Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the former head of Egypt's armed forces, has proposed a familiar (but flawed) solution to the region's emerging security problems. In a recorded address released by state media on Sunday, the president appealed for a coordinated regional military response to the rising threat posed by armed groups. Security has deteriorated across the Sinai Peninsula as a domestic insurgency waged by militant group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis has led to attacks against tourists and Egyptian security forces. The violence has spread from the peninsula to the Nile Delta and other population centers. But it was the beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts on Feb. 16, reportedly by Islamic State-affiliated militants in Libya, that spurred al-Sisi's call for not only joint military operations but also a unified Arab military to take on regional pressures.
Al-Sisi's suggestion is not new; the concept of a Pan-Arab military has been a hallmark of Egypt's post-colonial history since Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew the Egyptian monarchy in 1952. Pan-Arabism's roots reach deeper than that — to Hussein ibn Ali, the penultimate Sharif of Mecca, who led the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans in 1916 and who was the first and last claimant to the title of Sultan of the Arabs. The revolt led by ibn Ali (and encouraged by the United Kingdom and France) famously sought to create a unified Arab state from Aleppo to Aden. Ironically, these two poles of Arab culture are now home to some of the most worrisome instability and violence in the region, spurring calls for more coordinated military action by the various militaries of the Arab world's monarchial states, as well as Egypt. Another irony is that an increasingly nationalistic and powerful Turkish state is again pushing the various competing centers of Arab authority to coalesce into a more capable military union, nearly a century after ibn Ali's initial revolt allowed the United Kingdom and France to redraw the boundaries of the Mashriq — the Arab lands to the east of Egypt — and create the fractious and unstable states we see today.
Nasser saw Egypt as the lynchpin of the Middle East — caught between the Maghreb and Mashriq — and used Egypt's strong military and control of the Suez Canal after 1957 to position the country as nearly a regional hegemon. Nasser's model of pan-Arabism, a secular state backed by a strong nationalist military, was emulated across the region. Algeria, Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen followed a similar blueprint for much of period between colonialism and the 2011 Arab Spring. Syria and Yemen even entered unions with Egypt for brief periods. No doubt this is the model al-Sisi would seek for Egypt as he campaigns for action against the Islamic State and in defending Arab interests.
Support Among the Gulf States
Al-Sisi is not alone. Arab media has reported on leaks from Gulf military leaders hinting at establishing an Arab military alliance involving Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. Variations on this theme have included Morocco and Jordan as well. For the Gulf states, the reasoning is clear. For all their wealth, they are still vulnerable. Continuing to depend on the United States to guarantee their security no longer appears tenable, given the possibility of a broader U.S.-Iranian rapprochement. Saudi Arabia, using its heft as leader of the Islamic community, has recently suggested the formation of a Sunni military alliance that would include regional competitor Turkey. In a reversal of its historical attitude, Saudi Arabia wants to co-opt Turkey under a banner of coordinated Sunni opposition to Iran and to the Islamic State. This proposal carries the potential for the Saudis to rely on a minority Turkish military, rather than a competing Arab force from Egypt or an unreliable and distant backer in the United States, to help safeguard their regional interests. Whatever the proposed scenario, Cairo and Riyadh clearly are anxious about extremist groups and the potential of a more powerful Iran.
Gulf Arabs have looked to teamwork to combat an Iranian threat before. In 1981, the monarchies of the Persian Gulf enacted a broad strategic alliance structure, the Gulf Cooperation Council, following the Iranian Revolution and the start of the Iran-Iraq war. The rising economic heft of Saudi Arabia and neighboring oil exporters, coupled with Saudi Arabia's religious credentials as the birthplace of Islam and defender of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, helped the Gulf Arabs increase their regional clout. The Saudis and Egyptians have competed for leadership in the Arab world ever since, until the instability created by the 2011 uprisings left Egypt and its generals in need of financial backers. Saudi Arabia and its primary regional partners, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, financed Cairo after relations between Egypt and Qatar soured following Egypt's 2013 coup. An uneasy relationship has resulted, with Saudi Arabia keeping its former rival economically dependent but resentful.
The Islamic State as a Common Enemy
Al-Sisi's message on Sunday sought in part to leverage one of Egypt's remaining strategic advantages — the Arab world's largest military force — in order to bring Arab states together on its terms. He also tried to dismiss a recent scandal surrounding recordings of him insulting Gulf Arab leaders as a fabrication made by his enemies, and he called for brotherly states to work together to defeat the Islamic State.
The awkwardness of al-Sisi's denial does not change the concerns about the perceived rise of the Islamic State and Iran, a development that Riyadh is attempting to control. Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi came to Egypt's financial rescue as part of a larger strategy to limit the influence of mainstream Islamists, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. But the emergence of the Islamic State as a radical threat beyond Saudi control and a danger to Saudi and regional interests has necessitated a change in course. While Saudi Arabia does not want to see the Muslim Brotherhood return to power, it considers the rifts within the Gulf Cooperation Council and the radicalization of youth following the losses suffered by mainstream Islamist groups in recent years as one of the biggest threats to regional stability. In another about-face following tensions between Riyadh and Doha that existed for much of 2014, Saudi Arabia also backed Qatar's recent criticism of Egypt's hardline position against the Muslim Brotherhood.
Unfortunately, a supranational Arab or Sunni military will not be the solution to such threats. In many ways, Egypt's military superiority relative to the Gulf states has been eroded by decades of U.S. training and supplies for Arab monarchies. Capable regional militaries such as those in the Emirates and Jordan (both states that recently offered aid to Egypt to combat militants) are unlikely to be swayed by arguments predicated on their assumed frailty. Nor is the idea of Pan-Arabism any more advanced now that it was in 1916. The various dialects, religious differences, national imperatives and geographies of the Arab World defy a large military grouping of unclear leadership and resolve, no matter the technical challenges of coordinating military logistics.
The current model of power in the Middle East is changing, and Egypt and Saudi Arabia are both struggling to control the new emerging order. As all sides work to find a solution, unrealistic suggestions will continue to reflect the very real fears — and limited options — of the current centers of Arab power.