How Egypt lost its soft power edge

Soft power is a blessed cultural trait that cannot be created by any ruler

Mohammed Nosseir
Mohammed Nosseir
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Egypt has always been widely renowned for its soft power, which used to shape and influence millions of Arabs - those living in the Middle East region as well as Arab emigrants abroad. Unfortunately, we have been steadily losing our clear superiority in this area over the last few decades due to hindrances created by the flailing Egyptian state. The socioeconomic and cultural edge that we used to enjoy has been diminishing - not because of advances made by other Arab countries, but as a direct result of the manipulations of Egyptian rulers.

Egypt used to be a culturally driven country where scholars, artists, authors and intellectuals in general played an essential role in shaping society and determining Egyptians’ behavior, attitudes and values. Regrettably, our rulers’ manipulations and interference have - intentionally - led to a shrinking of the role played by the ‘cultivated segments’ of our society. Egypt has never been a wealthy country, but it used to be a relatively modern one, deeply influenced by the knowledge of the well-educated segment of its society. Wealth was a privilege, but it was not a deal-breaker.

The situation described above established the foundation for Egypt’s soft power and gave us a tremendous advantage, not only across the Arab World but also in many western countries that recognized our relative weight in the region and the constructive and instrumental role we fulfilled in engaging with the rest of the world. This, in essence, was Egypt’s hidden leverage. Consecutive rulers were able to capitalize on this soft power platform to enhance Egypt’s status and reinforce its international role.

Soft power is a blessed cultural trait that cannot be created by any ruler

Mohammed Nosseir

Capitalizing on its soft power, Egypt used to lead Arab citizens from a distance by setting examples. Sometimes, Arab citizens even supported the Egyptian perspective on issues that could conflict with the policies of their own governments. The vast majority of Arabs was aware of our nitty-gritty political and socioeconomic developments - some were more knowledgeable about these issues than Egyptians themselves. Citizens of other Arab countries were eager to do business in Egypt; not only driven by profit, but also wishing to expand their presence in the region’s leading and largest country.

The richness of Egyptian intellectuals’ works (widely available in the schools and bookstores of all Arab countries) and the presence of a great number of Egyptian professionals working in almost all of the Arab countries, supported by our huge entertainment media productions, are all factors that succeeded in making millions of Arabs highly passionate about Egypt.
Unfortunately however, authoritarians and intellectuals were not able to coexist harmoniously for long! At a certain point, the rigidity of authoritarian leaders must, naturally, clash with the broad-mindedness of intellectuals. Hence, consecutive Egyptian governments have worked on manipulating intellectuals and artists with the aim of ensuring their blind support and unquestioning loyalty to the country’s rulers.

A cultural trait

A number of deliberate actions were taken to minimize the role of Egyptian intellectuals in our society. Less qualified, mediocre citizens (who can hardly be labeled as intellectuals) have consistently been appointed to replace genuine, renowned intellectuals in various governmental positions. Obviously, these positions come with advantageous financial rewards, and they are also accompanied by efforts to heavily promote the works of their occupants. This has ended in the creation of a class of unqualified opportunistic citizens who praise the ruler, along with the marginalization, and exclusion from all influential positions, of genuine intellectuals who differ with the ruler.

As a result, the media only heeds ideas that praise the ruler; artistic performances that express admiration for the ruler receive continuous media exposure. This corrupt policy has concluded in shrinking the role of our soft power, distancing and alienating many Egyptians and Arabs who are only eager to attend, or view, genuine, authentic cultural activities and performances.

Soft power is a blessed cultural trait that cannot be created by any ruler. However, rulers can easily expand or shrink the role played by intellectuals in society. Sadly, efforts expended by the State to dry out our intellectual resources have resulted in the loss of Egypt’s soft power edge. Previously, our soft power advantage was capable of resolving most of the conflicts between Arab governments and even many of society’s internal disputes. Neglecting this advantage and offering, instead, our hard power resources in exchange for financial reward has put us on an even keel with other Arab countries.

I am convinced that the wealth of Egyptian talent and intellectual productivity that we used to have in the mid- 19th and 20th century (the work of Egyptian writers, musicians, singers, artists and many others) continues to exist on a large (but hidden) scale. Unblocking our cultural channels to permit the emergence of genuinely talented intellectuals and artists will allow us to regain our soft power edge.


Mohammed Nosseir is an Egyptian liberal politician who advocates for advancing liberalism, political participation, and economic freedom. Mohammed was member of the higher committee at the Democratic Front Party from 2007 to 2012, and then member of the political bureau of the Free Egyptian Party till mid 2013. Mohammed advocates for his work through providing the Egyptian government with a number of schemes to better reform its government institutes, as well as he is a regular contributor to various Egyptian newspapers. Mohammed also has extensive experience in the private sector, working with a number of international companies assisting them in expanding their businesses in the Middle East. Mohammed graduated from Faculty of Commerce, Ain Shams University, Cairo (1986); he participated at Aspen Seminar on Leadership, Values and Good Society (2011), Eisenhower Fellow, Multi-National Program (2009) and Stanford Fellow for Democracy, Development & Rule of Law (2008).

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