Many political scientists make a common mistake when discussing Egypt’s regional role. They maintain that this only flourished under former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser in the 1950s and 1960s when Egypt championed the national liberation struggles in Africa and the Arab region. However, this is inaccurate, as recent history tells us that Egypt has also been as influential a power, if not more so, in other periods.
It is true that the circumstances and challenges of the Nasserist era forced a certain role on Egypt. However, the country paid dearly for the way it handled them. The Tripartite Aggression of 1956, getting bogged down in the conflict in Yemen in the early 1960s, and the spread of socialism in the Arab countries were all factors that culminated in defeat in the 1967 War.
The behaviour that courted these debacles stemmed from an obsession with projecting an unrealistic and grandiose image abroad, and it won the country more enemies than friends in the region and wider world. It was an image based on a charismatic leader and his defiant stance towards certain international developments at the time, but it one that was not grounded in a proper concept of power.
The Tripartite Aggression or Suez War in 1956 marked a seismic shift in the global order, signalling the collapse of the old imperialist powers and the consolidation of the bipolar world order. It was this context that enabled Egypt to spring to the fore in the regional environment, despite its lack of concrete strength. But the fragility resulting from the inconsistency between image and reality was evidenced by the losses sustained during Egypt’s intervention in the Yemeni Civil War in the 1960s and then more dramatically in the 1967 defeat and Israeli occupation of the Sinai.
In the aftermath of these events, it was clear that the concept of the Egyptian role had to be redefined. The War of Attrition with Israel following the 1967 defeat reflected the realisation that the country’s influence had to be rooted in its internal strength and in an objective assessment of this strength. This realisation was translated into practical terms when Egyptian strategists took stock of the implications of the defeat and began to restructure and build the armed forces in accordance with properly studied and implemented plans. These efforts culminated in the victorious crossing of the Suez Canal and liberation of a portion of the Sinai in the 1973 War.
The October 1973 Victory ushered in a second phase in Egyptian regional status and influence. Its first concrete manifestations occurred when Egyptian diplomacy translated the relative weight it had gained from its military success into a project of peaceful diplomacy that ultimately won back all Egyptian territory.
It should be stressed that the strength of Egypt’s negotiating hand in this process emanated from its departure from the erroneous concepts that had led to the 1967 defeat, including the inflated notion of its regional and international role. And much of the credit for the conceptual shift that paved the way to a military victory with immense strategic implications that compelled other powers to take a fresh look at Egypt’s political and military institutions was due to former president Anwar Al-Sadat.
Under Sadat’s leadership in the 1970s, Egypt pursued a sophisticated foreign policy grounded in the ability to assess and interact with regional and international developments in a manner that optimised the country’s gains. Egypt was thus able to stand on a par with the US in negotiations with the Israelis, to whom it offered peace in exchange for withdrawal from the territory they had occupied in 1967 while reserving the strategic option to use military force if necessary to liberate Egyptian land.
This was a manifestation of the concrete shifts in the balance of power that had been won by the Egyptian people and that were invested in the revitalisation of Egyptian influence that then succeeded in recovering Sinai six years after the Israeli occupation began.
However, while the Egyptian role in the international arena brought the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty in the late 1970s, regionally it was greeted by an Arab boycott. This lasted until former president Hosni Mubarak restored Egypt to its Arab environment and masterfully re-established Cairo’s regional leadership in the 1980s and 1990s.
The revived Egyptian role was put to the test on a number of occasions, one of the most significant being the war to liberate Kuwait in 1991. As the facts soon showed, those Arab countries that had banded together to isolate Egypt had been too short-sighted to appreciate the Egyptian strategic vision and the country’s ability to achieve things on the ground. Moreover, the countries that had spearheaded the campaign against Egypt – Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Syria under Hafez Al-Assad, and Libya under Muammar Al-Gaddafi – not only failed to carve out a regional role for themselves using their particular brands of populist sloganeering, but they also plunged headlong into dangerous military adventures.
The main lesson of the Arab experience during the past seven decades is that those countries that were most adept at incorporating a realistic concept of their capacities and roles were those most able to weather the rapidly fluctuating international environment.
The price of reckless adventurism can be extremely high, as Iraq discovered, despite its mineral and agricultural wealth. The Saddam regime in Iraq not only squandered that wealth, but it also lost an entire society as the result of the killing and displacement of millions. The same thing applies to the Al-Assad regime in Syria, which plunged the country into the maelstrom of sectarian strife and military interventions by regional and international powers scrambling to advance their interests over the corpse of Syrian society.
The Arab world has demonstrated the advantages of a concept of regional tole and status based on autonomous strength. Al-Sadat and Mubarak applied this approach, and it continues today under President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. What we are seeing today is further evidence of this continuity.
After the 30 June Revolution, Egypt faced systematic campaigns by various regional powers and Islamist organisations to tarnish and weaken it. However, thanks to the wise and rational utilisation of its own resources and influence, Egypt was able to weather this onslaught, negotiate dangerous political tensions, and recover its regional status once more.
Among the most salient examples of this success are its management of the tensions surrounding the Eastern Mediterranean gas fields, while averting Turkey’s provocations. The result has been fruitful cooperation and maritime border agreements with Greece, Cyprus, and Italy following the discovery of the Zohr Gas Field in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Today, after seven years of hostility towards Egypt, Turkey has begun to reassess its own foreign policy and the disastrous repercussions of this on the Turkish economy. The Libyan crisis and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project are other areas where Egypt has demonstrated its acumen in handling thorny challenges abroad while sustaining the impetus of national development projects at home and the ongoing economic revival.
The renaissance we are seeing at home today is an extension of a rational process of forging a constructive regional and international role for the country, in contrast to the troublemaking approach of populist regimes that have only courted death and destruction for their own countries and peoples.
* The writer is managing editor of the quarterly journal Al-Demoqrateya, published by Al-Ahram.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 April, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.