In political Islam vernacular, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s visit to New York and his attendance at the environmental summit and the UN General Assembly can be called the Battle of New York. This visit was well arranged. The president was accompanied by a large delegation that included diplomats, as well as prominent Egyptian media and other figures, whose presence was meant to show that Sisi enjoyed popular support.
The Egyptian media and diplomatic corps had expressed their fear of an attempt to embarrass the president during his speech — walkouts by delegations or demonstrations by his opponents in front of the UN — but nothing happened along those lines.
Crowds of supporters outnumbered opposition demonstrators. The media also showed the scene in a way that communicated support for Sisi and marginalized his opposition. The only speech attacking the Egyptian regime was given by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who insisted on mentioning what happened in Egypt after the June 30 Revolution, calling it a “coup.” Erdogan seemed to be the only one to criticize Sisi.
In response, Sisi and his team were able to steal the limelight from the Muslim Brotherhood, painting a picture of a successful presidential visit.
What is more important than this carefully crafted scene, however, is what lies behind it. Sisi went to New York knowing that political change was underway, on both the Egyptian and international levels. The United States, which clearly opposed the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi over a year ago, cut off military aid to Egypt, and put bilateral relations on hold, is now putting together a coalition for its war on terror.
The US needs regional states to support and participate in this alliance, forcing Washington to deal flexibly with the regimes in power. This is especially true with states confronting terrorism, the most important of which is Egypt, which faces a threat from takfiri organizations in the Sinai Peninsula, on its western border with Libya and inside its borders.
The success of the Battle of New York goes beyond the media showing Sisi’s supporters outnumbering the opposition, and also showing Sisi chanting “Long live Egypt!” (the slogan that he originally used in the presidential election that brought him to power) from the podium of the UN General Assembly.
It could be said that the three axes around which Sisi’s visit revolved were his present and future relationship with Washington, the Egyptian role in the US-led anti-terror coalition and the change in the US and Western position toward the Brotherhood. The West is intent on keeping the group in tight check or at least rejects its view of what has happened in Egypt. It seems that there is clear progress — in varying degrees — along these three axes.
In a conversation with As-Safir, Al-Shorouk Editor-in-Chief Imad al-Din Hussein, who was part of the delegation accompanying Sisi on this trip, said: “In terms of the Egyptian-US relationship, there was a stage before the New York visit and another stage after it. There are many problems that were resolved during the visit. The two parties put their differences aside and paid attention to the current situation and issues of the moment, of which the most important was the fight against terrorism.”
Hussein added: “Both sides realized that they needed each other. The United States needs Egypt to play a role in the fight against terrorism, and Egypt needs the international community to recognize that what happened on July 3, 2013, was an expression of the popular will, not a coup.
“What happened, really, is that the Egyptian regime’s version of what occurred on July 3 has been proven correct. It is possible to say that the Egyptian regime is one of the greatest beneficiaries of the rise of IS, which made clear that Egypt had a very important role to play in confronting terrorism. Likewise, Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria has also gained from the emergence of this threat.”
On the fate of the Brotherhood and their influence after the visit, Hussein said, “The Brotherhood has really been marginalized by the official and popular effort made during the visit, but we cannot say that they have been totally done away with in the United States. Islamic Brotherhood members are numerous in America, and they are active in various circles.”
He said: “Admittedly, they received a great blow, but not a fatal one.
“President Sisi met many sectors of US society, and did a good job of presenting a Egypt’s vision to businessmen, journalists, diplomats, previous secretaries of state and other figures. This helped present a different view of what has happened and is happening in Egypt.”
Hussein also indicated that the coming period would witness increasing closeness between Egypt and Qatar, which would increase the marginalization of the Brotherhood.
The objective conditions of the rise of IS and the US efforts to create a coalition to confront it require an Egyptian presence, which has certainly helped change the nature of Egyptian-US relations.
However, there is another side to the issue: Egypt has recently bolstered its relations with Russia, hinting that it will depend upon that country for weapons and wheat. The situation made the pressure placed by the United States and Western countries on Cairo seem futile and imposed more flexibility in dealing with Egypt. Hani Khalaf, former assistant foreign minister of Egypt and former Egyptian delegate to the Arab League, told As-Safir, “It is clear that Egyptian-US relations have entered a new era following Sisi’s visit to New York.”
“It is possible to say that the period of chilled relations has ended. Sisi met with Barack Obama, discussing not only the situation in Egypt, but also regional matters, like the Palestinian issue and the situation in Libya and Iraq. This signifies an important development, as does the establishment of a mechanism for security and political coordination between the US secretary of state and the Egyptian foreign minister. This is also another important development.” Khalaf said. “I think that important signs about arms provision agreements will emerge soon.”
As for the war on terror, Khalaf said, “It is not yet clear whether Egypt will modify its previous stance, which included a role limited to political, propaganda, and security cooperation in the international alliance.” Khalaf suggested that “some statements indicate the possibility of strengthening the Egyptian role in the coalition to include logistical and training support, and some other services. So far, there is nothing tangible to talk about. Most people think that the Egyptian role in the war on terror will develop in the coming period.”
Khalaf said, “Egypt has proved that the change that occurred on July 3, 2013, happened within the framework of popular legitimacy. The image of [Sisi as] a legitimate ruler has been proven correct. However, to what extent has the Brotherhood’s position [on the subject] been refuted? This remains unclear.” He argued that “the alteration of international positions toward the Brotherhood could require some time. According to the West, the Brotherhood has been part of Egypt’s political makeup for 80 years. It is [therefore] difficult to begin treating them as a terrorist organization all of a sudden. This may be easier for other groups like Ajnad Masr, Jama’at Ansar Beit al-Maqdas and other terrorist groups. Either way, Sisi’s visit to New York has changed a lot of parameters.”
Political battles do not usually conclude with knockouts, but with total points scored. There is no doubt that Sisi’s trip to New York was a round in which the Egyptian regime scored many points, in terms of its relationship with the United States and the West or its struggle with the Brotherhood. On the domestic level, the trip certainly represents an important gain, which local media began to hail even before it was completed.
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