CAIRO — As the intense rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran continues to threaten Middle East stability, Egypt has been trying to play a mediating role. When the crisis recently extended into Lebanon, Cairo began deploying efforts to keep the small country from being dragged into a regional military conflict.
Egypt's foreign initiatives coincide with escalating tension between Saudi Arabia on one side and Iran and Hezbollah on the other. Hezbollah, a Shiite militant group, is based in Lebanon but is backed by Iran. Saudi Arabia is pressuring Lebanon to put a lid on Hezbollah activity.
Many believe part of that pressure involved the surprise resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. On Nov. 4, Hariri abruptly announced his resignation in a televised speech from Riyadh. Hariri cited death threats against him and accused Hezbollah and Iran of disseminating strife in the region.
Hariri withdrew his resignation two weeks later after a flurry of diplomatic activity.
In mid-November, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi dispatched Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry to deliver private messages to Arab leaders on a three-day tour that included stops in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman. According to the ministry, Shoukry’s tour came “as part of consultations between Egypt and brotherly Arab [states] in light of the political developments in Lebanon and the growing challenges [threatening] the security of the region.”
Then, during a Nov. 19 emergency session of Arab League foreign ministers in Cairo, Shoukry and others called for Iran to immediately stop providing support for armed militias in Arab countries. He noted that Iran has been aware of this stance and added, “Iran should take a clear position confirming its commitment to respect the sovereignty of Arab states.”
The majority of Iranians are Persian; only about 2% of its population is Arab.
Meanwhile — after meetings that involved Hariri traveling to Egypt and then to Paris to meet with President Emmanuel Macron, as well as a call between Aoun and Sisi — Hariri returned to Lebanon and, on Nov. 22, withdrew his resignation upon Aoun’s request — a step they said aimed to defuse the escalated tensions in the Middle East. Hariri said his talk with Sisi had focused on “the need for Lebanon to distance itself from the regional conflicts.”
In the same report, the paper also cited anonymous sources as saying Egypt had asked the UAE to pressure Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman "not to take erratic steps, but rather to stabilize the situation in Lebanon by allowing Hariri to review his Lebanese agreements and remain in the premiership.”
It seems Sisi’s flexible foreign policy has given his country the reputation of a pragmatic mediator. This was made clear Oct. 12 when, under Egyptian sponsorship, the rival Palestinian movements Fatah and Hamas signed a reconciliation deal to end their 10-year division.
Gilan Gabar, a member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs (ECFA), said, “Egypt succeeded in curbing the crisis [in Lebanon] to prevent a military [confrontation] and limit it to a political context.” Gabar told Al-Monitor by phone, “The Egyptian mediation between the Arab Gulf and Tehran started effectively when the Lebanese crisis erupted.”
Lebanese political author Najat Sharafeddine told Al-Monitor by phone that the Egyptian mediation came at the direct request of Lebanon's Berri during his Nov. 5 meeting with Sisi in Egypt. She said, “Sisi [asked] Berri to deliver an implicit message to Hezbollah, asking the movement to lower its tone [to allow] for negotiations with Saudi Arabia.”
ECFA member Rakha Hassan told Al-Monitor that Egypt's vision doesn't align with Saudi Arabia’s concerning the [recent] developments in Lebanon, adding, “The Lebanese crisis was triggered by Saudi Arabia, not Iran.”
He added, “Iran is a regional force competing with Egypt, not an enemy. We maintain cautious relations with Iran to please the Gulf.”
Hassan believes the Egyptian mediation was widely welcomed in Iran, while Saudi Arabia expressed reservations.
Diplomatic ties between Cairo and Tehran have been severed since 1980, when deposed Iranian Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi found refuge in Cairo after the Iranian Revolution, considering Egypt to be a regional Sunni force. But since Sisi came to power in 2014, Egypt has been on a cautious and balanced foreign diplomatic path with regional countries, including Iran — which may not only be beneficial to Egypt itself, but also for the entire region.