On April 8, officials from eight countries—Saudi Arabia, the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Jordan—convened in Riyadh to discuss the American initiative to form the “Middle East Strategic Alliance,” also known as the “Arab NATO,” aimed at confronting Iran’s growing influence in the region. Egypt did not attend the meeting, and a Reuters report from April 11 stated that it had decided to withdraw from the initiative and had informed Saudi Arabia and the United States of this in advance.

According to the report, Egypt questions the motives behind the initiative and fears it will exacerbate tensions with Iran; furthermore, it is concerned about the fate of the initiative if U.S. President Donald Trump is not re-elected in 2020. According to the Arabic Post website, Egyptian military figures opposed the initiative from the start, on the grounds that Egypt does not regard Iran as a direct threat to itself that it must confront.

They also feared that Egypt could not afford the cost of the initiative, and objected to the alternative of providing the alliance with troops in lieu of Egypt’s share of the cost. The website speculated that Egypt’s decision may also be a response to the American efforts to thwart an Egyptian deal to buy Sukhoi-35 fighter jets from Russia, and to the Saudi pressures on Egypt to increase its military involvement in Libya.

The Riyadh meeting was held shortly before Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s visit to Washington, during which he met with President Trump and with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Despite the praise lavished by Trump on El-Sisi during the visit, it was apparently clouded by many controversies, not only over Egypt’s participation in the strategic alliance initiative, but also over its relations with Russia and the American peace initiative known as the “deal of the century.”

Egypt has so far issued no official statement on its reported withdrawal from the strategic alliance initiative, but pro-regime Egyptian newspapers confirmed the reports and praised El-Sisi for insisting on Egypt’s independent position despite the pressures he is facing. For example, journalist Mustafa Bakri called his decision “patriotic,” and stressed: “We cannot conceivably be part of something that does not serve the interests of the [Egyptian] nation. … We will not help the United States to instigate regional wars.”

Regarding the American peace plan, Bakri said that El-Sisi had stated clearly that Egypt would not accept any proposal other than a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, with eastern Jerusalem as its capital, and added that “this position displeased certain elements in decision-making circles in the United States.” He also referred to the issue of the Sukhoi deal with Russia, saying that Egypt will not succumb to threats.

Journalist Osama Kamal said that Egypt’s refusal to participate in the strategic alliance is proof of its independent decision-making in recent years.

Articles supporting El-Sisi’s position were also published in pro-regime Egyptian papers. These articles questioned the intentions of the Trump administration and contended that the goal of the strategic alliance initiative is to drain the Arab states’ resources and embroil them in a war with Iran in order to serve the interests of Israel. They added that the initiative is doomed from the start because its Arab participants disagree on its objectives and on other matters as well. Egypt’s withdrawal from it, they said, spelled its demise and was a sore blow to Trump’s policies against Iran.

The following are excerpts from some of the articles:

‘Egypt’s withdrawal from initiative blow to Trump’s efforts to curb Iran’

Journalist Al-Sayyid Al-Adli, head of Egypt’s Independence Party, wrote on a website owned by businessman Muhammad Abu Aynain, an associate of El-Sisi’s: “During President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s recent visit to Washington, the world’s chief gang leader, [Donald] Trump, insisted on humiliating him in front of the countries of the Arab region by repeating the term ‘alternative [Palestinian] homeland’ [sic]—a term which everyone except for the Zionist entity rejects out of hand. President El-Sisi conveyed the Egyptian policy very well … when he said to Trump that selling even an inch or relinquishing even a grain of Egyptian soil [in favor of a Palestinian entity] is treason, and that the [Egyptian] people had elected him to protect Egypt and its soil.

“Trump failed in the face of the Egyptian leadership’s insistence on preserving the integrity of the homeland. So the hawks in America started to harp on another theme, that of embroiling the Arabs in an armed confrontation with Iran on the pretext of a struggle between Sunnis and Shi’ites. U.S. State Secretary Mike Pompeo is the one currently leading this game, in a bid to embroil Cairo in a war that has nothing to do with it and which contravenes its balanced policy that avoids [both] alignment with various regimes and absolute hostility toward them…

“It seems that the U.S. secretary of state was daydreaming, and woke up only after Cairo refused to be part of [the ‘Arab] N.A.T.O.’ and withdrew from it. Cairo managed to thwart the despicable plan to embroil the Arab region, and in particular Egypt, in a war or armed confrontation with Iran when it stopped obeying the United States and withdrew from the efforts to form an ‘Arab N.A.T.O.’ comprising the major Arab allies and modeled on [the original] N.A.T.O. Its withdrawal is a blow to the efforts of the Trump administration to curb Iran’s influence.”

While condoning El-Sisi’s decision to withdraw from the Arab NATO initiative, Al-Adli called on the Egyptian leadership to maintain its neutrality and not lean too far in any direction: “It’s a fact that Egypt managed to escape obeying America, but we must not go too far. We should maintain an equal distance from all sides, and formulate a strategy that prioritizes the interests of the homeland and the citizens. Trump and his gang, who think they can direct Egypt’s political compass as they see fit, must understand that Cairo maintains an equal distance from all sides, that it consistently supports Arab causes and will not relinquish its Arab and Islamic identity, that it assists its Arab brethren according to its abilities, and that it pursues a policy of constructive dialogue based on acceptance of the other.

“Trump’s gang must understand that Egypt’s participation in the Arab coalition that is fighting the Houthi terrorism in Yemen … and the fact that it takes a hostile position toward Iran in this context, do not mean that Cairo is absolutely hostile to Iran. Rather, there is coordination [between the two countries] on other issues, and Cairo always gives precedence to the stability of the Arab region. It has never, and will never, strive [to start] a bitter war in a bid to gain an empty [role of regional] leadership that will not benefit it in any way. May Allah protect Egypt, its people, and our Arab nation from the plans of the Satan and gang leader of the world.”

‘Goal to exacerbate Sunni-Shi’ite conflict for Israel’s benefit’

Magdi Sirhan, a former editor of Al-Wafd, the mouthpiece of the eponymous pro-El-Sisi party, wrote: “Egyptian will not make any open and explicit statements [about its withdrawal from the strategic alliance initiative] in the near future, due to the sensitivity of this decision in terms of the relations with the rest of the parties involved in the initiative, especially the Arab ones. [Furthermore], an official and final Egyptian announcement of withdrawal would effectively spell the death of this plan, for Egypt has the largest [Arab] army, on which [the plan] to form the largest military deterrence force against Iran relies …

“Cairo evidently refrained from sending a delegation to the … meeting in Riyadh, which was attended by the Americans and aimed at advancing the efforts to form this alliance. In light of [Egypt’s] absence, and given that Cairo did not issue an official statement explaining it, we should regard the reports about its withdrawal as final, as long as there is no proof to the contrary …

“For over two years I have been warning about the danger of the ‘Arab NATO,’ and saying that, by adopting this plan, the United States is fanning the flames of the sectarian conflict between the countries of the region, while exploiting their wealth and their armies. It presents itself as a ‘force for good’ that seeks to confront the forces of ‘Islamic extremism’ in the region—applying this term only to Iran and its expansionist ambitions, and to its Shi’ite supporters in several Arab states, mainly in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, the chief of whom is obviously Hezbollah. But the covert American view transcends the boundaries of this false attitude, for the goal [of the plan] is not to protect pan-Arab security, but rather to embroil the allied countries [i.e., the members of the strategic alliance] in a sectarian war between Sunnis and Shi’ites, whose only outcome will be preserving and defending the security and interests of Israel.”

‘A deceptive attempt to drain Arab resources’

Majed Habata, a columnist for the pro-regime daily Al-Dustour, wrote: “Some say that this initiative was stillborn … but the absence of the infant’s body confirmed the diagnosis of the doctors who correctly identified this as a case of phantom pregnancy … that lasted four years …

“It is a mistake to think that America’s involvement of Qatar [in the initiative] was the only obstacle preventing this alliance from forming, in light of the boycott imposed [on Qatar] by four states (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain), and in light of its support of terrorism. It is a mistake to believe this and to disregard the many other obstacles, chief of them being Oman, which is unable to give up its passive neutrality on regional issues, especially those concerning Iran. In addition, most of the countries in this imaginary alliance have conflicts of interest [with each other] on the one hand, and with the United States on the other …

“The one sure fact is that Egypt was absent from the conference […] in Riyadh, [whose goal was] to advance the American efforts to bring together Sunni Arab allies for a confrontation with Iran. According to a Reuters report citing unnamed sources, which provided practically the only information [on the subject], Egypt had informed the United States and the other sides involved in the alliance, before the Riyadh conference, of its decision to withdraw [from the initiative]. In addition, Reuters cited another unnamed source as saying that what prompted Egypt to withdraw were its doubts regarding the seriousness of the initiative, and its uncertainty regarding Trump’s re-election next year and the possibility that his successor will drop the initiative.

“All this is idle talk, of course, since this alliance was nothing more than a phantom pregnancy. [It was] an American attempt to drain the resources of the Gulf countries, whom the American president is constantly squeezing, as he demands—with complete sincerity, or [shall we say] insolence—that they pay for what he describes as American protection. Therefore, it was only natural that Egypt should refuse to take part in this game, and disregard all pressures and all the promised benefits—just as it has opposed many previous agreements and negotiations, since [the day] its decisions began to be made in Cairo alone, and not in any other capital.”