Monday,27 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1358, (24 August - 6 September 2017)
Monday,27 May, 2019
Issue 1358, (24 August - 6 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Soft power in regional politics

Many countries in the region have been using soft power to influence the ideas and actions of others, and Egypt should not be an exception, writes
Hoda Raouf

Throughout the ages, the changing nature of power has led to changes in world politics. In the information age, non-material power has become more significant, especially in the form of culture, ideology, religion or institutions, making the target of power the influencing of others’ preferences and choices through intangible tools and inducements rather than through force.

Through the use of soft power, a state can shape the values and norms of others, establishing a form of hegemony that can control others’ preferences in a subtle way. The importance of soft power comes from many sources, including the power of states not only to be measured by hard power, such as military and economic capabilities, but also by how they can influence others in less direct ways.

Moreover, in an age that is seeing the rising impact of human rights issues and media criticisms of other countries’ politics, it has become more important than ever to use less coercive practices. Finally, soft power enables states to achieve their targets at lower cost and with less resistance.

The most important aspect of employing soft power is that it can legitimate state policies in the eyes of other states. This means that a state may present itself as a model for others through an attractive culture or ideology, using this as a model for others either to follow or at least not to resist.

In some cases, states use soft power to target their influence on certain states or affect their domestic affairs, even spreading ideas that can affect their historical values.   

According to the US commentator Joseph Nye, the countries that are likely to gain the most from soft power in the information age are those with the greatest access to multiple channels of communication and thus those that have more influence over how issues are framed. This is applicable on both the global and the regional level, on both of which states may wish to promote their influence. On the regional level of the Middle East, it can be seen how states such as Iran and Qatar have employed soft power to achieve foreign policy targets.

Iran, for example, uses ideology as a source of soft power and a tool in its regional foreign policy. It projects itself as a revolutionary regime against the US and Israel and enhances its relations with Shiite groups in the Arab countries of Bahrain, Lebanon and Yemen in order to use them as pressure groups against their own homelands.

Iran uses this ideology in order to persuade others that they share the same interests and values as it does. It presents itself as the representative of the Shiites in the Middle East, aiming to persuade them that it defends their interests and to convince them that its own national interests are their interests too. This was clear when Iran interfered in Saudi affairs by criticising Saudi Arabia’s execution of the Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr in 2016.

Qatar, which has regional ambitions exceeding its geo-political stature, has employed the media to present itself as a defender of the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, using its wealth to help it to do so. It has also employed its Aljazeera TV channel to broadcast misinformation about Egypt after the 30 June Revolution, using the media to put pressure on the Egyptian regime and producing documentaries targeting the Egyptian army to damage trust between Egyptian citizens and the armed forces.

Qatar has tried to employ such non-material resources to influence the values and norms of people in other countries in order to put pressure on their political regimes and thus change or alter decisions. It has used such soft power in an attempt to set the domestic political agenda of other countries.

So states employ soft power in two ways, either to project themselves as a model for others to admire and follow or to use such power to attack other countries. For Egypt, it is important to work on two parallel tracks. The first is to restore Egypt’s soft power in the region through presenting the country as an example to follow, particularly through the example given by Egypt’s culture and media as well as by increasing activities with the Mediterranean region and North and Sub-Saharan Africa. There should be a national strategy targeting the renaissance of Egyptian soft power.

This first track would then lead to the second one, which would use the soft power of the state to stand up against any external interference affecting Egyptian norms and values.

The writer is a political analyst in the International Relations Department at Cairo University.

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