Egypt’s plan for ‘joint Arab force’ a non-starter, but shows cooperative intent against threats

An Egyptian military helicopter circles over Tahrir Square after swearing-in ceremony of president elect Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, in Cairo

Egypt’s President Abdel Fateh al-Sisi said in interviews with Saudi-backed media prior to his visit on Sunday to meet Saudi Arabia’s King Salman that he supports the establishment of a “joint Arab force,” though likely for rhetorical flourish.

However, Egypt and other Sunni Arab states are under external threat and feel the need to unite in some way.

Whether it is a nuclear armed Shi’ite Iran, Islamic State terrorism, or the wish to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, Saudi Arabia may be seeking a way to rally support, Brandon Friedman, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University and a researcher at its Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, told The Jerusalem Post.

Sunni states that oppose revolutionary Sunni movements have been intensively consulting on how to deal with the threats.
With the exception of Qatar, the Gulf states have been extremely financially supportive of Sisi’s regime, and in return the Egyptian president has been quoted as saying Gulf security is critical.

“The security of the Gulf is a red-line for us,” Sisi said in the interview with the London-based daily Asharq al-Awsat published over the weekend.

The Egyptian leader sees Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan as countries that could begin work on creating such a force, he said in another interview with Al-Arabiya.

While joint military drills and limited cooperation in certain military theaters could be possible, an integrated joint force is highly unlikely. Even within the group of Sunni states that oppose revolutionary Islamic movements, disagreements and egos are likely to get in the way of any functioning combined force.

Tensions have been rising between Egypt and Gulf states according to highly informed Egyptian sources quoted in a report in Ahram Online on Saturday. Saudi financial support to Egypt declined during the last months of former king Abdullah’s rule, they said.

The report noted that the alleged leaked conversation of senior Egyptian officials taking Gulf aid for granted and the accusation of Egypt against Qatar for supporting terrorism may have increased tensions between Egypt and the Gulf.

A Saudi commentator, Abdulrahman al-Rashed, raised the idea last week in an article inAsharq al-Awsat and republished on the Al-Arabiya website that if “Tehran signs a nuclear agreement with the West, Turkey can work with major blocs to prevent Iranian regional expansion.”

Friedman says that the Saudis may be seeking to rally the Sunni bloc and overcome past points of contention, particularly with Qatar and Turkey, which have supported Islamists in the region.

The new king’s policy may be seeking to repair relations with Qatar and Turkey, even if Egypt disapproves.

Ahmed Al Omran, the Saudi correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, tweeted on Sunday that Sisi’s trip to the Kingdom lasted less than four hours and that soon afterwards, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived in Medina.

Sisi’s suggestion of a joint force is an important symbolic statement, even if a fully integrated force is not currently in the cards, said Friedman.

An important point, he adds, is how a joint force would be defined. “If it means an effective way of cooperating in an alliance, then this is a step forward from typical regional behavior,” he said.

Friedman questions whether the Saudis would be comfortable having the Egyptian president playing a leading role. Clearly, the Saudis want a strong Egypt, which is the only Sunni Arab state capable of leading, partly because of its strong military and large population, said Friedman.

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