Associated Press, via Fox News
CAIRO – Egypt has made fighting Islamic militants its overriding foreign policy objective, a decision that has brought it closer to Syrian President Bashar Assad, Russia and Iran, in turn antagonizing its chief financial backer, Saudi Arabia.
The policy is risky at a time when Egypt is struggling to contain a homegrown Islamic insurgency and tackling its worst economic crisis in decades. Saudi Arabia, which has helped keep Egypt's economy from collapse with billions in aid, has already signaled its displeasure by holding back promised supplies of fuel.
This direction of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's foreign policy is rooted in the military's 2013 ouster of his predecessor Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.
"Cairo's single-minded pursuit of the Brotherhood — and of any Islamist group that bears the slightest resemblance to the Brotherhood — has become the guiding principle of Egypt's foreign, as well as domestic, policy," Middle East expert Steven A. Cook wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine.
Perhaps no single incident showcased this direction as much as Egypt's support this month for a Russian resolution on Syria at the U.N. Security Council.
Moscow put forward its resolution even as it vetoed a rival French resolution calling for a halt to Russian and Syrian airstrikes, which have caused hundreds of deaths in the Syrian city of Aleppo in past weeks.
Egypt voted in favor of both drafts, saying it did so in hopes of stopping Aleppo's suffering. But siding with Russia — and by implication Assad — reflected the stance of el-Sissi's government that defeating Islamic militants in Syria is the priority.
It led to the first public spat between Cairo and Riyadh since el-Sissi took office in 2014.
Adding insult to injury, Egypt this week hosted one of Assad's top security aides for talks, while Russian and Egyptian commandos held joint war games — at a time of widespread outrage in the Arab world over Russia's air bombardment of Aleppo.
Saudi Arabia is seeking Assad's ouster and has strongly backed rebel factions, including ones with hard-line Islamist ideologies.
Egypt, in contrast, sees militants in Syria as a threat. It has been far cooler to the prospect of removing Assad.
Egypt's direction undermines Saudi Arabia's hopes to build a Sunni axis to block the influence of its top rival, Shiite, non-Arab Iran. In fact, Cairo's show of support for Assad put it closer to Iran, the Syrian leader's top ally.
Egypt has sided closer to Russia even though Moscow has banned commercial flights to Egypt ever since the downing a year ago of a Russian jet full of tourists in the Sinai Peninsula. The crash is blamed on a bomb placed onboard by Egypt's branch of the extremist Islamic State group.
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