“It is a moment for which history will give a full chapter. It is a moment that strongly deserves being described as very different from what preceded it and what came after it. It is a moment where whole states’ positions changed severely, and where other countries received emergency support that extended their lives until further notice. It is one of the moments revealing the dynamics of international politics and its magic.”
This is how a French politician, who preferred to remain anonymous, describes the period between June 30 and July 4, 2013 and its impact on countries neighboring Egypt or with an influence on the region, as well as the approach of western nations to the Middle East and its issues.
To analyze the impact of what happened, it is important to recount the situation before 2013, more precisely following the 2011 revolutions, particularly with regard to the big players — Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia — and countries where the revolts turned sour, with civil strife involving several degrees of Islamic militancy — particularly in Syria and Libya.
Before 2013, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu made statements about the possibility of a comeback for the Ottoman Empire. In 2009, Davutoglusaid, “Yes, they say we are the new Ottomans. Yes, we are the new Ottomans.” He would reiterate this sentiment several times in 2011 and 2012 when asked whether Turkey was able and ready to lead the region. “Turkey led the region through the Ottoman State for a long period of time. We are still ready for that,” he declared.
After 2011, the Arab Spring countries fell into the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood. Through the Brotherhood, Turkey reached the peak of its power and earned an unprecedented sense of snobbery. It started openly supporting members of the Islamic State in Syria, passing them arms and volunteers, opening the borders for their free movement and acting as the main window for the Islamic State’s oil sales on the black market.
The months preceding June 30, 2013 were a heyday for this new, small country. Qatar’s power in Egypt grew to unprecedented levels, according to the French politician, and even reached beyond Egypt’s borders. For one, Qatar was trying to take over major commercial sectors in the heart of Paris. Qatar also surpassed expectations through its role in the Libyan revolution, where it helped members of Al-Qaeda — Abdel Hakim Belhaj, the head of the Islamist Watan Party, chief among them — by sending boats filled with ammunition and arms. Qatar even intervened directly in Mali, standing against French forces there, the politician points out. For a country whose ambition was to host the FIFA World Cup, these were feats beyond imagination.
The Gulf at large was primarily dedicated to maintaining the security of former President Hosni Mubarak, the French politician says, especially at a time when he was plagued by trials. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s dream to lead all the Sunni countries in the region was becoming endangered by the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Tunisia, Gaza and, partially, Syria and Libya. “More importantly, they weren’t fond of [former President Mohamed] Morsi’s foreign policy,” the French politician says.
A breaking point emerged when Morsi convened a popular conference in a football stadium in 2013, shortly before his ouster, in the presence of thousands of Salafis. In the conference, Morsi called for jihad in Syria to cut the hands of the Shia forces. The move was seen by Saudi Arabia as a Muslim Brotherhood attempt to lead the Sunni fight against the Shia, adding to its mounting anger.
The situation on the ground was becoming increasingly dire for the Syrian regime. The state army lost control over many areas to opposition Islamist forces supported by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Emirates from one side, and Qatar from the other.
In Libya, power was starting to tilt toward the forces of the Libya Dawn, which is affiliated with the International Organization of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Libya Dawn, which includes several Islamist groups, tried to expand its territorial control, including over the capital Tripoli and its airport. The coalition also attacked several oil establishments.
In the meantime, the Islamic State started to signal its presence. In the last months, the group expanded in Libya and announced full control over the city of Derna, which borders Egypt, and then moved on to Sert. The group has been also trying to control oil resources and to expand in the city of Mesrata.
The spectrum of speculations on Egypt’s foreign policy expanded following Morsi’s ouster in the aftermath of major protests. The event was bad news for regional players hoping to seek power from the Muslim Brotherhood’s dominance in Egypt, most notably in Libya. But for others, Egypt’s new power configuration under the helm of military rulers turned it into a useful ally.
“The coup in Egypt was a big catastrophe,” says Gamal Zuweiba, the spokesperson of the Tripoli government in Libya, which is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. “Whether we agree or disagree with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, there was a real government that clearly announced its alignment with the Libyan and Syrian revolutions from day one, and which took serious steps to support them.”
What happened after the coup was not only a catastrophe for Libya, he says, but for the entire Arab and Islamic world, a catastrophe manifested in the besieging of Gaza and the limited movement of Palestinians, for example.
As for Libya, Egypt started fighting the Libya Dawn and imprisoning its supporters residing there, Zuweiba says.
“Following the coup, Egypt took on the mission to market for the forces of Khalifa Haftar and to present him to the world, and even to support him militarily on the ground,” Zuweiba asserts. “The Egyptian government created a myth that Islamic State men killed Copts in Libya, and seized the opportunity, alongside the Emirates, to bomb revolutionary strongholds. Egypt’s role in Libya now is shameful.”
In February 2015, semi-official social media accounts associated with IS broadcast videos of militants beheading 21 Egyptian Copts in Libya. Shortly thereafter, the Egyptian Air Force bombed military strongholds in Libya that the Armed Forces said were affiliated with IS. However, the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya insisted that the targeted strongholds belonged to Libyan revolutionaries.
“We saw what happened on June 30 and what has been drawn in terms of Egyptian foreign policy as a correction of the January 25 revolution’s path,” says Baligh al-Makhlafy, the high board member of the National Coalition for Salvaging Yemen. “Before June 30, Egypt wasn’t walking on the right trajectory of supporting Arab national security. It was instead joining the Turkish path and serving their interests in the region.”
“The ascent of the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Egypt supported the Turkish-Qatari project, which had already reaped major gains. Subsequently, the deposition of the Muslim Brotherhood sent a destructive strike to this project,” he claims, pointing to how Turkey is now drowning in Syria’s conflict and Qatar has retreated from many of its recent positions.
Mekhlafy says that Egypt is historically bound to Yemen, and that any change in Egypt strongly influences Yemen on the political, military and popular fronts. “This is why we appreciate Egypt’s current position on the Yemen crisis, a position manifested in politics and in war at the same time,” he maintains. Egypt joined the Arab alliance in its military operations in Yemen when the situation required it to do so, Mekhalfy continues. And now, Egyptian diplomacy is playing a “central role” in the political solution to the crisis and is present in all negotiations aimed at finding a political resolution between different Yemeni players, which are currently taking place in Kuwait, he points out.
Moving on to Syria, Firas al-Khaldy, a member of the Cairo Group in the Syrian opposition, says that June 30 prompted waves of both support and opposition inside Syria. Some Syrian elites, intellectuals and activists presented June 30 to their compatriots as a reformist movement that was essential and beneficial to the Syrian revolution, claiming it would break the cycle of Islamisation and help promote secular gains.
“There is a major example that can explain where we were and where we are going in Syria. Before June 30, we were at a conference that was sponsored by the president, filled with emotions but void of any serious work that supports our revolution,” Khaldy recounts. “Afterward, we were getting ready to form a group carrying the name of the Egyptian capital city, which could have an effective role in the Syrian political equation — a group with a vision for the transitional period and with constant contact with the Syrian UN delegate.”
However, Khaldy laments lingering issues the Syrian opposition is dealing with in Egypt. He asserts that the main problem lies in the condition of Syrians in Egypt and the restrictions they experience in terms of residency and family reunions. Meanwhile, he says, the Syrian opposition in Egypt has a measure of freedom to pursue its political positions, and the Egyptian Foreign Ministry is usually supportive, which is a better alternative to the overflowing emotions of the previous regime.
More broadly, the French politician thinks Egypt is mastering the diplomatic game in the aftermath of June 30, 2013.
“Egyptian diplomacy knows well what the world wants from it, and what it wants from the world,” he says. “From France, for example, Egypt wants arms deals that put it on top of the military balance in the Middle East. It also wants political and economic support. France wants from Egypt a strong ally in the region. It also wants to secure Europe from the return of European fighters from Syria, Iraq and Libya. It also wants to strike some important economic interests in an afflicted internal European context.”
In terms of Egypt-Saudi relations, it is not true that Egyptian diplomacy is blindly following Saudi demands, the politician adds. This is manifested in Egypt’s weak military involvement in the Saudi-led campaigns in Yemen and the uneasy alignment between the two countries on Syria.
But Egypt knows that Saudi Arabia will support it economically at a time when it sorely needs such support in return for particular policies vis-a-vis Iran and, more recently, the redrawing of maritime borders, which cost Egypt two islands ceded to Saudi Arabia, prompting major protests domestically.
With more ties with Russia and a more-or-less well-preserved relationship with the US, Egypt’s post-June 30 authorities seem to be eager to diversify their web of alliances, as opposed to committing to one direction at the cost of the other.