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Yousef Khalil

Sisi's NATO-like pan-Arab force would fail

Under Egyptian President Nasser, pan-Arabism dominated Egyptian politics in the 1950s and 1960s [AFP]

Date of publication: 27 March, 2017

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Comment: The consensus that would be required to establish a NATO-like Arab force is sorely lacking, especially on the issue of Syria, writes Yousef Khalil.

President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt has been calling for an Arab joint military force for some time now.

Ostensibly, such a force would be designed to combat the threat of "terrorism" from Islamist groups, and to provide support to specific factions in the conflicts raging in Libya and Yemen.

For Sisi of course, the term "terrorism" is very flexible, coming to encompass any person or movement even vaguely opposed to his rule, from political parties and journalists, to footballers and comedians. It is, therefore likely that this proposed military force would have a very wide-ranging mandate to act against any challenges to the counter-revolutionary campaign Sisi is spearheading.

More recently, the Egyptian regime has been in talks with its Jordanian, Saudi Arabian, and Emirati counterparts "about forming a military alliance that would share intelligence with Israel to help counter their mutual foe, Iran".

With the Iranian component in place, the initiative would have the two components of the Arab Spring counter-revolution; authoritarianism at the service of political "stability", and the sectarianisation of political conflict.

While Egypt's position as a key regional political actor has waned due to its ongoing economic woes and political instability, the Arab world's most populous country has always been a lynchpin of regional politics, for better or worse.

For Sisi of course, the term 'terrorism' is very flexible, coming to encompass any person or movement even vaguely opposed to his rule

During the era of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt became a leader in the movement for Third World liberation. When Nasser's project of unifying the Arab world behind a modernised Egypt collapsed, his successor turned Egypt's political and military power to creating and enforcing an entirely different order in the Arab world.

From the instability of Nasser's Arab world, with its unifications, coups and confrontations with Israel, Sadat aimed to create a regional order that was politically stable and ideologically conservative. 

Read more: Turbulent times for Saudi-Egyptian relations

Sadat's total about face, realigning Egypt with the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, eventually opened the way for other Arab regimes to follow suit; the decades of neoliberal economic restructuring and unchallenged western hegemony would not have been possible without Egyptian cooperation.

Egypt's revolution might, therefore have changed the entire region. But with Sisi's counter-revolutionary government firmly in control, this proposed military force may instead be a way of re-establishing Egypt's regional leadership.

If he is to succeed in this endeavor however, relations between Riyadh and Cairo will require some work. After hitting a low point over the transfer of the islands of Tiran and Sanafir, there are signs that may be happening.

There is broad agreement on the regional policy aims between the states that would make up the bulk of Sisi's alliance; Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.

Without agreement on Syria, this endeavor to unify Arab governments under his leadership is dead on arrival

In Libya, the three states seem to be in lock step, supporting Khalifa Haftar, for example. In Palestine, a theatre long abandoned by the Arab leaders, Cairo has a deep-seated interest and is backing the anti-Hamas Mohammed Dahlan, who is also very close with the ruling family in the UAE

In Yemen, the Egyptian regime has announced its plan to maintain its limited presence, although Cairo's unwillingness to expand this presence is another source of disagreement with Riyadh.

The issue on which there is the most daylight between Cairo and Riyadh, however, is the most significant conflict affecting the region today: the Syrian war.

While Riyadh has backed forces opposed to the regime since the outset, Cairo has moved from a position of ambivalence to open support for the regime.

It is, therefore likely that this proposed military force would have a very wide-ranging mandate to act against any challenges to the counter-revolutionary campaign Sisi is spearheading

Although rumblings of an Egyptian military presence in Syria have not been substantiated, Egyptian rhetoric and diplomatic efforts have firmly supported Assad. Most recently, Cairo abstained from a key vote in a UN Security Council resolution that would have imposed sanctions on the Syrian government, no doubt to the displeasure of the Saudis.

This position is more consistent with the Egyptian regime's outlook; Sisi rose to power on an anti-Islamist platform and is waging a war against a small scale insurgency in the Sinai. The Trump administration's policy goals in the region seem to align with Sisi's vision of supporting authoritarian regimes against Islamists. This agenda puts both Trump and Sisi into Assad's camp.

For this reason, it seems that Sisi's dream of a joint Arab military force will not materialise anytime soon, at least not with joint Egyptian and Saudi participation.

Without agreement on Syria, this endeavor to unify Arab governments under his leadership is dead on arrival, as the Syrian conflict is currently the most significant security threat. 

The Egyptian president's efforts to build himself up into the Bizarro World version of Nasser portrayed in his propaganda lie in shambles.

His dreams of heading up an "Arab NATO" to serve as a guarantor of a regional order defined against the ideals of the Arab Spring will remain unrealised in the immediate future, much like his government's efforts to breathe life into Egypt's faltering economy, or dazzle the world with anachronistic mega-projects.


Yousef Khalil is a New York-based writer and recent graduate of The New School's Graduate Program in International Affairs interested in the Arab Spring and Palestine.

Follow him on Twitter: @YousefTAK

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab

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