What to Expect from Sisi’s UNGA Speech

With Egypt’s President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi set to speak at the United Nations General Assembly this week in New York, the annual ritual of world leaders addressing, and occasionally haranguing, the assembled body will be conducted in a more troubled world this year. Aside from the simmering potential conflict between the West and Russia over Ukraine, there is the matter of the Middle East, which threatens to become to the 21st century what the Balkans were to Europe in the early 20th century; a region where great powers felt the need to intervene, and in the process stumble into conflicts with wide and unforeseen consequences. So where does Sisi’s speech lie in the midst of this?

Sisi is, at the moment, the undisputed leader of Egypt, and a man whose actions in the past three years have done much to define the current environment in Egypt and the wider region. Immediately after the removal of President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, Sisi became the point man negotiating between the military leadership and the Muslim Brotherhood. These negotiations defined the concord that allowed the Brotherhood to gain wide powers, including a majority in parliament and the presidency under Mohamed Morsi. He was also the man who led the military to remove President Morsi on July 32013, an action that will define the relationship between the Egyptian state and the fading Brotherhood for decades to come. He presides over a country on the verge of insolvency, with decaying infrastructure, and a sizable minority angry at the current regime. He has responded to these challenges by upping the ante, asking Egypt to pursue grand projects and seize the crisis to create a better country. The jury is still out on whether that will be a successful course, especially as one key ingredient of progress is missing, a more liberal social and political public sphere. He needs the wider world to invest in Egypt. Will he use the UN platform to make such an appeal? Can he do it in a convincing manner that overcomes the aversion at the means by which he became president?

Of perhaps more interest to the wider world is the position Egypt will assume regarding the variety of regional conflicts brewing around its borders, all of which involve collapsing states. It is not an exaggeration to claim that Arab nationalism has collapsed entirely, after a century of promotion. The wreckage compares with that left behind by the collapsing Austro-Hungarian or the Ottoman empires. Egypt, which was largely unaffected by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, thanks to a century of semi-independence after the Napoleonic expedition of 1798, will now face a choice in the current collapse. It can retreat into measured isolationism, shutting its borders and hoping the enveloping chaos remains far at bay, or involve itself in the various conflicts to press for a favorable resolution.  It will be interesting to see if Sis provides a clue to the emerging policy or simply duck the issue by invoking ritualistic concerns and proclamations.

Egypt does not have a free hand in these matters. The removal of the Brotherhood from power leaves it a target of a variety of violent groups eager to extract revenge, or at least show the cost of such actions. On its Western border, Libya remains a collapsed state. To Libya’s west is Tunisia, still controlled by an off shoot of the Brotherhood and in a state of revolutionary fervor. Tunisia has contributed more foreign fighters to Syria, by percentage of the population, than any other country in the region. Libya has thus emerged as a contested space, where Egypt, and some of the Gulf States are sponsoring their actors in the scramble for power in the social and political vacuum created by Qaddafi’s predations and the fumbled intervention by NATO.  Egypt cannot ignore Libya, a source of smuggled weapons, and potentially armed men. Yet, Egypt also lacks the economic resources to engage in a long running conflict, which could end up worse than the Yemeni misadventure of the early 1960s. To the East, the government is slowly pacifying the Sinai, yet the northern and eastern rim of that area remain a wild and lawless land. As a result, Egypt has drawn closer to Israel than at any time since the creation of that state by a mutual antagonism to Hamas. Perhaps for the first time ever, popular feelings in Egypt favored Israel in a conflict with an Arab neighbor, out of an antagonistic stance towards Hamas. It is too early to tell whether this represents a persistent shift in Egyptian attitudes, both public and official. Further to the east, Egypt has kept away from the metastasizing collapse of Syria and Iraq. In spite of the financial support of Saudi Arabia and UAE, Egypt has not adopted their aggressive attitudes toward the Syrian civil war. Perhaps the conservative monarchies understand Egypt’s limitations, or perhaps Egypt is no longer a critical actor whose support must be courted, or even bought. It should also be noted that there are persistent rumors that Morsi’s tenure as president was doomed by his perceived support for sending Egyptian foreign fighters to Syria in the spring of 2013. It will be difficult for any Egyptian leader to find wide support for involvement in Syria.

Sisi’s speech should be scrutinized for indications of how Egypt sees its role in the current chaos. Will Egypt seek to be a key participant in a counter-revolutionary block to clean up the effects of recent upheavals, much as England and Austria emerged after the French revolution, or will it draw back from these conflicts and adopt an ‘Egypt first’ attitude, or even a degree of isolationism? Sisi must know that his legacy, even continuation as president, rests on solving Egypt’s economic problems. Yet there is always temptation, for a clearly ambitious man, to play a wider role. But beyond personal ambition, what emerges in the Levant and Libya will have a large impact on Egypt; something that no leader can easily ignore. The borders of many Arabophone states are being effectively redrawn. One in four such speakers live in Egypt. Whether the leadership and the broad public still see any value in Egyptian involvement in Arab affairs will define whether the “Arab” world will evaporate as a cause or even a concept. Sisi will have a chance in New York to define this stance, or avoid doing so. 

Maged Atiya is an Egyptian-American physicist and businessman.  He blogs at http://www.salamamoussa.com and at twitter @salamamoussa

Image: Photo: Reuters