The Geopolitics of Getting an Invite to al-Sissi Inauguration

Israel, Turkey and Qatar were all left off the guest list for different reasons, but Iran will be attending.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
Egyptians in Tahrir square celebrate al-Sissi presidential election victory, June 3, 2014.
Egyptians in Tahrir square celebrate al-Sissi presidential election victory, June 3, 2014.Credit: Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Israel, Turkey and Qatar will have to organize an alternative ceremony for themselves if they want to celebrate the inauguration of Egypt’s new president next week.

All three states, along with Syrian President Bashar Assad, were left off the invitation list for the festivities, which are expected to take place Sunday and Monday.

But while Israel’s omission was expected, the guest list indicates that President-elect Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi doesn’t intend to use the ceremony to reconcile with two of his leading opponents.

Sissi loathes Recep Tayyip Erdogan because the Turkish prime minister remains unwilling to recognize Egypt’s new government. Moreover, Erdogan has spent the past year harshly denouncing the Egyptian army’s takeover of the government and its suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Sissi also has a long account to settle with the tiny but influential country of Qatar. It begins with the extensive coverage given the Brotherhood’s protests by the Qatari television station Al-Jazeera, some of whose Egyptian reporters are now on trial.

Al-Jazeera also harshly criticized the “military coup,” as it continues to call Sissi’s seizure of power. Moreover, Qatar supports the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.

But beyond that, Qatar is Saudi Arabia’s nemesis. Two months ago, the Saudis engineered a rift in relations between the five other Gulf states and Qatar, inter alia, because of Qatar’s massive support for extremist opposition groups in Syria – rivals of the groups Saudi Arabia supports – and its meddling in Tunisia and Libya.

Qatar is also considered Iran’s main ally in the Gulf, and it conducts an independent foreign policy rather than coordinating with the other Gulf states. Sissi can’t afford to quarrel with Saudi Arabia, which, together with the other Gulf states, has already given his government over $14 billion.

The real surprise, however, is that Sissi invited Iranian President Hassan Rohani, on the grounds that Iran is “an important country in the bloc of nonaligned states” – a pretty excuse apparently aimed at dispelling fears that Egypt is drawing too close to Iran.

Tehran has already announced that it will send someone to the ceremony, though it may not be Rohani himself, since he is busy planning his first visit to Turkey, which is slated to take place Monday.

It’s hard to believe Sissi would have invited Iran without an okay from Saudi Arabia. But it’s not surprising that Riyadh raised no objections, and perhaps even supported the invitation. After all, the Saudis started adopting a new tone toward Iran last month, when Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal invited his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, to visit the kingdom.

The visit hasn’t yet taken place, since Zarif says he is busy preparing for next week’s talks with the six world powers over Iran’s nuclear program. But the invitation remains open. Moreover, the well-publicized visit to Tehran this week by Kuwait’s ruler, Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, included an offer to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia. If Riyadh no longer balks at inviting the Iranian foreign minister, Sissi can allow himself to invite the Iranian president to his inauguration.

If Rohani does go to Egypt, he will be only the second Iranian president to do so in the 34 years since Egypt downgraded relations with Iran. The first was Rohani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who came to congratulate Sissi’s predecessor, Mohammed Morsi, on his election.

Sissi has no personal objection to improving Egypt’s relationship with Iran as long as certain conditions are met – conditions that will be set by Riyadh, rather than by Washington, as in the past.

Thus, Turkey, rather than Iran, has emerged as the big loser from the Egyptian coup. Given Cairo’s chilly attitude toward Ankara – which has found expression in freezing of some of the trade agreements signed during the Morsi era and even urging Egyptians to boycott Turkish Airlines – Turkey is losing more and more access to the Middle East.

Turkey no longer has relations with Syria at all; Saudi Arabia views it with hostility and suspicion (mainly because of its support for the Muslim Brotherhood); Iraq is furious with it over the oil pipeline now being built between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan, which will let the Turks buy oil directly from the Kurds (at the expense of Iraq’s central government), and since no compensation agreement has yet been signed with Israel, that bilateral relationship is also on ice.

In short, the “zero problems with neighbors” policy proclaimed by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu appears to have been shattered into pieces. Indeed, Ankara’s only remaining friend in the Middle East appears to be Tehran, both because of Turkey’s dependence on Iranian oil and gas and because the two countries have a common interest in thwarting Kurdish ambitions.

Interestingly enough, the country that is actually displaying appropriate diplomatic flexibility is Iran. It has never pressured Turkey to sever relations with Israel, and once it ended its boycott of Egypt for having signed a peace treaty with Israel, it never tried to disrupt Egyptian-Israeli relations either.

Under other circumstances, Sissi’s undeclared boycott of Turkey might have bolstered the Israeli-Turkish relationship. But the rift between Ankara and Jerusalem over Israel’s botched raid on a Turkish-sponsored flotilla to the Gaza Strip in 2010 remains an obstacle.

Iran, in contrast, now seems poised to rehabilitate its status in the Arab Middle East. And if it signs a final nuclear deal with the six powers in July, it will also be able to influence oil prices, and thereby Western policy in the region.

As for Israel, perhaps Sissi might nevertheless have considered inviting it to the inauguration had anyone bothered to congratulate him for winning the election. After all, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did congratulate Morsi and wish him success.

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