Restoring Egypt’s soft power
Hassan Abou Taleb, Wednesday 18 Dec 2013
The draft constitution is said to have restored Egypt's 'soft power,' in being a model for others to emulate. But is this enough for the country to regain its proper regional role?

A key phrase used by Amr Moussa at the conclusion of the work of the 50-Member Committee tasked with redrafting the suspended 2012 Constitution, and that resulted in an entirely different constitution, was that the new draft restores Egypt’s "soft power," since the proposed document safeguards the social rights of all strata in society and commits the state to protecting freedoms.

This general definition of the new constitution opens the door for a new regional role for Egypt as a model that can be copied, because it is coherent and pioneering and benefits both citizens and the state. No doubt, Egypt’s regional role took a back seat over the past decade and reviving it and making it more dynamic and effective has been a serious challenge for all Egyptians, irrespective of their social, intellectual or political position.

This challenge is compounded by the hostility and focus of some countries opposed to the deep political transformations taking place in Egypt, who generously fund a few Egyptians opposed to the 30 June revolution to carry out terrible terrorist acts, in order to obstruct political progress and undermine the plan for democratic transformation. Also, to thwart hope in the future and keep the country in a state of tension and chaos.

While finalising the constitution amid an atmosphere of political, economic and security instability that is felt by one and all is an admirable national achievement, this step alone is not enough. What is needed and expected from all Egyptian forces that are active and genuinely patriotic and committed to the principles and goals of the 30 June revolution is to make the day of referendum on the constitution a democratic event by all measures of the word, whether in terms of broad voter turnout or a sweeping majority approving the new constitution.

Just as Egyptians from across the political spectrum were a model of a sweeping popular revolution and overwhelming mass action as witnessed on 30 June, they are now asked to strengthen this model once again and strongly and eloquently respond to all naysayers at home and abroad. And thus, send a strong message to the whole world that Egyptians are the decision makers and capable of protecting their homeland and carving their future. They are the most capable in confronting any challenges, no matter what the source or scale of conspiracy and betrayal by some inside the country against their own country and people.

While having an effective constitutional and political model that supports democratic transformation and reconstructs institutions according to the demands of the people’s revolution is a necessity for the home front, that alone is not enough to restore the regional role and stature that Egypt deserves. There is a need to end isolation and begin positive regional interaction on the issues, crises and transformations that are quickly occurring on several tracks.

Over the past three years, internal pressures and transformations were the top priority of decision makers, as well as the citizenry and civil society. In fact, at times it forced voluntary withdrawal from asserting minimum influence or attempting to influence regional issues and crises that directly affect Egypt’s supreme national interests, both directly and strategically.

Perhaps what happened and continues in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Libya are stark examples of Egypt’s voluntary withdrawal and sitting on the fence, or at best moving on the periphery ineffectively. And at times, even submitting to the positions and commitments of certain countries that pose a threat to Egypt and its interests. At other times, Egypt’s moves on issues that directly affect Egypt’s very existence were lacklustre and ineffective. Examples include Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam, Egypt’s water rights, relations with Sudan and South Sudan, and the Palestinian cause. The examples are myriad.

Based on various statements by politicians from across the political spectrum there is agreement that restoring Egypt’s role in the Arab world and region is an urgent task, and the responsibility here is not only to be shouldered by the government but all political forces, civil society and intellectuals who understand the importance and necessity of developing and strengthening Egyptian-Arab ties. So too for artists and media personalities.

Unfortunately, many youth activist groups give little weight to pan-nationalist ties between Egypt and its Arab environment.They mostly ignore the fact that the influence and stature of state and society are essentially rooted in the ability to positively influence and engage in various regional issues. Both are related to ending the current state of isolationism, taking initiative, expanding political horizons and continuous engagement on several issues, as well as participating with ideas and efforts to find solutions for current issues.

Six weeks ago when a delegation from the Syrian coalition opposing Bashar Al-Assad’s regime was attending a meeting at the Arab League, which included renowned political and intellectual figures, including Michel Kilo and Borhan Ghalyoun, the Syrian delegation realised that interest in Syrian affairs among Egyptians — whether the youth, politicians or political party members — was at a bare minimum. Also, that many had no knowledge of the main developments on the Syrian scene. The delegation had hoped Egypt would prioritise the Syrian issue, arguing that events in Syria affect Egypt’s interests and national security. This is a fact.

I believe Egyptian general interest in issues that directly affect our national security is minimal and does not match our political circumstances. For example, who cares about events in Iraq which are quickly veering towards grave social, political and religious fragmentation and are on the brink of a grueling civil war? Who is interested in developments in Yemen where intense efforts are underway to break up the country and undermine its unity? Who is following the explosive situation in north and east Lebanon? Who is scrutinising the deal between Iran and the West regarding the former’s nuclear programme, and the new US strategy of containing nuclear Iran and reintegrating it into the world community while accepting a regional role for Tehran that is similar to the policeman of the Gulf?

The existence of foundations and principles of Egypt’s soft power through culture, art and institutional tradition is no longer enough by themselves; action and initiative are the factors that confirm or deny this role. Without an active political model, conscious action and continuous engagement with the other, there will be no role or stature.