In a televised speech, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, a general turned head of state, warned Egyptians that they lived in a broken country surrounded by enemies who would never leave them alone.
“Take a good look at your country,” he said during the speech in May. “This is the semblance of a state, and not a real state.”
Egypt needed law and order and strong institutions if it was to reverse its downward spiral and become “a state that respects itself and is respected by the world,” he said.
While rare in its bluntness, al-Sisi’s assessment is widely shared by Egyptians.
After five years of political and economic turmoil, a sense of gloom hangs over the country. Traditionally a leader of the Arab world, politically and culturally, and home to a quarter of its population, Egypt has become inward-looking and politically marginalized in a way not seen in generations.
“In the past, Nasser was deciding war or peace. Sadat was deciding peace or war,” said Nabil Fahmy, a former Egyptian ambassador to the US, referring to two influential former Egyptian presidents: Gamal Abdel Nasser, a Pan-Arab icon, and Anwar Sadat, who made peace with Israel. “The Arabs were running after us when we decided to do something.”
No more, said Fahmy, who was the Egyptian minister of foreign affairs after the 2013 military ouster of Egypt’s first elected president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. “Egypt is overwhelmed by our domestic situation.”
With searing regional crises in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, and the battle against the Islamic State, Egypt is seen as having little a productive role to play. Saudi Arabia and Iran, fierce regional and sectarian rivals, have rushed to fill the void, launching into a potentially dangerous competition for regional dominance.
For Egypt, it is a sharp reversal, with no immediate prospects of reclaiming the country’s former status.
Since it made peace with Israel in 1979, Egypt has served as the fulcrum of US influence in the Arab world. The Egyptian and US militaries have cooperated closely for decades, and Egypt went to war against former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein alongside US forces in 1991. Cairo long served as an important mediator between Israel and the Palestinians — and among Palestinian factions — although it began to abdicate that role by backing Israel against Hamas in 2014.
However, Egypt’s withdrawal from regional matters has diminished its value to the US, which has provided it with more than US$76 billion in foreign aid since 1948.
“Egypt is primarily seen in Washington as a problem and not as a source of solutions,” said Issandr el-Amrani, North Africa project director for the International Crisis Group. “If it wasn’t for the military relationship and the Pentagon’s preference for having things like fast access through the Suez Canal, it’s clear there are elements of the [US President Barack] Obama administration that don’t care much for al-Sisi and his regime and its domestic pattern of repression and human rights abuses.”
Egypt’s influence was long a product of both its military and cultural might. It was a beacon of Arab unity after the tide of European colonialism ebbed in the 20th century, helping build up its neighbors and founding the Arab League, a pioneering effort at regional cooperation that today is seldom effective. Its writers, artists and filmmakers became iconic in the region. Its judges and clerics decided important matters of Muslim law.
Amr Moussa, a former Egyptian foreign minister and Arab League chief who ran for president in 2012, said he doubted there would be “any more foreign adventures,” given the “major problems we are facing.”
That has to change, he added.
“The role of Egypt is a must,” he said. “It is a necessity in order to build a balance with Iran and with Turkey.”
However, the only way to do that “is the reform of Egypt itself and rebuilding its soft power,” he said.
Before it can rebuild, Egypt will have to address a long list of problems. It is at war with a local affiliate of the Islamic State in the Sinai Peninsula. The economy veers from one crisis to the next, hobbled by the collapse of tourism.
The number of tourists has dropped by 59.9 percent since June last year, according to government figures. More than half of the hotels in Sharm el-Sheikh, a resort once favored by package tour operators and peacemakers alike, have closed, according to the tourism federation.
Egypt has stayed afloat in part thanks to financial support from Persian Gulf nations such as Saudi Arabia, which has given Cairo more than US$25 billion, although that lifeline is now threatened by plunging oil prices.
Its alliance with the US has been strained by disagreements over human rights abuses under al-Sisi and the removal of Morsi.
Fahmy said he considered quieting Western concerns over Morsi’s removal, portraying it as “defending the revolution,” to be one of the country’s foreign policy successes.
Egypt’s relationship with Israel is also strong, but it has done little to respond to the growing list of regional crises.
“At the top leadership level, Egypt just doesn’t have the bandwidth or the luxury of focusing on regional affairs,” Amrani said.
Top officials are focused more on immediate threats, like lawlessness next door in Libya and the construction of a Nile dam in Ethiopia.
In retrospect, Egypt might have played an outsize role in past years, as its close ties with the US “boosted its role beyond its actual weight,” he added.
While Washington has generally low expectations of Egypt in regional crises, it does think Cairo can be influential in neighboring Libya, where the al-Sisi administration wants a stable, non-Islamist state to emerge from the chaotic and fragmented political landscape. And it values Egypt’s ability to let US ships and airplanes pass quickly through the Suez Canal or Egyptian airspace.
Moussa said he believed Egypt’s future might lie in an ever-closer relationship with Saudi Arabia, which, despite growing budgetary pressures, has become the country’s financial benefactor after deciding that “Egypt will have to be saved.”
With a leadership vacuum in a chaotic region, Egypt and Saudi Arabia might be able to keep a non-Arab country such as Iran, Turkey or Israel from calling the shots, Moussa said.
“I don’t believe that after the — I don’t want to say the withdrawal of Egypt — but the role of Egypt was not inherited,” he said. “There is no one single country that has emerged to say: ‘I can lead this region.’”
Additional reporting by Nour Youssef
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