With the world’s attention focused on perennial Middle East hotspots like Iraq and Syria, foreign policy experts warn that Egypt bears watching, especially as the Trump administration struggles to craft a coherent policy to stabilize the region.
Recently, a series of violent incidents targeting Egypt’s minorities has underscored what regional observers say is a fragile social fabric that could easily tear as civil strife and terrorism rear their head. As the most populous country in the Middle East, Egypt is also a longtime U.S. ally — and a strategically important nation in the region that receives more than $1 billion a year in military financing.
In April and May, bombings by the Islamic State (ISIS) targeting Coptic Christians drove home the plight of one of the oldest religious groups in the Mideast. The minority group comprises about 10 percent of Egypt’s 80 million people, a number that has steadily dwindled in recent years in the face of systemic violence.
The plight of Coptics has amplified the stakes for Egypt — home to the Suez Canal, a major hub of maritime activity and more than 7 percent of the world’s seafaring trade — and regional security. The country is seen fighting a war against extremism on multiple fronts, and analysts broadly agree the U.S. is key to helping to prevent Egypt from slipping into calamity.
Mirette Mabrouk, deputy director at the Atlantic Council, a U.S. think tank, told CNBC recently that a destabilized Egypt would be “disastrous for the entire region. The consequences would be horrific for the important military institutions, financial institutions and the Suez Canal.”
Beset by Islamic State radicals and its own battle against the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt “has seen extremist violence increase,” said Allison McManus, research director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, to CNBC recently. Along with her colleague Amr Kotb, McManus writes a quarterly synopsis of Egypt’s security issues.
“The average monthly rate of terror attacks nationwide more than doubled from 2013 to 2016, with increased sectarian attacks and targeting of civilians,” McManus added.
In a region where security is deteriorating because of conflicts in neighboring countries, Egypt’s own tenuous control over extremism matters for U.S. policy, experts warn. A destabilized Egypt could become a magnet for jihadi groups, creating new policy headaches for American objectives in the region.
“The U.S. relies on a stable Egypt for a wide range of priorities, as Egypt is a fulcrum for regional stability given its strategic location and size,” Kotb told CNBC, who warned of a regional domino effect should the country be overrun by Islamic fundamentalists.
“As far as many U.S. policymakers are concerned, continued U.S. engagement in Egypt today is a byproduct of the belief that if Egypt falls, so will the rest of the region,” he added.