World News

Why Trump's road to stability in the Middle East runs through an increasingly rocky Egypt

Linda Dimyan-Soliman
Key Points
  • Recent attacks on Egypt's Christian minority have driven home the country's deteriorating security situation, and its importance to U.S. security policy.
  • A destabilized country could embolden external extremists, and make Egypt a magnet for terrorism.
  • "If Egypt falls, so will the rest of the region," one analyst warned CNBC.
Egyptian Coptic Christians unload their belongings from a truck as they arrive to take refuge at the Evangelical Church in the Suez Canal city of Ismailiya on February 24, 2017.
Stringer | AFP | Getty Images

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, the country this week extended a state of emergency that granted the government increasing authority to crack down on extremists. The measure has drawn widespread criticism from human rights activists, but some observers see Egypt's actions as necessary.

"With [a] continued police and army presence on the streets while also safeguarding institutions, landmarks, and religious sites, opportunities for terrorists to launch more attacks are significantly diminished," Sasha Toperich, senior fellow and director of the Mediterranean Basin Initiative at Johns Hopkins University's Center for Transatlantic Relations, told CNBC this week.

"I would not be surprised if the three month state of emergency extension [continues] for another three months, until terrorist threats are either minimal or entirely" contained, Toperich said, "and that takes time. Safety and security of citizens should be, after all, top priority."

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.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Philippe Wojazer | Reuters

'Fight these destabilizing elements'

As part of a crackdown on extremism in the country, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has come under intense scrutiny from human rights advocates. A few experts argue that the encroachment of ISIS in the country and the region calls for a tough response.

On Tuesday, Speaker of the House of Representatives Ali Abdelaal told lawmakers that "the reasons for which the state of emergency was declared are still in place and therefore it must be extended," effectively backing el-Sissi's decision.

"With ISIS branches operating in Sinai, I think it's about time for the U.S. to extend its support to [Egyptian] President Sissi's efforts to fight these destabilizing elements," said Johns Hopkins' Toperich.

The interests of Egypt and the U.S. commingle in various ways, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Egypt has positioned itself as an honest broker in negotiations in the long-running conflict, and is a linchpin in efforts to choke off the smuggling of weapons to the terrorist group Hamas, Toperich added.

Analysts also say that strong military ties between the U.S. and Egypt are key to projecting American power in the region and boosting Egyptian security. The country plays host to Operation Bright Star — the largest U.S. military exercise in the world that takes place every two years.

The last scheduled operation was in 2009, four years before former President Barack Obama canceled the event in protest over Egypt cracking down on demonstrators. The one set for 2011 was postponed by the revolution. Bright Star is expected to resume under President Donald Trump.

Yet a number of Egypt watchers believe the path to peace runs through Egypt, and the U.S. should do more to strengthen the country in the face of global terror, including the provision of more military assistance.

--Reuters contributed to this article.

Note: This story updates an earlier version that was originally published on June 25.