On February 24th, Vladimir Putin initiated a ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine. Despite diplomatic attempts to prevent escalation, the Russian president moved to enforce his military grip on the former Soviet republic. While much has already been said about the potential consequences of the Russo-Ukrainian War on NATO, on other Eastern European republics, and on the West more generally, there have been few publications about the potential destabilization of the MENA region. This article explores the implications the invasion of Ukraine may have for Egypt.
The closure of Ukrainian ports following Russia’s attack and the cancellation of grain supplies from the Black Sea region means that Egypt has been rendered vulnerable as it is Ukraine’s primary importer of wheat. Food shortages in Egypt are known to be a catalyst of political uprisings, as was seen in 2011. Political uprisings in Egypt were in part due to the spiking price of food. More recently, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released a report showing that 2022 has been experiencing the most significant increase in food prices since 2011. One does not need to be an expert in Malthusian logic to realize that the Covid-19 pandemic has had a tremendous impact on the supply chain. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine complicates the global food shortage situation since both countries are major exporters of wheat. Egypt is already thinking about diversifying its wheat sources, however, there is no promise it can purchase it at the same low price as it did with Ukraine. As a result, Egypt’s ability to maintain a subsidized price for its citizens is uncertain. Although Egypt’s poverty rate dropped across 2018 and 2019, the 2020 pandemic saw it rise once again from 29.2 to 32 percent of its population. This means that with the combination of wheat shortages and nearly one-third of the population living beneath the poverty threshold, the country is extremely fragile.
In contrast to their food insecurity, some MENA countries have an advantage when it comes to energy. Russia supplies around 40 percent of the European Union’s (EU) gas imports. Since the invasion of Ukraine, Europe has been forced to diversify its supply, which in part has resulted in EU gas prices rising by a staggering 70 percent. This presents an opportunity for certain MENA countries to step forward and help Europe wean off from its dependence on Russian natural gas. This, however, is unlikely to happen. Although it is true that Egypt is not currently connected to any European pipeline network, it would not be in its interest to seriously consider it. Egypt’s main priority is to maintain its long-term contracts with China and to ensure that these contracts are free of problems. To put it into perspective, Egypt’s exports to China constitute 73 percent of its total exports, which include crude oil and fuel. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi made it clear that Egypt will support the Belt and Road Initiative. In terms of oil, Russia is the EU’s biggest partner. With the price of a barrel of oil reaching $112, the highest since 2014. Egypt could play a small but significant role with other MENA countries to aid Europe. In turn, this would prevent inflation, which eventually will have a backlash for Egypt. Energy will definitely be a bargaining chip in the Ukrainian war.
There is mutual trade between Egypt and China, but the Sino-Egyptian cooperation is highly disproportionate. Egypt represents less than 5 percent of China’s trade with the MENA region, meaning that China is more important to Egypt than the reverse. This means that China’s influence in negotiations is much higher. The Arab Barometer research network maintains that citizens’ attitudes towards democracy have shifted. The exacerbation of COVID-induced precarity, unemployment, and inequality could therefore turn into calls for change. One thing which the Chinese model of autocratic governance can guarantee is significant economic growth. Analyzed through this lens, the war in Ukraine appears to be an ideal scenario for Egypt to shift towards a system that ensures economic prosperity, even at the expense of democratic values. At the end of the day, people care whether they can have a dignified standard of living.
If Egypt were to adopt this model, two things could happen. Firstly, extremist groups could come into power promising such changes. Qatar and Turkey have historically offered a safe haven for the exiled members of the Brotherhood. This, in turn, would place Israel’s security once again at the forefront. Secondly, the navigability of the Suez Canal might be at stake. As of now, the United States has not asked for its closure to Russian vessels. Osama Rabie, the Head of the Suez Canal Authority stated that passage through the Canal was not subject to political fluctuations. The bottom line is that the Russian invasion, despite apparently being confined into a region, is shaking the seemingly stable world. The Suez Canal could be the trigger that unleashes many domestic issues affecting Egypt’s government, the MENA region, and the world. In conclusion, the Ukrainian war is a destabilizing factor not only in Europe but also in Egypt. This year has already seen the highest prices of food since 2011. Egypt is a major importer of Russian and Ukrainian wheat in a society that deeply depends on this supply, and the combination of this with an increasing poverty rate is potentially incendiary. Furthermore, while some MENA countries could aid Europe in terms of its reliance on Russian gas, this would present a conflict of interests to Egypt considering its burgeoning cooperation with China. Egypt’s contracts with China do not give Egypt much room for political leverage. . The conflagration of all these issues means that a destabilized Egypt is possible, if not likely. An unstable Egypt could present a wider set of issues regarding the stability of the entirety of the Middle East and North Africa.