The list of foreign officials attending Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s inauguration on Sunday spoke volumes about his shaky international standing a year after toppling the country’s first freely-elected leader.
Turnout was strong among Gulf Arab monarchies including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates who were happy to see Sisi depose President Mohamed Morsi after mass protests against his rule and then move to crush the Muslim Brotherhood. Those states are expected to announce billions more in aid to the new government any day.
The Kings of Jordan and Bahrain and the Palestinian president also attended as did the leaders of five African countries.
But no top officials from Western countries, which provide billions of dollar in military and other aid, attended the ceremony. The heads of states from the most important African countries did not attend, likely because the African Union suspended Egypt after Sisi toppled Morsi last year.
Analysts say that the make-up of the attendees suggests that Egypt’s Western allies are hesitant to fully embrace Sisi because of concerns over his crackdown on dissent. Meanwhile, some African nations feel neglected by Egypt, many of whose citizens see themselves more as Arabs than Africans.
“It is a symbolic and important reflection of the ways in which the West is still trying to engage but is obviously very concerned about the direction Egypt has taken,” said Michael Hanna, senior fellow at the New York-based Century Foundation.
Hanna said that although the AU’s suspension of Egypt may have affected the decision of some African heads of state not to attend the inauguration, other states simply might not see Sisi’s inauguration as important, “a reflection of the ways in which Egypt has neglected its relationships in Africa.”
Four of the five African leaders who congratulated Sisi either came to power by coup d’etat decades ago, have recently faced coup attempts–or both, a reminder of how Sisi came to power and of the challenge he faces in proving that he is a democrat after winning last month’s election.
The elusive men who rule Equatorial Guinea, Chad, and Eritrea are shunned by the international community and do not often receive such invitations given their lack of allies, while the president of Mali rules a nation facing divisions within its army and Islamist extremist threats in its desert expanses.
The United States only sent a senior advisor to Secretary of State John Kerry and most European countries only planned to send ambassadors.
“Just having ambassadors shows very clearly that while the governments are recognising the new transfer of power they are certainly not doing so with a huge amount of enthusiasm,” said H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Rights groups have long accused the presidents of Chad and Eritrea of subjecting opponents to arbitrary detentions and torture. The same charges have been levelled against the military-backed interim government that was installed after Morsi’s ouster, accusations it denied.
Sisi has been the country’s de facto leader since he toppled Morsi. Since then, security forces have killed hundreds of Islamists and jailed thousands of others.
The West has voiced concerns about abuses in Egypt, although none of Cairo’s allies in Washington or European capitals have taken strong measures to force change, possibly leaving Sisi some breathing room to concentrate on forging better regional ties.
“Now everyone is hoping…that gradually there will be another transition to a true democratic state, but there are some fears of another dictatorship, another coming back of the old regime,” said Hassan Nafaa, a professor of political science at Cairo University.
Egypt has been a less enthusiastic partner to fellow African states since the heady days when President Gamal Abdel Nasser welcomed liberation leaders to Cairo in the 1960s as many states gained independence from colonial rule.
Nasser convened a summit in Cairo of the Organization of African Union in 1964 attended by many heads of states of the new nation, from Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana to Julius Nyerere of what is now Tanzania.
But in his first speech to the nation as president, Sisi called Egypt “the gateway to Africa”.
A survey of security challenges facing Sisi points to the need for more engagement with the continent, said Ricardo Laremont, Professor of Political Science and Sociology at the State University of New York at Binghamton.
Among the security concerns are militants in the Sinai Peninsula using weapons that float easily across Egypt’s porous border with chaotic Libya while Al Qaeda-linked militants roam across the Sahel region south of the Sahara Desert and find common cause with the most extreme forces active in Sinai.
The future of water security in Egypt also depends on cooperation with Ethiopia, which is building a dam on a Nile River tributary after spurning an offer from Cairo for help financing the project.
“Sitting in Egypt, you have to look regionally,” said Laremont. “Sisi’s principle concern is turning around the economy, but beside doing that, he also has to worry about this security and foreign policy situation.”
Analysts say Egypt should also focus on rekindling ties with fast-growing African economies such and Senegal and Zimbabwe as Egypt has trade and investment opportunities there because of its inward looking focus since the 2011 uprising.
Egypt’s suspension from the African Union, two days after Morsi was toppled, also contributed to poor attendance by some African nations.
It would therefore have been awkward for more prominent African such as economic powerhouses, Nigeria and South Africa, to send their presidents for the inauguration.
The AU’s approval of Egypt has public relations value, says Laremont, noting that the regional body is “tremendously impotent in most capacities” and is arguably “just an assemblage of quasi autocrats.”
AU officials say a meeting of the bloc’s Peace and Security Council is required to remove the suspension and return Egypt to its normal status as a member state. The move is expected soon after Sisi takes office, according to diplomats.
Signs point to the regional body moving quickly to normalise Egypt’s status, with Sisi invited to attend the regional body’s summit later this month. But Cairo will have to work hard to change a legacy of Egyptian neglect of the continent, says Alex Vines of London-based Chatham House.
While Vines says the interim government that has just handed over power to Sisi has been conducting a “very frenetic diplomatic offensive” to secure their readmission to the AU, Egypt lags behind more stable states like Morocco in taking economic advantage of its geographical links to the continent.