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Sisi's visit to Iraq highlights challenges for new Arab alliance

The fledgling Egypt-Jordan-Iraq alliance promises to bring regional stability, but it also risks antagonising Iran, an old foe
Iraqi President Barham Salih (C) receives his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (R), and Jordan's King Abdullah II, in the capital Baghdad on 27 June 2021 (AFP)
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Political analysts have cast doubts over the ability of Egypt, Iraq and Jordan to move ahead with their plan to establish a new regional alliance after a summit that brought together the leaders of the three countries last week.

"There are diverse challenges to cooperation between the three countries," Iranian affairs specialist Mervat Zakaria told Middle East Eye. "That includes foreign interference from regional rivals, especially Iran." 

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi arrived in Baghdad on 27 June on the first visit by an Egyptian head of state to the Iraqi capital since 1990.

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He held a summit meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and the King of Jordan, Abdullah II, within a trilateral cooperation mechanism the three countries unveiled last year. 

Egypt, Sisi said, wants to open a new chapter in relations with Iraq, one based on mutual benefits. 

"We open the door for a new strategic partnership and close cooperation between our three countries to achieve sustainable development and prosperity for our peoples," the Egyptian president said.

"We also work to boost inter-Arab cooperation and protect Arab security."

Long time in the making

Egypt has been working to create this new alliance with Jordan and Iraq for a long time now. 

In March 2019, Sisi invited the Jordanian monarch and then Iraqi prime minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi for a meeting in Cairo, the first of its kind, to discuss cooperation between their three states. 

In August last year, Sisi, King Abdullah and Prime Minister Kadhimi met in Amman. They unveiled their plan to establish what they called the "New Levant", a new economic, political and security alliance between the three countries. 

These meetings ushered an exchange of visits by officials from the three countries to oversee the implementation of initial agreements. 

In October last year, Egyptian Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli visited Baghdad and signed 15 cooperation deals in a wide range of areas, including oil, infrastructure, transport, water and agriculture. 

An Iraqi delegation paid a visit to Cairo earlier in June to discuss cooperation with the Egyptians, including the reconstruction of parts of Iraq devastated during the war with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (IS).

Sunday's summit in Baghdad was scheduled to be held in January this year. It was, however, postponed because of deteriorating security conditions in Iraq.

The summit was then rescheduled for March this year. Nevertheless, it was deferred this time too because of internal developments in Egypt, including the blockage of the Suez Canal and a deadly train crash. 

Economic benefits 

Egypt wants to expand its cooperation with other countries, with its eyes set on the economic benefits it can reap from expanded cooperation, the Egyptian government says. 

Following a meeting with Iraqi Foreign Minister, Fuad Hussein, in Cairo in February this year, Madbouli said he closely followed the implementation of agreements his government signed with Iraq. 

"We will do everything possible to back Iraq's development efforts," he said.

Egypt eyes a major share of the reconstruction of areas devastated in Iraq during IS's occupation and the war with the militant group. 

Egypt views itself as an emerging regional construction force, analysts said. 

"Egypt wants to get the lion's share in Iraq's reconstruction, thanks to the expertise it has in this field," leading Egyptian economist, Bassant Fahmi, told MEE. "Egypt's participation in Iraq's reconstruction will have positive effects on the Egyptian economy." 

Egypt says its building material companies are ready to provide Iraq with all it needs for its reconstruction. 

On 27 June, the deputy head of the Building Materials Chamber in Egypt revealed that Egypt wants to export $6bn-worth of building materials to Iraq annually. 

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Egypt also has its eyes set on Iraq's oil. In November last year, Egypt and Iraq agreed to establish the "Reconstruction-for-Oil" mechanism, which will allow Egypt to trade its building materials and reconstruction services for Iraq's oil.

Egypt, Jordan and Iraq plan to establish a pipeline from Basra to Egypt via Jordan. Crude oil pumped into the pipeline will travel around 1,700 kilometres from production wells in Basra until it reaches Jordan and then Egypt through the port city of Aqaba. 

Behind this craving for Iraqi oil is Egypt's desire to become a regional energy hub, one that collects gas and crude oil produced in regional states and then processes them before re-exporting them to international markets.  

Egypt will import 12 billion barrels of Basra's light crude this year. Iraq also wants to import natural gas from Egypt to reduce dependence on Iranian gas for the operation of its electricity plants.

Rivalry with Iran

Egypt and Jordan want to draw Iraq away from Iran, a country that has a lot of leverage in the Arab country politically, militarily, economically and religiously, analysts said. 

The two countries are part of an effort, which also includes Saudi Arabia, to undermine Iranian influence in the region by depriving Tehran of one of its most important regional strongholds, they added. 

"Egypt and Jordan want to bring Iraq back to the Arab fold," Ahmed Youssef, a political science professor at Cairo University, told MEE. "Iraq also wants to find alternatives to Iran in its bid to get rid of Iranian hegemony over it."

Egypt is a religious and ideological rival of Iran. The two countries do not have diplomatic relations since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. 

The US is also apparently behind this new charm offensive by Cairo, Amman and Riyadh, especially with the new administration of US President Joe Biden tightening the noose around Iran.

On 28 June, the US welcomed the Egyptian-Jordanian-Iraqi summit, considering it an "important step" in strengthening regional economic and security ties and advancing regional stability. 

The Arab country also wants to prove to the new administration in Washington that it is ready to move away from the Iranian sphere by establishing close relations with important regional allies of the US. 

Rough road

Thousands of Iraqi security personnel guarded Sisi as he got out of Baghdad Airport on the road to the location of the summit, yet another testament to the complicated security conditions in Iraq. 

Hours after the Egyptian president left, a power plant in the northern Iraqi city of Samarra was attacked with missiles. Fingers were pointed at Iran-backed militias.  

The same militias staged a huge parade through the streets of Baghdad a day before the arrival of the Egyptian president to the Iraqi capital, probably to drive the message home that Iran has the upper hand in this Arab country. 

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Deteriorating security conditions in Iraq and Iranian influence in the country will be formidable hindrances on Egypt's road to have a significant economic presence in Iraq, analysts said. 

"Iran will surely use its militias to prevent the fledgling rapprochement between Egypt and Jordan, on one hand, and Iraq, on the other, from maturing," Zakaria said. "Iran suffers tough economic conditions and it will not likely give up important allies like Iraq easily." 

Apart from the presence of a strong following of Iran among Iraq's political elite, Iraq's proximity to Iran makes economic domination by the Islamic Republic over the Arab country an easy matter, especially given Iraq's tough economic conditions, the same analyst added. 

"Iraq is Iran's most important trading partner and its economic relations with Iran benefit the Islamic Republic," Zakaria said. "This makes it difficult for Iraq to get rid of its economic ties with Iran."