Egypt’s Sisi Sees Regional Islamist Threat, Promises to Support Iraq

The former army chief is realigning Egypt’s foreign policy back in favor of its traditional Sunni allies.

Egyptian president Abdul Fatah Khalil al-Sisi speaks at a news conference in Khartoum, Sudan, June 27
Egyptian president Abdul Fatah Khalil al-Sisi speaks at a news conference in Khartoum, Sudan, June 27 (Reuters/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah)

President Abdul Fatah Sisi promised Egypt’s full support for Iraq’s embattled government on Tuesday, his office said, days after warning that the Middle East was being “destroyed” by radical Islamists.

While the extent of Egypt’s support for Iraq, which is struggling to put down an uprising by Sunni militants, is unclear, Sisi’s promise marks a complete reversal from the policy of his predecessor, the Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi, whom he deposed as army leader last year.

As Egypt’s first elected president following the resignation of longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak in early 2011, Morsi moved the Arab world’s largest country away from its undeclared alliance with Israel and the United States in favor of stronger relations with Qatar and the radical Islamist group Hamas that controls the Gaza Strip.

Hamas is an offshoot of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood that has controlled the Palestinian enclave bordering Egypt since an election in 2006 that led to a split with the secular Fatah party of President Mahmoud Abbas.

Morsi had reportedly proposed backing the largely Sunni uprising against the minority Alawite regime of President Bashar Assad in Syria but was overruled by his generals.

Since the civil war began in Syria more than three years ago, radical Islamists groups such as the al-Nusra Front — which is affiliated with the international terrorist organization Al Qaeda — and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant have been among the most effective opposition forces, sidelining secular opponents of the Assad regime who are supported by the West.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant also became active in neighboring Iraq, shocking its central government last month when it conquered the country’s second city, Mosul. Having rebranded itself as simply the “Islamic State,” it now control swathes of territory in an arc from Aleppo in Syria to near the western edge of Baghdad.

As Iraqi soldiers failed to fight back the insurgents, less radical Sunni militias and tribes either joined the insurgency or refused to stand in its way, seeing the uprising as an opportunity to remove Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki from power — a Shia Muslim who has consistently marginalized Iraq’s other sects since Western troops pulled out of the country at the end of 2011.

On Sunday, Sisi warned that the Islamic State posed a threat to more countries in the region, claiming it had “a plan to take over Egypt.” He added, “I had warned the United States and Europe from providing any aid to them and told them they will come out of Syria to target Iraq then Jordan then Saudi Arabia.”

Sisi himself was able to come to power in no small part due to the perceived sectarian tendencies of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood which failed to respond to the concerns of secular Egyptians and Copts after winning free parliamentary and presidential elections.

The former army chief’s realignment of Egyptian foreign policy signals a return to normalcy for majority Sunni states in the region, most notably Saudi Arabia, that have complained of a lack of support from their American allies. The Saudis in particular regarded warily America’s outreaches to the Muslim Brotherhood after the fall of their ally Mubarak and see the radicalization of the opposition movements in Iraq and Syria as vindication of their policy.

Saudi Arabia has given money and weapons to Salafist jihadists in Syria who rival the Islamic State and the Muslim Brotherhood while fighting the forces of Assad — who is an ally of the kingdom’s nemesis, Iran.