Whatever is the matter with Egypt?

Under Mubarak, Egypt was stagnant. Since his political demise, Egypt has been a drift

Hisham Melhem
Hisham Melhem
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‘Whatever happened to Egypt’? The American official exclaiming in dismay at Egypt’s stunning diminishing regional role in recent years. He was lamenting what he termed Egypt’s retrenchment from its previous status as the Arab world’s political powerhouse that exercised regional leadership, influencing and shaping events and mediating conflicts. Egypt’s role in those bygone years as a regional influential was supplemented by what we can call now a huge reservoir of ‘soft power’. Egypt’s intellectuals, novelists, musicians and artists created pioneering and experimental works in fiction, and theatre, edgy cinema and re-invigorated classic Arabic music by creatively incorporating western instruments and styles. Cairo inspired and Alexandria enchanted generations of Arabs in modern times.

The lament came in the context of a conversation about the utter failure of Arab states and societies to extinguish the fires of civil wars and sectarian strife that threatens the very being of some states like Syria and Iraq, and the growing, and at times suffocating influences of regional powers like Iran and Turkey in shaping and maybe determining the future of these majority Arab states. For generations Egypt was a political and cultural power to be reckoned with in the Levant, and the Arabian Peninsula, in addition to its immediate African environment. But today Egypt is not in the same league as Israel, Turkey and Iran. Egypt can barely shield itself from the chaos of Libya, and unable to influence Gaza on its border except by shutting the crossings. Under Mubarak, Egypt was stagnant. Since his political demise, Egypt has been a drift.

The vibrant cultural and artistic life of Egypt between the two World Wars began to shrivel during the autocratic reign of Gamal Abdel Nasser beginning in the 1950’s until his death in 1970. The decline continued under Anwar Sadat, and reached a state of stagnation during the long aimless years of Hosni Mubarak’s rule. The signs of decline, even decadence were everywhere. The case of Nasr Abu Zayd is telling. This academic’s modern interpretation of the Qur'an created a storm of protests among the ultra-conservative Muslims, culminating in an absurd court ruling against him as an apostate. What followed is the stuff of skewed surrealism. And since under Sharia law a Muslim woman cannot marry a non-Muslim, and since Abu Zayd has been stripped of his religion, a court declared in 1995 the marriage of Abu Zayd and Ibtihal Younis null and void.

Under Mubarak, Egypt was stagnant. Since his political demise, Egypt has been a drift

Hisham Melhem

The decision forced Abu Zayd to seek refuge in the Netherlands. The case against Abu Zayd was part of an assault on liberal and secular intellectuals, professors and journalists waged by radical Islamists. It took an act of violence against the Egyptian icon Naguib Mahfouz winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature to show the depth of depravity some radical Islamists are willing to go to. During the controversy over Salman Rushdie’s novel the Satanic Verses, Islamist extremists remembered that some of Mahfouz’s novels such as Children of Gebelawi أولاد حارتنا were considered blasphemous, and dispatched two young men to kill the 82 year old author. They almost succeeded. That assassination attempt was rich with symbolism. By knifing Mahfouz, the Islamist extremists were stabbing the modernity and liberalism that he embodied. That single act of cultural sacrilege was an indictment of the whole Mubarak era.

Living in denial

Watching Iran and Turkey throwing their weight around, Egypt is reduced to complaining and chafing. The country is surviving economically only because of the kindness of outsiders. And although Egypt is no longer the cultural gift to the Arabs, boasting mediocre universities, unreadable newspapers, and outrageous television programs, still its political and intellectual leaders continue to live in denial of their predicament. Egypt’s political leaders, still speak as if their country is entitled to be treated with the deference reserved for pivotal, powerful ancient cultures. In this skewed Egyptian view of reality, Egypt is ‘entitled’ to Arab largess, because the Arab Gulf states need Egypt to balance Iran and Turkey. Egypt is ‘entitled’ to U.S. economic and military aid because of the peace treaty with Israel and because Egypt is supposedly important for America’s strategic interests in the Middle East. The bitter reality many Egyptians find it impossible to admit, is that a country that is not in full control of its own territory cannot aspire to play a regional role. Forty two years ago the Egyptian army crossed the Suez Canal and breached the supposedly impenetrable Bar Lev line and battled the Israeli Army occupying Saini. Today the Egyptian Army is engaged in battles in Sanai, but the enemy is a viscous home grown Islamist Insurgency.

A badly needed celebration…

Last week, amid great deal of pump and ceremony and hyper nationalism Egypt celebrated the opening of what they called a ‘new Suez Canal’, which was in fact a parallel channel running one third the length of the Canal. It was an impressive engineering feat achieved and paid for by Egyptians, even though many economists doubted that it will live up to the official hype that it will double the annual revenues in few years . President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi used hyperbole called it ‘an additional artery of prosperity for the world’. But the Sisi government, after two years in power over a divided country, battling a growing insurgency with greater brute force, and not meeting the minimal expectations of millions of disenfranchised Egyptians, needed the celebration and its political and symbolic importance. That’s what prompted Sisi to say ‘Egyptians needed to confirm to themselves and to the world that they still can’.

And a bloody day

But the celebrations came few days after scores of extremist Islamists and soldiers were killed in fierce fighting in Northern Sinai. It was another ugly reminder that the Sinai Province, formerly known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, a local terrorist group that pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS) and other extremist Islamists will not end any time soon, and that it will likely increase in ferocity. Rarely a day passes by without casualties. Few months ago the casualties were in single digits; today they are in double digits. Egypt’s low intensity civil strife can only get worse in the absence of a major shift in the counterinsurgency strategy of the Sisi government which is solely based on the application of brute military force, instead of a multipronged approach that includes political and economic incentives to a large alienated block of Egyptians. Brian Katulis and Mokhtar Awad, Two astute observers of Egypt summarized Egypt’s dilemma thus: ’Radical Islamist groups are taking root in a toxic environment of incitement by the brotherhood and its radical Salafist allies. The spectrum of the opposition’s zero-sum politics on one end and regime repression on the other has hindered possibilities for national reconciliation’.

A strategic dialogue with a difficult friend

Last week’s resumption of the strategic dialogue between Egypt and the United States, which was accompanied by the arrival of eight American made F-16s, and the visit by Secretary of State John Kelly and his meeting with President Sisi is a clear indication that the Obama administration, after dithering for a long time, has decided not to let its concerns with the poor state of human rights in Egypt stand in the way of resuming full military cooperation with the Sisi government. The U.S. also agreed to resume the ‘Bright Star’ military maneuvers with the Egyptian armed forces, which were suspended in 2013 following Sisi’s overthrow of the Mursi government. It is ironic that American officials believe that the Egyptians don’t need F-16s or other conventional expensive weapon systems to combat terrorism in Sinai, just as they don’t believe that large military maneuvers to deter conventional threats are warranted, but nonetheless, they are reluctantly trying to slowly convince a ‘prestige army’ to overcome its obsession with competing with the Israeli forces for big military systems.

Secretary Kerry, delivered the obligatory and pro-forma statement about America’s concerns about violations of human rights of peaceful activists and journalists, and the overall smothering of what’s left of political life in Egypt. Kerry’s visit to Cairo came in the context of growing conviction in Washington that not engaging President Sisi, while simultaneously pushing him on human rights, runs the risk of allowing Egypt to drift further towards greater civil strife. Already, some American officials say that Sisi’s counter terror strategy in Sinai is failing and that it will drive Egypt towards greater disorder.

One of the reasons, conditions in the Arab East are so troubling is the marginalization of Egypt in recent decades. It will take Egypt many years to regain its previous regional leadership role, at least in the political/security domain, and the first step is to defeat the terror networks by pursuing a comprehensive strategy against extremists that balances the security requirements and Human rights imperatives. Conditions in the region have changed radically in the last few years, and Egypt’s return to its old unique position in the Middle East may not be possible. Certainly it will not be possible as long as the Egyptian decision makers and opinion makers continue to live in denial of their predicament. They have to collectively and critically ask themselves: What is the matter with Egypt?

Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter: @hisham_melhem

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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