Gulf nations throw support to Egypt's Sisi as election nears

Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi is set to win a second term in office this month in an election pitting him against a sole little-known challenger whose bid is seen as window-dressing for a one-sided poll.

Voters' political freedoms have been increasingly restricted and rights groups accuse Sisi's government of stifling dissent – claims the government denies.

Even as activists denounce the election as a joke and Western allies stay mum, Gulf states have vocally thrown their support to Sisi.

The crown prince of the United Arab Emirates, Mohammed bin Zayed, said recently that Egypt is integral to the security of all Arab nations and "reiterated the UAE's solidarity with Egypt in its war against extremism and terrorism." Bahraini Foreign Minister Khaled Al Khalifa visited Cairo this month, carrying words of praise from King Hamad that described the "profound and special" bilateral relations. But the biggest support comes from Saudi Arabia.

On his recent trip to Egypt, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said that the relationship between Cairo and Saudi Arabia is "so strong that even if the leaders of both countries tried to sabotage it, they will not be able to."

The Gulf's support for Sisi is aimed at countering the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, an influential Islamist group in the Arab world that is backed by Qatar and Turkey. The group is banned in Egypt. The Brotherhood is also attempting to improve its ties with Iran – Saudi Arabia's main rival in the region.  

Support for Sisi is backed by the billions of dollars these countries – as well as their neighbours Kuwait and Oman – have poured into Egypt in grants and loans since 2013, when the former army general led the ouster of Islamist president Mohammed Morsi. The money supported an economy battered by the unrest since the 2011 uprising that led to the overthrow of long-time dictator Hosny Mubarak.

Over the past two months, Sisi has repeatedly vowed that "the security of the Arab Gulf is an integral part of Egypt's security." It is the same message he imparted ahead of the 2014 elections, which brought him to office with 97 percent of the vote, though with a relatively low turnout.

Four years later, the Egypt-Gulf ties remain strong. Egypt is in a Saudi-led alliance – also including the UAE and Bahrain – boycotting Qatar over Doha's alleged support for terrorists. It is also part of a Saudi-led military coalition fighting the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen since March 2015.

Columnist May Azzam, writing in Egypt's privately-owned daily al-Masry al-Youm, believes it is time that Egypt regains its relations with both Turkey and Iran, "whose role and influence on developments in the region cannot be ignored."

The goal is to "create a balance" in its relations with current allies. However, she admits that improving ties with Iran in particular "faces obstacles because of Egypt's alliance with the brotherly Gulf countries, which see Iran as their first enemy."

Ahead of the elections to be held between 26 and 28 March, 14 local and international rights groups have urged Egypt's allies "to speak out publicly now to denounce these farcical elections."

While discontent increases at home, not only due to limited political freedoms but also because of austerity measures which left many Egyptians struggling against higher prices, Gulf countries continue with their financial support.

Cairo and Riyadh signed a series of agreements this month, including setting up a 10 billion dollar joint fund to develop a planned Saudi mega investment city, to which Egypt has committed 1,000 square kilometres. But some believe this alliance might not last in the long run.

"I think Saudi Arabia is very short-sighted in its policy on Egypt," said Thomas Lippman, an analyst with the Middle East Institute. "It's not sustainable and one of these days the Saudis will wake up. The Saudis are supporting the country with billions they can't afford. What are they getting in return? Two useless islands and rhetorical support against Iran and Qatar," he added, referring to the two Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir which Egypt handed over to Riyadh last year.    (dpa)