While Egypt’s regime and its sometime allies in the Persian Gulf share much in common—Sunni Islam, a pro-American outlook, antipathy to Islamist groups, and security cooperation with Israel—its regional priorities are fundamentally different, with important consequences. Eric Trager explains:
[M]uch to its allies’ chagrin, Egypt hasn’t become the anchor of a broader Sunni Arab alliance against Iran. Instead, President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi has charted his own course—one that sometimes aligns with this Gulf allies’ interests and at other times contradicts them, but which always follows the same pattern: Sisi supports states whenever they are in conflict with non-state actors.
Sisi’s foreign-policy outlook is . . . an extension of his domestic one. At home, Sisi sees himself as a strongman combating those who seek chaos, foremost among them the Muslim Brotherhood. According to the Egyptian government’s narrative, Sisi “saved” Egypt from the Brotherhood, which seeks the collapse of the Egyptian government and the establishment of an Islamist theocracy. . . . Sisi fleshed this out in his September 2016 address at the United Nations General Assembly, when he defined terrorism not as violence against civilian populations by non-state actors but as “a threat to the entity of the state.” To bolster Sisi at home, Egypt’s pro-government media routinely highlight the violence in Libya, Yemen, and Syria as examples of what might happen if the Islamists are allowed to challenge the Egyptian state.
Due to his strong preference for state actors over non-state ones, Sisi has diverged sharply from his Gulf allies regarding the Syrian conflict. The Gulf states have tended to see the Syrian conflict in terms of their broader concerns regarding Iran’s expanding regional influence, and they have strongly supported the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad’s Iranian-backed regime. . . .
Sisi, however, is less concerned about Iran’s regional influence than he is about the fallout if Sunni Islamist groups [fighting Assad] gain the upper hand, since, from Sisi’s standpoint, these rebels often look similar to the Islamists that he is fighting at home, and he has increasingly shown his preference for Assad. . . . [I]n October, Cairo supported a Russian UN Security Council resolution [on Syria] that Saudi Arabia strongly opposed, and a few days later it hosted the Syrian intelligence chief for talks that, according to Syria’s news agency, concluded with an agreement to “strengthen coordination in the fight against terrorism.” Egyptian-Saudi ties have been frigid ever since.