Sunday,22 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1216, (2 - 8 October 2014)
Sunday,22 July, 2018
Issue 1216, (2 - 8 October 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Recovering Egypt’s historic regional role

While the world is coming round to Egypt’s fight against Islamic extremism, Egypt still needs to focus on its fundamentals — good governance and sound economy — if it wants to fully recover its regional prowess, writes Magda Shahin

Al-Ahram Weekly

Egypt has passed through a prolonged three-year critical period, including two successive revolutions, losing much influence and leverage on the domestic as well as the regional level. Many would like to believe that such weakening has rendered Egypt less important, and less relevant, to the region and its partners. In addition, the continued fluid situation in the Middle East and the apparent disengagement of the US from the region diminish the interest in the region altogether and lead to a decreasing role for Egypt.

I argue that this is only half the truth; Egypt’s role and impact cannot be discounted. The successful trip of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to New York is vivid proof that the country continues to be a heavyweight amidst a highly precarious regional situation. Libya is nurturing terrorism and falling into the hands of extreme Islamists, the Gaza Strip is another highly troubled area, added to the emerging Iraqi crisis and its apparent tragic disintegration, Syria’s continued and aggravated civil war, and last but not least the ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) syndrome. This made Egypt’s long fight against terrorism and its search for a new trajectory highly relevant to the region and the world.

However, to regain fully its traditional regional role and status, Egypt needs to succeed on three fronts. First, Egypt needs to successfully fight its Islamist insurgency and the growing trend to “instrumentalise” religion in the pursuit of political and financial gains. Second, Egypt needs to establish within its borders mature democratic processes and sound governance and promote them in the region and internationally. Third, Egypt can regain its role only if it manages to foster a strong and competitive economy that gives it the means to pursue its policies.

The following deals with these three objectives and suggests policies to achieve them.

Regarding the security dimension, the main issue is not only to fight terrorism to regain needed stability, but also to eliminate terrorist activity and anything that may lead to its revival. This is not an easy challenge, as the Islamist insurgency is fed by vested interests that exploit multiple frustrations — political, economic and societal. These groups promise heaven in return for the restoration of idealised political regimes from the Middle Ages. Islamist insurgency is deeply entrenched in society and has been tremendously aided since Mohamed Morsi’s 2012-13 regime.

Morsi’s encouragement of jihadist activity in Sinai, conveying the sense that the Peninsula was a safe haven for jihadists the world over, has turned Sinai into a terrorist wonderland. As a result, Sinai became a springboard for organising attacks against Egypt. Limited and contained at the time of the Muslim Brotherhood regime, these attacks increased exponentially, targeting the army and the police in clear retaliation for the rejection of the Brotherhood regime. This intensification of terrorist activity is a clear reflection of the fact that the enabling environment provided by the Muslim Brotherhood while in power allowed jihadists to grow stronger. It is also a well-known fact that Salafi jihadists in Sinai are very much influenced by Al-Qaeda ideology and operations. The US has acknowledged the danger caused by jihadists in Sinai and pronounced Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis a terrorist group, stopping short, however, of linking it to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Egypt cannot afford to have Sinai become a safe haven for jihadists. Egypt has a long history and track record of responsible membership of the international community. It cannot have a piece of its territory become like the Gaza Strip, Somalia or Mali. Neither can Egypt tolerate the eruption of a civil war like in Syria. The Islamist and jihadist terrorist threat is existential and requires that the state eliminate it in a decisive manner. This is a history-shaping moment for Egypt that will determine the future of the country and its citizens.

Today, US authorities and the international community at large may understand better what Egypt had tried to explain all along — that various jihadists movements are intrinsic allies, often work closely together in pursuit of broader aims. As an armed movement associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis communicates with and is supportive to jihadists in Gaza, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, the Maghreb of North Africa, and elsewhere. Porous borders with Libya, the newest hub for Islamist terrorism in the region, add another constraint on Egyptian authorities and underline Egypt’s vital regional role. Egypt is extremely nervous at the mounting threat emanating from eastern Libya, notably the smuggling of weapons, burgeoning jihadist networks, the targeting of Egyptian workers in Libya (notably Copts), and the participation of Libyans in terrorist attacks inside Egypt.

The US and the international community are recalibrating their positions towards Egypt, recognising that Egypt’s anti-terror policy on the borders with Gaza and Libya is in tune with the fight against international terrorism. Egypt’s domestic war against terrorist organisations is only a battlefront in a wider war. Egypt’s triumph in its domestic war against terrorism is largely conditioned on containing Islamist threats emanating from Libya. Developments in Libya compound the challenges facing Egypt while underlining its critical regional role. Egypt will not stop from intervening directly, if this is necessary to protect its national security.

The Egyptian approach to the Syrian conflict is more complex. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt had sought to “Islamise” the Syrian revolution, rendering a post-Morsi paradigm shift on Syria almost necessary. Egyptian diplomats proclaim a moderate position on the Syrian file that qualifies them for the role of regional mediator between the Syrian regime and the “moderate opposition”. Egyptian mediation in Syria isn’t a very far-fetched notion. In addition to Iran, Egypt is the only regional player to maintain diplomatic channels with the Bashar Al-Assad regime, as well as some factions of the opposition. In fact, the Egyptian diplomatic establishment perceives Syria as a potential niche to start rebuilding Egypt’s regional role, which is crucial to Egypt’s bargaining power with international stakeholders, including the US. Egypt, however, will have to await the outcome of the war against ISIS, which has already begun in full swing.

Moreover, Washington’s restructuring of its relations with Tehran worry Egyptians and Saudis of any potential US deal with Tehran. The American compromise with Iran over Iraq is used as a case in point. The US-Iran rapprochement, which some consider “as one of the biggest geopolitical shifts since the Cold War”, according the British Financial Times, puts Egypt as well as Saudi Arabia on alert.

Referring to democracy and the rule of law, the overwhelming victory of Al-Sisi in the elections was not to re-establish the security state, which in spite of everything some Egyptians longed for in light of the dramatic situation of the last few years. The election of Al-Sisi was for the purpose of restoring stability through respect for the rule of law and human rights. Egyptians are very much convinced that security goes hand in hand with democracy and good governance. Egyptians have not gone through two revolutions and borne the sufferings of the last few years to go back to a corrupt police state. Since ousting Morsi, Egypt has strictly adhered to a clear and transparent roadmap, which denotes Egypt’s determination to build a different future. The roadmap, unveiled 3 July 2013, establishes justice and democracy as fundamentals for governance. Holding parliamentary elections, a salient point in the roadmap, is the next assured step. Though the roadmap also added the formation of a committee to foster “national reconciliation”, there is an overwhelming belief among the Egyptian people that the country is not yet ready for that. The polarisation in Egyptian society and the hatred planted at the time of the Islamist government is still carved in the mind and feelings of the Egyptians, who are known for their excessive emotions.

Accountability, transparency and the fight against corruption are high on the agenda of the new president. The president himself will be put under the spotlight and will be closely monitored. The youth that were the missing variable in past equations have become an integral part of national life, and are very conscious of their rights and commitments. Egypt has known a long tradition of rule of law and independence of the judiciary that is exemplary in the region. This should be used more efficiently to amputate any form of corruption in the government, public or the private sector. That the judiciary stood up to the Muslim Brotherhood is proof enough that it is capable of honouring its responsibility in the future and protecting Egypt under the rule of law.

Despite the enormous challenges, the 2014 constitution provides a solid basis for a fresh start. With appropriate safeguards in place, Egypt’s judges and prosecutors can ensure that they play a key and positive role in the transition to a new democratic state that is better able to protect the rights of all citizens. The days have gone when the executive had absolute power to interfere in the activities of other branches of government. The constitution guarantees the exercise of checks and balances by the three branches. The legislative branch will have to ensure and supervise sound and rigorous implementation.

Lastly, it is vital for Egypt to acknowledge that the two foregoing dimensions — that of security and governance — are necessary but not sufficient to reinstate and preserve Egypt’s role in the region. Egypt will remain vulnerable in light of an ailing economy. Hence, Egypt needs a comprehensive framework where the three dimensions are in accord and work in harmony in a thriving environment as the survival of Egypt cannot constantly depend on external factors of assistance and be at their behest.

It is true that the international community at large and the region cannot afford the demise of Egypt’s role as a regional power, but it is equally true that such a role — if dependent on external factors — will only keep Egypt barely floating. By having a strong and competitive economy Egypt will be able to sustain and strengthen its regional role.

It is incumbent upon Egypt to sign the IMF loan, not because of its magnitude, as the amount of the loan is minimal compared to the amount Egypt effectively needs and gets. We should not be content with the false argument that Egypt can do away with the IMF agreement. Egypt needs to sign this loan agreement to help adjust its economy, which will unavoidably compound the hardships already experienced by an already fatigued and desperate population. But this is the right moment. Egyptians see clearly a window of opportunity opening up. People have trust in the new president and he is determined to move forward and raise Egypt to a different level. Reaching an agreement with the IMF remains a vote of confidence even for Egypt’s closest allies. Everybody looks at the IMF for moving ahead, even the Gulf countries.

Egypt itself, on the basis of the “ownership” principle, should design a credible homegrown programme and begin its implementation and then call on the IMF and the international community to support it. What the government has initiated today with raising fuel and electricity prices are steps in the right direction. Egypt, however, remains in need of an “economic roadmap” and not ad hoc actions. Such a vision and roadmap would need to include clear and transparent public and corporate governance. Egypt’s private capitalism will need to mature beyond cronyism and heavy reliance on state connections. The roadmap would need also to factor in credible and economically rational equity considerations that foster the development of a strong and educated middle class.

Egypt’s next phase will not be an easy one. Yet with a new president and the intentions of complementing the roadmap with parliamentary elections, Egypt has acquired a certain level of legitimacy and identity that were absent for a while.

Egyptians see today a window of opportunity opening up. We ardently hope that the government-to-government support coming from the Gulf will help mitigate the social costs of the structural adjustments that need to be made, and hopefully by then we will move from crisis to economic reform. By starting to address these problems, we will be able to watch real recovery on the economic front, which will rightly boost and sustain our regional power.

The writer is director of the Prince Alwaleed Centre for American Studies and Research at the American University in Cairo.

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