For Egypt, the 20th century was the century of the struggle for independence and national liberation, both of which were achieved.
A majority of Egyptians agreed on what “independence” meant, seeing it as implying political, economic, and up to a point cultural independence.
And many, probably the vast majority, believed economic independence meant self-sufficiency. In fact, the slogan used by former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser was “from the needle to the rocket.”
This may sound laughable now. But history enables us to understand this goal. Egypt had originally lost its independence as a result of debt, and many Egyptians also felt that in cosmopolitan pre-revolutionary Egypt, non-Egyptians, Westerners or Levantines had owned the lion’s share of the country.
However, we never achieved the target of self-sufficiency advanced by the 1952 Revolution, and we never even came close to it. Even the policy of import-substitution by industrialisation failed for the simple reason that this was an utterly unrealistic goal.
The situation has not changed today, and if anything, it has become clearer. A country with more than one hundred million inhabitants cannot produce all its own food, for instance, especially when the desert rules supreme. We have to buy a lot of food on the international markets instead.
Egypt’s political leadership has understood this, at least since the final decade of former president Hosni Mubarak’s regime. But a lot of people, including many senior civil servants and intellectuals, have yet to come to terms with the fact that we have to rely on the rest of the world and can no longer close our doors and lock our windows.
Another problem is that our economic infrastructure and economic system are not adapted to the fact that we need to export and to import to live. Things will improve, but this will take time.
Let us consider the problem from another angle. The Egyptian state likes large, even pharaonic, projects that cost an enormous amount of money but have huge and lasting returns.
The Aswan High Dam, the Suez Canal, the New Administrative Capital and the Cairo metro network are all impressive examples of this. I think the state is less smart when it comes to managing micro-projects, but this deserves another article.
What I want to say here is the following: in some areas, the state’s know-how regarding large projects that will bring huge returns is and will remain necessary. In others, it is no longer of much use, to the state’s dismay.
The most interesting cases are fields where long-term planning is necessary but risky as the returns are not guaranteed. It cannot be known whether the research you fund or the technology you develop will be of permanent use. When the final product is ready, it may also be outdated.
I have pharmaceuticals, weapons, planes, cars, artificial intelligence and telecommunication networks, etc., in mind.
Egypt is a poor country, and it cannot afford to invest huge amounts of money riskily, possibly or probably to no avail. As a result, the implications are clear: we often reluctantly leave these areas to other countries, and then we buy their products and may be also their technology. This seems wiser and safer as a way of using our scarce resources.
But this also means we are “dependent” on foreign countries for such products and technology. However, there is a difference between dependency and interdependency, even if many people still do not realise this and remain addicted to self-sufficiency.
The plain fact is that we are dependent, in a sense, because of our resources and capacities, and this constrains our actions, tactics and strategies.
Overcoming this situation will take decades, and one of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s virtues is his willingness to introduce reforms that cost him political capital even when the results of them are not likely to be seen in the near future and will only benefit one of his heirs.
Reforming our education system is a very difficult task, for example. Entrenched interests, bad habits and reactionary mindsets are formidable obstacles to reform, and meanwhile some of our brightest children prefer to leave and go to countries where salaries are more appealing, living conditions and ways of life more decent, and better opportunities await them.
The struggle against poverty at home devours a lot of money, and rightly so it is the government’s top priority.
We are condemned to a state of dependency for a long while yet, and we have to think about what this means. However, we may be able to choose the camp to which we are dependent. We can develop a strategy.
Do we put all our eggs in the same basket? If yes, which is the right one? After all, if we become captive to one camp, this will also be our prisoner in a sense, as we are an enormous country.
Do we prefer to diversify our foreign relationships? How should we do this? We could ally ourselves with one camp in one domain, while preferring another partner in another. We could have many partners in each.
The answers depend on the state of the technology available, our own financial conditions, the political preferences of others and the political price they ask for or the costs we can afford. They should also depend on reliability, however. And here we have a serious problem.
It is not just that many in the United States and Europe have wanted us to do things that have been tantamount to suicide, or that many have displayed a worrying eagerness to go the way of sanctions. It is not just because they underestimate the importance of economic development and the seriousness of the problems we face.
The main issue, or at least the one that worries me most, is the issue of decline. All the main players are facing a decline, having a lot of resources but questionable leadership.
I grew up thinking that in the long-term democracies always win because they are able to mobilise and to focus and because they can produce men and women who are courageous, curious and committed to freedom. The existence of democracy and free debate enables each participant to learn and to improve.
However, I am no longer so sure that this is true. Do you want to hate democracy? Try looking at the European countries and the United States.
It would be tempting to say that the issues now are more complex, that the ties that bind individuals are much weaker, and that too often we are faced with situations in which each actor follows a rational course and adopts a rational decision but that this yields a collective result that may be disastrous as a result.
This is the usual and most comfortable explanation. It has a grain of truth to it, but it is no longer sufficient. I am not sure that today’s leaders are not blinded by bias. However, one bet seems sure: I am still convinced that whatever happens Russia will not emerge as a winner.
* The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.