Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi visited the White House for the second time and met with his American counterpart Donald Trump on April 9. The next day, Reuters reported that Egypt had pulled out of the US effort to forge the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), known as the Arab NATO. A source familiar with the decision told Reuters that Egypt conveyed its stance to the United States and other concerned parties ahead of a meeting for MESA held in Riyadh April 9.
Besides the United States, the alliance includes Egypt, Jordan and the six Gulf states: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait. It aims to promote regional stability, security and prosperity through enhanced multilateral cooperation at the political, security, energy and economic levels.
There are reports that the MESA alliance has been conceived to meet US needs — to target Iran and to reduce the US regional presence without allowing China or Russia to gain influence — while disregarding the priorities and constraints of prospective Arab member states.
According to Egyptian reports, Egypt made its decision due to the challenges facing the alliance. The first challenge is that the alliance is essentially linked to Trump and there is no guarantee that it will continue to exist after he leaves power. Therefore, its future is not guaranteed. The second challenge is the lack of consensus on the objectives of the alliance and the nature of the challenges and threats facing its potential member states. Such issues include combating terrorism and extremism, confronting Iran's aggressive policy in the Middle East and reducing the increase of Russian and Chinese influence in the region. The third challenge is related to the mystery surrounding the institutional aspect of the alliance and the US role therein.
Asked about the reason behind Egypt’s withdrawal, Mohammad Abbas, an Iranian affairs expert at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told Al-Monitor that there is a divergence in strategic vision between Egypt and the United States on the core of the conflict in the Middle East. According to Cairo, he added, while terrorism and extremism pose a direct threat to its national security, the Iranian policy in the region does not. Washington perceives Tehran's destabilizing role in the region as a strategic challenge, and Egypt does not want to escalate the conflict with Tehran by joining an alliance that mainly targets Iran.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry said there has been no official statement yet regarding Egypt’s withdrawal from the US effort to forge an Arab NATO, but Iran welcomes the decision if confirmed. According to one of the two sources that talked to Reuters, the decision did not appear to be final.
Abbas also said that Cairo refuses to join an alliance that includes Qatar, whose interests are in opposition to the interests and national security of Egypt and is boycotted by four countries in the alliance (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain). He said this obstacle will prevent the US efforts from coming to fruition.
The United States does not need such an alliance to counter Iranian influence in the Middle East, said Abbas, as it has taken serious steps on the ground during the past few days to modify Tehran’s behavior. On April 22, it demanded that buyers of Iranian oil stop purchases by May 1 or face sanctions, a move to choke off Tehran’s oil revenues. It also officially designated Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization on April 15.
Abbas said that the Egyptian withdrawal from the US effort will hamper the effectiveness of the alliance because Cairo serves as a pillar in any alliance it joins and its withdrawal will create a vacuum that is difficult to fill by other regional powers.
A great deal of uncertainty continues to surround the Egyptian position, and if confirmed, such a decision would be consistent with the traditional Egyptian refusal to join military alliances forged by international powers. Its hesitation to make an official statement about its withdrawal suggests that Egypt could still be part of those efforts, especially considering that Cairo has attended all of the meetings.
Commenting on the Reuters report, Mohammad Qashqoush, a military analyst and strategist and visiting national security professor at the Nasser Higher Military Academy, also pointed out to Al-Monitor that there is still no official Egyptian statement regarding Cairo’s withdrawal from the US effort to forge the alliance. In response to the comments indicating that the Egyptian withdrawal from the US effort came because Egypt did not want to confront Iran, Qashqoush said that the Egyptian decision not to support the US escalation against Iran aims at maintaining security and stability in the Arab Gulf.