Egypt between World Cup jubilation and UNESCO loss

Hassan Abou Taleb
Thursday 9 Nov 2017

While Egypt may suffer defeats, it's influence remains strong, enduring the ebbs and flows that confront all states and societies

Egypt experienced the taste of both wins and losses last month. The big win came via the national football team when it won in a very difficult match that qualified it directly to participate, after 28 years absence, in the next World Cup to be held in Moscow. As for the loss, it happened when Egypt’s candidate for director-general of UNESCO, Ambassador Moushira Khattab, didn’t qualify for the final round of the selection process.

Between the two events, it was announced that Egyptian Intelligence had succeeded in reaching a new agreement to reduce escalation in southern Damascus with the participation of armed factions, including Jaysh Al-Islam (The Army of Islam), Jaysh Al-Ababil (Bird Flocks Army) and Aknaf Bait Al-Maqdis (The Environs of Jerusalem), under Russian auspices.  

The three events won varying degrees of popular and Arab attention. In the case of the Egyptian national team's success, we saw popular jubilation in a number of Arab cities. Some viewed it as a materialisation of pan-Arabist sentiments that still exist, and see in Egypt the prestige and the stature of all the Arabs.

As for the loss of the UNESCO post, it became clear that there weren’t any general Arab understandings that would have backed one Arab candidate to occupy this renowned international post. This also goes for the Qatari candidate who lost. Moreover, there were Arab states that did not vote for the Egyptian candidate, nor for the Qatari candidate, but for the French candidate. Some said that Egypt's stature was shaken on the Arab level because it did not gain all Arab votes and most likely it didn’t win many African votes.

Theoretically, Egypt’s candidate was the candidate of Africa since it was a decision taken through an African summit. Some said the voting of certain African countries didn’t go to the Egyptian candidate because these countries had reservations on Egypt's cultural and political reality, and because Egypt’s image abroad was not good.

Here, a question is raised: Is Qatar’s image better or that of China and Lebanon? Such interpretations eliminate the meaning of behind the scenes work that is built upon interests invisible to the general public, but can be predicted.

Note that China has significant economic influence in Africa and didn’t win any votes from its countries.     

Then the third event took place indicating that Egypt still has the capacity to exert influence and be engaged in the most difficult missions; that is, mediating between rival Syrian armed groups and the Syrian government. It had succeeded in clinching an agreement to reduce escalation, ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid, and to prevent forced displacement of southern Damascus area residents, similar to what happened in other areas under Russian, Iranian and Turkish auspices.

What's more significant here is that those who came to Cairo representing Syrian opposition forces belonged to the current Islamist armed groups. This in itself is an important development on both the political and strategic levels. It means that the Egyptian mediators are capable of communicating with several parties inside and outside Syria. Despite the big differences between these parties, Egypt is the only party that is trustworthy for them all.

We can attach the same significance to the successful negotiations held under Egyptian auspices between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, which relinquished governing the Gaza Strip and accepted reconciliation under Egyptian auspices.

Now the question is, if we want to speak about Egypt's role and stature, which one of these events would we choose to express the reality of these? Which of these events can we consider proof that pan-Arabist sentiments are still influencing, in one way or another, the behaviour of Arab presidents and governments? The following observations may help in reaching a firm answer.       

First, we have to differentiate between pan-Arabist sentiments and interests in a certain moment in history. For the existence of pan-Arabist sentiments among some Arab societies, or even all of them, does not necessarily mean that it constitutes a foundation for decision-making by the governments of those states.

Second, the roles of states or even heroes or celebrities in certain fields aren't constant, but rather move upward and downward, succeeding and losing. If there were any one party who had an effective and influential role and stayed like this for centuries, balance would be lost. The overall issue rests upon the nature of the situation and the affecting factors that can be controlled, which are in contrast to elements that can't be controlled.

In all cases, the issue is related to the ability to make accurate calculations and have exact expectations of counter forces and build solid alliances as much as possible. In addition, there are the available potentialities, whether money or competencies that handle the issue.

Third, being engaged in an international competition in order to secure a renowned post is a virtue in itself provided that there is a candidate who can prove themselves in this arena. If seeking to win is natural, as is the case in football matches and other sportive contests, blind confidence in attaining victory is not natural. Wisdom requires exerting effort, putting always the worst case scenario as a likely possibility and accepting the outcome.

In this world, all of us realise that the best teams may suffer the worst defeats. Nothing is totally guaranteed.

Fourth, losing an international competition does not necessarily mean depleting the state’s stature as much as losing one battle. It isn’t even diminishing of the worth of the candidate who didn’t win. We have in the UNESCO elections case something important to understand. For the candidates of China, Lebanon, Qatar, Vietnam and others also lost. Does this mean that these states have lost stature or worth? Definitely not.

Fifth, even in open sportive contests that are watched by everybody moment by moment, there is always a probability that an amount of manipulation is happening to the benefit of a certain party. So, how about in competitions that are inherently built on alliances, manoeuvres, rallying, promises, and innocent and corrupt money all put together?

Sixth, states and societies, like every living organism, have a life cycle between beginning, maturity, vigour, strength and senility, then to be started over again. This is a universal norm that befell all the great civilisations throughout history. He who thinks that he is outside these universal laws is delusional and wise is the one who knows when to move and in which direction.

The writer is a political analyst.

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