Sun, Aug 07, 2016 - Page 7 News List

Egypt trying to find its way back to regional glory in Middle East

By Liam Stack  /  NY Times News Service, CAIRO

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.

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