Egypt’s openness to expanded Israel ties on full display during Lapid visit

Sissi sees Israel as a regional economic and security partner, but true normalization is not on the way

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid sits with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in Cairo, December 9, 2021 (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid sits with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in Cairo, December 9, 2021 (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

It is abundantly clear Egypt is approaching its relationship with Israel differently today than it did for most of Benjamin Netanyahu’s tenure as prime minister.

Then-president Hosni Mubarak met Netanyahu publicly in 2011, but his successor, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, was only willing to meet openly with Israel’s leader on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly and reportedly in secret in 2018.

Sissi’s approach to the Naftali Bennett-Yair Lapid government is markedly different. He hosted Bennett in September, and Lapid on Thursday. The president’s office put out an official statement and the visit received full media coverage in Egypt, which could not happen without regime approval.

Moreover, Egypt’s top decision-makers attended the meetings with Lapid. In addition to Sissi and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, Abbas Kamel — Egypt’s spy chief and point-man on the Hamas problem in Gaza — sat in.

“It’s a leap forward in Egypt’s willingness to openly present ties with Israel and to absorb the internal criticism in light of the strategic benefit,” said Moshe Albo,  modern Middle East historian and researcher at the Dado Center for Interdisciplinary Military Studies.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid chats with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in Cairo, December 9, 2021 (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

The strategic gains Sissi sees in improved ties with Israel are multi-faceted.

Since US President Joe Biden won the November 2020 election, Sissi has been concerned that Biden would press Cairo on human rights issues. As a presidential candidate, Biden tweeted about Egypt, “No more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favorite dictator.’”

“I have no doubt that the Egyptians have worries about the Biden Administration,” said Eran Lerman, vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and past deputy director of Israel’s National Security Council.

Sissi sitting publicly with Lapid and Bennett shows Biden a united, pro-American regional alliance, while also increasing the incentive for Israel, Washington’s closest ally in the Middle East, to argue in the halls of Congress and the White House against pressure on Sissi.

New regional energy

The emerging regional energy and security alliance — which Egypt sees as critical to its future — is also pushing Egypt and Israel closer together.

For the better part of a decade, Turkey has been engaged in a bitter rivalry with Egypt that began when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan backed the Muslim Brotherhood after the group was ousted from power in Cairo when Sissi took over in 2013.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks ahead of the eighth Greece-Cyprus-Israel alongside Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis (left) and Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

The rivalry between the Sunni Muslim powers has metastasized into other areas and split the Middle East, with Turkey and Qatar leading a pro-Islamist faction, and Egypt siding with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in a pro-Western camp.

In the Mediterranean, Egypt has aligned itself with Greece and Cyprus, which accuse Turkey of illegally drilling for natural gas in their exclusive economic zones. Together with Israel, the countries formed the EastMed Gas Forum, headquartered in Cairo, and they have conducted joint military exercises.

Lapid’s visit came days after the annual trilateral summit between the Israeli, Cypriot, and Greek leaders. In October, the annual Egypt-Greece-Cyprus summit was held in Athens. The meetings between Lapid and top Egyptian officials ties the two recent summits of eastern Mediterranean allies together.

The EastMed alliance extends beyond the four countries at its core. “You have the French as a western anchor, and the UAE as an eastern anchor,” explained Lerman.

Under Sissi, Egypt has sought to position itself as a leading Mediterranean power at the center of that alliance, while downplaying its Arab and Islamic identity in some ways.

One manifestation of this trend is a series of events emphasizing Egypt’s Pharaonic — not Muslim — past, including the April Golden Parade of Pharaohs that saw ancient kings and queens being transported to the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilization. Another is the visit to Sissi by Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati on the same day Lapid was there.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi speaks during a joint press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee palace, Monday, December 7, 2020 in Paris. (AP Photo/Michel Euler, File)

Israel is also key to Sissi’s determination to modernize and revitalize Egypt’s economy. Seeing the potential of Israel’s warm and open ties with the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco only emphasized how much more Egypt could gain from an improved relationship with Israel as Sissi tries to attract foreign investment, modernize the economy, and lower unemployment.

Natural gas is a central part of the economic vision for both countries, especially with a spike in demand for natural gas in Europe, and a need for an alternative to Russia as a supplier of fuel. Israel already pumps natural gas to Egypt to be liquefied before being shipped to Europe and Asia, and the two countries are in talks to increase the flow through both undersea and overland pipelines.

But increased ties between the private sector are necessary if there is to be significant growth in trade between the countries. More business delegations are expected in the coming months, and  Egypt has asked Israel to expand the flow of goods through the Nitzana border crossing.

The positive trend doesn’t mean that Egypt and Israel are fully aligned, however. Egypt’s street and professional class remain hostile to Israel and true normalization is not in the offing.

Nor do their most pressing concerns line up. While Israel’s focus is on Iran’s nuclear program and its armed proxies, Egypt is more concerned about the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic State terrorism in the Sinai, the Libyan conflict on its border, and Ethiopia’s dam project upriver on the Nile.

Still, Egypt sees Iran as one of its major adversaries, and is concerned about its threat to regional stability.

Israel Antiquities Authority Director Eli Escozido (L) looks on as Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (C-L) presents Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry (C-R) with stolen Egyptian artifacts that were smuggled to Israel and returned back to Egypt, during their meeting at Tahrir Palace in Cairo on December 9, 2021. (Mohamed HOSSAM / AFP)

Lapid, for his part, seemed to play his cards well on his recent visit. Sissi’s willingness to meet him is an indication that the Egyptian leader expects that he will indeed take over for Bennett as prime minister, and that he wants to build the relationship.

Moreover, Lapid’s gesture of handing over 95 Egyptian artifacts during his meeting with Shoukry was well-received by Egypt’s press, and won him points there.

Egypt’s increasing openness about its relationship with Israel should continue during Bennett’s tenure, and, by all indications, during his successor’s as well.

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