Authors: Irina Tsukerman, Mohamed Maher*
During President Sissi’s visit to the White House, some press reports talked about Egypt’s withdrawal from the planned Middle Eastern and North African defense alliance which became known as MESA, and in popular parlance, referred to as the “Arab NATO”. The idea of the alliance, initiated and backed by President Trump, is to create a structure that would bring together powers to oppose Iran’s regional meddling. According to sources cited by Reuters, some of the reasons for the withdrawal included uncertainty over President Trump’s political future, lack of formal structure for the alliance, and lack of traction by the other potential members.
Egypt has always been against the policy of alliances throughout its modern history, and therefore its refusal to participate in the Arab NATO or Mesa was expected.
Indeed, in 2018, when the discussions were held with lower level Saudi defense officials, many have expressed doubts about the success of MESA, at least in part due to the potential membership by the Anti-Terrorism Quartet’s regional rival Qatar, under the boycott by KSA, UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain since June 2017. The Saudis at the time and five others of the would be members of this defense initiative, despite differences on many other defense matters, all agreed that Iran is a major regional threat, and would be willing to work closely to coordinate with the White House . The alliance would be in essence a pact focused on countering the Islamic Republic’s influence.
Like NATO, such coordination would not necessarily be dependent on the administration in office; the Obama administration never completely denied that Iran-backed groups presented a threat. However, the lack of framework, mechanism for addressing internecine tensions and grievances, and the odd fellowship of the would-be members spelled doom for this idea. Similar efforts had failed in the past for the same reasons. Tensions between Doha and the ATQ were but one problem plaguing the tentative alliance. Under President Trump’s proposal, Morocco with its well equipped and well trained military would not be part of it, but Bashir’s Sudan would have been.
Now that Omar Bashir has fallen from power, Sudan’s future is unclear. It enjoys support from a number of state actors, and the symbolic Sudanese contingent remains in Yemen, but Sudan’s ability to commit to any long term plans is doubtful. Qatar, with its tiny military, does not add much on the defense side; moreover, it is closely aligned to Iran politically and economically. Aside from aggravating several of the potential MESA members with its funding of the Muslim Brotherhood, attacks through the state mouthpiece Al Jazeera, and close defense relations with Turkey, Qatar cannot be trusted at this point not to play for both sides, or to adhere to defense goals of the group. Following the imposition of the boycott on Doha by the ATQ, Qatar claimed that this boycott pushed it closer to Iran, despite evidence of growing relations prior to June 2017.
Why is Trump’s vision of MESA failing?
The White House devoted some diplomatic efforts to securing the lifting of the boycott, but Qatar refused to meet any of the demands put forth by the ATQ, including Egypt, and the prospects for the reunification of the Gulf seem bleak in the short term. Egypt, one of the major players in the region was one of the contingencies on which MESA depended. With Cairo out of the picture, the Trump administration will have to rethink its approach to regional security. Part of MESA’s purpose would be to create an independent regional force, to go along with the diminishing role of the United States.
Unfortunately, what that would entail was never clearly defined. For instance, the Arab Coalition fighting the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen receives intelligence and logistical support from the US, but the operations are not fully integrated. Morocco once comprised part of the forces in Yemen, but eventually withdrew following tension with Saudi Arabia. Sudan greatly diminished the number of its forces over time, while Egypt retained only a small number from the start. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates likewise had different priorities in Yemen, with KSA, which is regularly attacked by the Houthis, prioritizing the opposition to the Iran expansionism. UAE, by contrast, like Egypt was more concerned about the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood. Overtime, the Coalition came to rely increasingly on assorted mercenaries to supplement diminishing forces.
And the presence of the pro-Iran Hezbollah, which trained, armed, and supplied Yemen – and which likewise threatened Morocco with the backing of the separatist Polisario group, was widely cited by the Saudi embassy in the U.S., but at no point was clearly addressed by the White House, nor was there ever a plan to address its presence. For the Arab NATO to have even a glimmer of hope, resolving these differences and assuring a greater level of coordination and mutual support between these members for Yemen, and greater level of US government buy in would be the first test. So far, however, too many forces appear to be pulling in different directions; the United States is more concerned about eliminating Al Qaeda and ISIS, and have expressed concerns about rumors of the Coalition members cutting deals with Al Qaeda. At the same time, the US has been unwilling to reassess the grounds for its presence and to commit to a greater level of support and involvement. From Egypt’s perspective, if the current on the ground realities cannot be handled even by the initiators of the MESA project, the prospects for future success appear to be rather bleak.
Executing the Mission without MESA – what is the path for the United States?
If Arab NATO is not to be in the form as envisioned by the White House, the US will be forced to develop stronger bilateral defense relationship with each of the key players, and figure out a different way of engaging the pivotal actors in countering Iran’s expansionism. If MESA is to be resurrected, its members need to be at least a somewhat cohesive force; so only the countries that are more or less on the same page and are not likely to attack each other should be considered for membership. Furthermore, any Arab NATO should model itself closely upon the real NATO, including creating a formal structure of alliances, finding a way of separating PR and trade grievances from defense commitments, receiving formal training from the US and other Western NATO members, and creating Centers of Excellence which capitalize on each members’ strengths and which would create interdependency and assuage regional rivalries. Furthermore, a certain level of fluidity in alliances makes sense in contemporary multipolar defense landscape. For some countries, addressing joint border issues makes sense, and a natural alliance will occur. Others will see Iran as the top priority, while still others may be more concerned about jihadist presence. Whatever the case may be, rigid structure of the original NATO which emerged out of the bipolar Cold War scenario, may no longer be applicable at all, much less towards MENA.
Does that mean that Egypt can never be relied upon to counter Iran’s rising hegemony? From all appearances, it seems that Egypt is content with maintaining a modest diplomatic relationship with the Islamic Republic. Part of the reason for its difference with the rest of the ATQ on this matter is the fact that Egypt currently prioritizes addressing the threats by Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood, while Tehran does not appear to present an immediate existential danger.
Understanding the Divide within the Anti-Terrorism Quartet
Additionally, Cairo’s priorities since Abdul Fattah al-Sisi took power have consistently centered around countering the danger of radical Islamism, both in Egypt and abroad. Cairo is likewise currently fighting a fierce regional battle with Turkey and Qatar, who support the Muslim Brotherhood in the region. Relative to these challenges, countering the Iranian threat is a lower priority for Egypt.
Thanks to MB financial backing, terrorist threats have spread throughout the regions; infiltration of ISIS member and other groups in Sinai keep Egypt occupied and require a great deal of financial expenditures and military focus. The situation in Libya until recently has likewise been a major military concern; Qatar’s interference in regional matters, such as backing Sudan over a dam-related dispute with Egypt were likewise more immediate items of interest from Cairo’s perspective. Although Iran had previously worked with the short-lived Muslim Brotherhood Morsi government on establishing stronger military and intelligence ties with Egypt, since President Sissi’s tenure began, Iran focused its energies elsewhere.
The Muslim Brotherhood, with support from Ankara and Doha, is seen as an existential threat; Iran is not.
IN that sense, the Gulf States and Egypt have differing priorities; combating Iran’s expansionism is one of the top priorities for KSA, UAE, and Bahrain, but it apparently is not so for Egypt.
Similarly, the Gulf States, despite significant differences with Erdogan’s Turkey, need Turkey’s involvement in Syria to oppose Assad and Iranian incursion, although they, too, distrust Erdogan’s geopolitical ambitions. Cairo, on the other hand, in part by growing closer to Russia, has made peace with Assad retaining power, and prefers Assad to the instability of jihadist groups at war, the expansion of Muslim Brotherhood, and the strengthening of Ankara.
Why Egypt Prioritizes Response to the Turkish Threat
Egypt’s and Turkey’s historical relationship is fraught with friction; some of the old tensions are now playing out with Ankara’s Islamist leadership in charge. Some old Ottoman street names, for instance, have fallen casualty of the more recent strife. Egypt was under Ottoman control from the 16th through the early 20th century. Although there are many historical, cultural, and religious ties, the countries have had periods of tensions, such as during the Nasserist period in the 1950s and 60s, when the Kemalist Turkey moved in a pro-Western direction. Erdogan’s support for Morsi created a long term problem for his relations with the Sissi government. In 2013, Egypt expelled the Turkish ambassador following a diplomatic crisis. Erdogan permanently banned the Egyptian ambassador from entering Turkey and declared him to be a persona non grata in response. The reason for this cold start to relations was Turkey’s involvement in the Arab Spring which brought Morsi to power in the first place, and later, its meddling in Syria.
Erdogan welcomed the heads of the Muslim Brotherhood, who fled Egypt and openly touted his ties with that organization. Increasing evidence of Erdogan’s trade ties with ISIS created a further obstacle to the relationship with Egypt, which suffers from ongoing terrorist attacks. President Sissi on the other hand, proposed, recognizing the Armenian genocide, a sore point for Turkey, particularly under Erdogan. In February 2019, the government implicitly recognized the genocide, further exacerbating the divide. Other members of the Egyptian government proposed granting asylum to Fethullah Gullen, Erdogan’s Islamist political rival, currently under protection in the United States.
Furthermore, Egypt has arrested a number of individuals in 2017; that group was accused of espionage in favor of Turkey, as well as money laundering, and assorted related crimes. The two countries have also been engaged in an ongoing media war. These exchanges reflected the geopolitical tensions. Egypt was irked by Turkey’s interest in projecting greater power into Africa, including its incursions into the Red Sea. Not the least of it was the general sense that Turkey seeks to be the new Sunni leader of the Muslim world, displacing the traditional role played by Egypt and Saudi Arabia in that regard. Its media coverage attacking the heads of state in these two countries reflected Erdogan’s populist move to rile up any pro-Muslim Brotherhood elements.
Turkey and Qatar’s growing presence in Africa threatens to reignite the pro-Muslim Brotherhood sympathies, which can spread like fire across borders of unstable neighboring countries, or exploit existing vulnerabilities even in more secure states. Both of these states have been generously funding humanitarian and ideological outreach efforts, which hit much closer to home than Iran. Egypt, then, finds itself having to focus on securing itself from these efforts – and leaving the less immediately urgent battles to its Gulf counterparts.
How Egypt is Getting the Best of Both Worlds
For Cairo, this arrangement seems to be the best of both worlds: while remaining a Gulf ally, Egypt is able to preserve an attitude towards Iran’s actions in the region that reflects some of Cairo and Tehran’s shared strategic interests. The two states have similar perspectives on major regional issues such as support for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and the need to subject the Israeli nuclear program to international oversight.
The position of the two countries on the Syrian issue is notably aligned—even at the expense of Egypt’s Gulf allies. Cairo openly supports Assad, Tehran’s traditional ally. And against expectations, Egypt voted in the Security Council in favor of the Russian decision on Syria in October 2016—supported by Iran and opposed by Saudi Arabia—a decision that infuriated Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, Egypt has not been pushed towards a significantly more bellicose position by its Gulf allies and continues to limit itself to activities like its participation in the Warsaw Conference. Based on these and other indicators, it seems that Egypt and Iran have no intention of seriously clashing in the near future.
There are other reasons for Egypt’s position on this issue. First, there is the traditional isolationist argument present to some extent in any society, which calls for focusing Egypt’s foreign policy exclusively on matters of direct and immediate interest to Egypt’s national interests. While that argument is not prevalent, despite some presence among government officials, it does press the issue of priorities. Second, coordination of efforts thus far has been mostly lip service. There have been some isolated joint military exercises; Egyptian advisers to Saudi defense have played an influential role. Nevertheless, for theArab NATO to succeed and for Egypt to want to return to an active role in regional efforts, several things need to happen – and there are certainly opportunities for these issues to be addressed.
Recommendations for saving MESA and bringing Egypt back to the table
Goals and limitations of the alliance need to be clearly defined; responsibilities of each member need to be delineated; financial commitments must be clear, transparent, and have enforcement mechanisms for collection to avoid the pitfalls of the Western NATO discrepancies.
Most successful Iranian operations, including naval exercises, are geared towards asymmetrical warfare. While MESA member states are increasingly well equipped with modern weaponry, up until this point the training regimen was largely geared towards large scale traditional confrontations, which is no longer the present, much less the future of contemporary warfare. For that reason, all states which aspire to be a members should agree to restructure their forces in such a way that effective asymmetrical preparation became possible. This would give Egypt additional advantage in any future confrontation with jihadist groups or its priority adversarial forces. In other words, this would be a win-win situation, as all members would benefit in some way from such an arrangement.
While there needs to be a minimal agreed upon financial commitment among all members, building trust in any formalized alliance also requires balancing strengths and weaknesses, creating a way of compensating for any inherent vulnerabilities. That means that where some members are best position to contribute well trained and battle hardened forces, others may be better positioned to contribute financially while they commit to developing the level of preparation that would facilitate their participation in any potential confrontations, and still others might provide other essential types of expertise.
Because Iran is not a top priority for Egypt, it is important to underscore that Iran’s detrimental effect in the region is not constrained by military prowess and destruction alone. Cybesecurity, financial crimes, alliances with assorted organized crimes schemes, the advance of soft power, law fare and economic warfare, and lobbying and PR in the West are all part of Iran’s geopolitical strategy – and while Egypt may not suffer the effects of Iran’s combat plans directly or in the immediate foreseeable future, it is not immune from the other global activities by Iran and its proxies.
Finally, it is important to note that Turkey, Qatar, and Muslim Brotherhood and its backed organizations such as Hamas, are increasingly growing closer to Iran. Hamas is fully funded by Iran; Egypt’s diplomatic successes in dealing with Hamas recently are noteworthy; however, Iran’s determination to destabilize the region and to utilize Syria and regional battles to exact influence have continued unabated. For that reason, it is in Egypt’s best interests to separate its worst enemies from each other and from Iran. The issue, then, is how to address Egypt’s relationship with Assad and how to avoid exacerbating the differences with the Gulf States over Syria’s role. The answer to that is: carefully, and incrementally, by focusing on small issues, where, for instance, Egypt can exercise diplomatic influence over Russia and Assad to pressure Iran, whereas in exchange the Gulf States can worker closer with Egypt on securing its interests against incursion by Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood.
The United States has limited options if it wants to exert the “maximum pressure” on the Islamic Republic. It can return to a more hawkish role in the Middle East, expand its presence in Syria and Iraq, figure out an effective and legal way of disrupting Hezbollah operations and IRGC financing and arming of the Houthis or else increasing its forces on the ground and incorporating Hezbollah into its counterrorism mission. It can also invest into soft power projects along with its Middle Eastern counterpart that could counter Iran’s ideological influence. It could even build additional bases, including in Saudi Arabia, in the future to deter attacks from Houthis or various jihadist groups. Alternatively, if the US seeks in the long term to minimize its presence in the region without sacrificing the region to Russia and Iran as now appears to be the course, it will need to do a lot more in the short term to ensure that the bloc of states the Trump administration is counting on to pick up the leadership role in countering Iran’s malign influence does not disperse to be co-opted, weakened, or countered by the adversary. It needs to invest time, effort, and human resources into creating a coherent mechanism for delivering a workable strategy towards a clearly defined objective – rolling back Iranian influence and bankrupting the regime to the point that it can no longer present a security threat to anyone in the region.
*Mohamed Maher is an Egyptian journalist and researcher based in the United States.