Egypt First

Under Sisi, Cairo Is Going Its Own Way

Sisi speaks to the press after a meeting with Putin, December 2017. Reuters

In November 2017, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) launched an impulsive bid to isolate Iran by forcing the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri during a visit by the latter to Riyadh. The Crown Prince was counting on the support of his Sunni Arab allies, but one notable Arab country abstained. Instead of backing its key regional benefactor, Egypt immediately aligned itself with French efforts to broker a diplomatic solution, hosting Hariri in Cairo and championing his return to Lebanon as prime minister. Egypt’s stance, focused on “the importance of preserving Lebanon’s stability and elevating Lebanon’s national interests,” struck a discordant note with Riyadh’s recent “with us or against us” attempts to reorder the Middle East along Manichean lines between itself and Tehran.

Hariri was not the only high-profile visitor to Cairo to raise concerns among Egypt’s longtime patrons: on December 11, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the country to highlight deepening ties between Egypt and Russia, including a potential agreement that would reportedly allow Russian warplanes to use Egyptian military bases—this despite Egypt’s four-decade, $50 billion defense partnership with Washington.

Such independence may frustrate Cairo’s foreign benefactors, but it should not come as a surprise. Egypt’s willingness to go its own way has been a consistent feature of the country’s foreign policy since at least July 2013, when a popularly-backed military coup ousted President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. Under the new presidency of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Cairo has gradually been formulating a new foreign policy doctrine based on ideological commitments to anti-Islamism, respect for traditional and often retrograde notions of sovereignty and non-interference, and a defiantly nationalistic reassertion of Egypt’s freedom of maneuver within the region. Taken together, they are leading Egypt away from its traditional allies and toward a more independent—and uncertain—future.


The roots of Egypt’s new foreign policy lie in the 2011 uprising that led to the removal of President Hosni Mubarak. Under the

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