A number of analysts, columnists and Mideast watchers have been, for last couple of years, forecasting a thaw in Egypt-Iran relations. Citing a series of overtures from each of Iran and Egypt towards the other, many experts argue that closer and warmer cooperation between the two is underway.
Despite being an ally of Iranian regime’s arch rival Saudi Arabia, Egypt’s foreign policy towards Syria is similar to – but not in the same direction as – that of the Iranian regime. Furthermore, the regime in Tehran has recognised Egypt as a stabilising power in the Middle East through supporting for Egypt’s participation in Lausanne (Switzerland) conference on Syria.
However, Egypt’s closer cooperation with Iranian regime would neither eventually be given effect by current the Egyptian government nor Egypt would be allowed to go ahead with such a warmer cooperation with Iran by other regional players, proving wrong the aforesaid experts who forecast about a thaw in Egypt-Iran relations.
Despite Egyptian government’s overtures towards the Iranian regime, Egypt is bound – under President Abdul Fatah al-Sisi – to remain allied to the Iranian regime’s regional rivals, i.e. Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE), because:
Saudi Arabia and UAE had sent financial aid to and foreign direct investment in Egypt following Sisi’s accession to power, so that Sisi can consolidate his power. Besides being thankful for this generous help, Egypt’s falling economy has been pushing Sisi government to ask for continued aid and cash-inflows from these two Gulf governments, which are engaged in fierce rivalry with the Iranian regime.
The regime in Tehran is unable to stabilize the Iranian economy due to international sanctions. The withdrawal of sanctions by the U.S. administration under Barack Obama – followed by the re-imposition of even tougher sanctions under Donald Trump’s U.S. administration – has compelled the investors to conclude that Iran is, in the current circumstances, an inconsistent and risky market. Hence, this weaker Iranian economy and market do not have the possibility to reach in any stable and strong position soon enough to provide Egypt with sufficient cash or foreign direct investments – something that can only be guaranteed by the Gulf duo – i.e. Saudi Arabia and UAE.
Egypt’s administration – under Sisi – is largely dependent on the Gulf duo’s financial, diplomatic and political support in order to tackle Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which is Sisi’s major opposition at home. Furthermore, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and UAE are the contributors to the ongoing diplomatic and economic blockade on Qatar. The blockade has been imposed with the purpose of compelling Qatar to abandon its policy of supporting terrorism as well as to abandon its support for Muslim Brotherhood’s campaigns throughout the region, including Egypt. This new dimension made Egypt’s dependence on the Gulf duo ever deeper.
Egyptian premier Abdel Fatah al-Sisi understands very well that for the sake of a closer cooperation with the Iranian regime, his government cannot risk antagonizing the Gulf duo, which not only finance Egypt’s shaky economy, but also backs Sisi’s fight against Muslim Brotherhood.
At the same time, the Gulf duo cannot, and will not, let Egypt fall out of its political orbit, since Egypt is the duo’s best insurance against the regional foes – Muslim Brotherhood and the Iranian regime.
Egypt – under Sisi – has been maintaining good relations and deep cooperation with the Gulf duo. The duo prefers to keep Muslim Brotherhood – an organization that professes a ‘so called’ Islamic democracy across the region – largely ineffective inside their borders by making sure that the Sisi government is neutralizing the organization inside Egypt, from where the organization allegedly runs its regional campaigns. Muslim Brotherhood is banned in the Gulf duo.
The Gulf duo fears that if Muslim Brotherhood comes to power in Egypt (though a Muslim Brotherhood backed government came to power in recent past and was overthrown a year later), the organization will certainly try to patronise Muslim Brotherhood-like organizations inside the Gulf duo and elsewhere in the region, threatening the region’s stability. As Egypt’s current premier Abdul Fatah al-Sisi came to power by overthrowing the Muslim-Brotherhood-backed government of Mohammad Morsi, the Gulf duo perceive him as the right person to curb the organization’s campaign in Egypt.
Besides keeping Muslim Brotherhood under check in the region, the Gulf duo needs Egypt for the overall balance of power in the region. Availing an ally like Egypt – which is a Sunni-majority regional military power – gives the Gulf duo a boost against another regional foe, the Iranian regime.
Thus, despite the recent positive overtures from Sisi government and the Iranian regime towards each other, Sisi cannot afford to proceed with a closer cooperation with Iran and risk losing the friendship of Saudi Arabia, UAE and other like-minded Arab allies.