives that could challenge Egypt’s interests. Most notably, Egyptian officials have expressed concerns about a planned venture to transport Emirati oil to the Mediterranean via the trans-Israel pipeline, which runs from the Red Sea city of Eilat to the port of Ashkelon, on the Mediterranean Sea. That would threaten a significant share of the oil shipments that flow through Egypt’s Suez Canal.
For Egypt, then, its intense diplomatic engagement with the U.S., Israel and Hamas was a much-needed victory. The cease-fire highlighted Cairo’s importance in the region, while the UAE and its Gulf allies were unable to either influence Palestinian factions on the ground or constrain Israeli behavior. It also underscored the limits of the Abraham Accords. Far from “ending the Arab-Israeli conflict, once and for all,” as former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had promised, the accords have not translated—at least so far—into greater diplomatic or strategic influence for the UAE.
Egypt’s mediation of talks between Israel and the Palestinians also came amid its rapprochement with two of the UAE’s main regional rivals, Turkey and Qatar, which enjoy close ties of their own. Cairo and Ankara recently held their first official diplomatic talks since breaking off relations in 2013. And Sisi is due to meet soon with Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, in Doha, the first face-to-face summit between leaders from the two countries in eight years.
Of course, these talks are still in their early stages. But if they progress further in the coming months and years, they could open the door to a new alignment of powers in the Middle East to rival that of the UAE and its Gulf allies. This emerging axis would allow Egypt to reclaim its traditional role at the center of politics and diplomacy in the Arab world. It could also have important implications for the Palestinian quest for self-determination, as Egypt has shown greater willingness and capability to serve as an honest broker between Israel and the Palestinians.
However, significant obstacles remain before Cairo can fully commit to a robust role in a three-way alignment with Doha and Ankara. Egypt lacks the UAE’s vast financial resources and faces other distracting threats from its African neighbors, particularly its dispute with Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which greatly threatens Egypt’s water security. And even Cairo’s recent signature achievement, the cease-fire between Hamas and Israel, is still in its early days, with potential signs of renewed hostilities breaking out again between the two sides.
Still, in the near term, Egypt’s recent diplomatic reawakening could provide some much-needed balance to regional security. The UAE’s rising prominence in recent years has had a destabilizing effect in the Middle East, as Emirati leadership spearheaded the 2017 blockade against Qatar, escalated the war in Yemen and intervened in the conflict in Libya. Looking ahead, the success of Egypt’s renewed clout will largely depend on its ability to maintain a delicate balance between regional rivals. If Cairo succeeds at carving out an independent path, this will have widespread implications in the region and beyond.