Four key questions facing Egypt

Tarek Osman
Tuesday 2 Jan 2024

Four key questions have lurked for decades in the collective Egyptian psyche, sometimes lying submerged under the weight of current problems.


The current moment is fraught. The repercussions of the war in Gaza are upending the geopolitical order that has been in place in the Middle East over the past three decades since the end of the Cold War. The establishment of a new order will take a long time and will entail hot and cold confrontations that will fuel tensions from the Gulf to the Atlantic. This tumult and these transformations will affect Egypt strategically, politically, and economically.

Their timing exacerbates the challenges facing Egypt. For two years now, Egypt has been confronting serious economic challenges, whose impact, ranging from biting inflationary pressures to a dearth of major investments, impedes growth, derails development, and imposes on decision-makers a fire-fighting mindset – that of confronting urgent short-term crises.

Because Egypt relies on imports to secure some of its society’s basic needs, and because Egypt generates the vast majority of its hard currency from revenues highly dependent on extraneous factors, such as tourism, traffic in the Suez Canal, and the remittances of Egyptians living abroad, there is an entanglement in Egyptian thinking between foreign affairs and political economy.

This entanglement underscores four questions that have lurked for decades in the collective Egyptian psyche. They have often been addressed, but just as often have largely lain submerged under the weight of the problems of the here and now.

The first question is what are the geographical parameters of Egypt’s national security?

The most influential school in modern Egypt’s thinking about its national security has been the Easternists. From the advisers, mostly French, who surrounded Ibrahim Pasha, the son of Mohamed Ali, the founder of modern Egypt, in the 1820s and 1830s to Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, the most prominent strategist in 20th-century Egypt, the prevailing idea has been that all threats to Egypt’s national security come from the country’s eastern borders.

In the same vein, this school has held that Egypt’s real opportunities for expanding its reach and therefore also for entrenching the soft power that has for centuries been part of its name and image are in the east and primarily in the Levant.

However, there has also been another view. Thinkers such as Rifaa Al-Tahtawi, the curator of Egypt’s first major exposure to modern European culture in the 19th century, Taha Hussein, a leading innovator in interpreting Islamic history, Louis Awad, one of the most sophisticated literary critics in modern Egypt, and Boutros Boutros Ghali, the most important foreign-policy adviser to former president Anwar Al-Sadat in the period before Egypt’s signing of its peace treaty with Israel and later UN secretary-general, have all argued that Egypt’s real interests lie in a cultural and political orientation focused on the north and south, at least as much as they do to the east.

This has meant that Egypt needs to cease its obsession with the Levant and the area that reaches all the way to the Gulf and instead to focus its attention across the Mediterranean towards Europe, as well as to the south towards Africa, to which Egypt is linked by crucial bonds.

The two views differ in more than their scoping of the geographical parameters of Egypt’s national security. They also differ in delineating Egypt’s civilisational orientation. At heart, the two schools of national security offer two understandings of the identity of modern Egypt – which is the second question.

No issue has absorbed more time and energy from a succession of Egyptian artists over the past century than attempting to define the identity of modern Egypt. Artistic creativity aside, the question about identity has always had direct political consequences. A purely Arab Egypt is one that is not only by default oriented towards the east, but also one that by necessity bears major responsibilities, and demands prerogatives, in the struggles taking place in the Levant.

But there is also another conception of Egyptian identity beside that of a purely Arab Egypt. This is one of an Egypt that sees itself linked to the Arab Mashreq but also to the Mediterranean Basin and to Africa and as lying in a crucible that over the centuries has formed a unique identity and a mélange of different constituents whose wholeness is much larger than its individual components.

In this conception, Egyptian interests in the north, in its relationships with Europe, in the south, and in its bonds with East and Central Africa all add other obligations and endow Egypt with other prerogatives. The result is a map of Egyptian interests that is different from that emerging from the Easternists’ view of Egyptian identity.

The Easternists’ view of Egypt is anchored in a long history, but it could be deterministic. The second view, the one that incorporates the north and south, is perhaps vaguer and relies on older historical episodes for substantiation, but it is also more flexible.

There are valuable benefits to be had from strategic versatility. But as serious schools of knowledge throughout history have taught, such versatility, typically situated in a rich culture, must be anchored on truly knowing oneself and truly exploring the various constituents that make the culture concerned rich.

The third question concerns the role of the state in society.

This question is not part of a US-style debate about the philosophies underlying taxation and free enterprise or the benefits versus the impositions of a “nanny state.” In Egypt, the question of the state transcends such socioeconomic policies and is about the nature of the relationship between the state and citizens.

Because the founders of modern Egypt – Mohamed Ali, Ibrahim Pasha, and Ismail Pasha in the 19th century – were all non-Egyptians, the state was formed with extensive control mechanisms as well as top-down obligations towards the people. Republican Egypt, which started in the mid-20th century, expanded both the controls and the obligations. The economic liberalisation that has taken place over the past four decades has lessened some of the financial responsibilities that the state was previously shouldering. But the overall expectations of citizens of the state were not really shaken in the society’s collective consciousness.  

The fourth question is psychological, since the current geopolitical transformations and economic challenges have made many Egyptians apprehensive about the future. But discerning the underlying drivers of the social mood necessitates reflecting on the subtle but consequential changes that have taken place in society in the recent past.

Egypt has undergone major political changes over the past 15 years. At the same time, it has added around 20 million people to its core component of young people. This is a generation that has grown up at a time of the dilution of historical and social narratives and the diminution of common public spaces because of the dominance of social media and the weakening of the mainstream one. It is also a generation that has come of age at a time of regional and global anxiety.

In societies undergoing difficult economic circumstances and with the triggers of anger surrounding the youth, the old demons of radicalisation and the rejection of state and society can arise. It is of paramount importance to find practical and serious ways to transmute the centrifugal force of apprehension into a gravitational force of contributing to the societal collective. At the heart of this must be new ways of thinking about the role of the state in a modern and largely young society.

Egypt’s social fabric can look complicated these days, with dark spots attracting the attention. But that fabric remains marvelous. Egypt is an extremely rich country in terms of its historical experience, social cohesion, resilience, human talent, administrative capacities, and geopolitical importance for the region. There have been several moments during the past 200 years – the experience of modern Egypt – at which some observers assumed dark scenarios for Egypt. Invariably they were proven wrong. What emerged out of these difficult moments was wise, yet innovative, thinking about the key questions they presented.

The four questions that the current historical moment present are inextricably interlinked. Thinking about them, particularly through a serious assessment of Egypt’s modern history, will prove illuminating in tackling the difficult geopolitical and political-economy decisions facing the country.

Rushdi Said, one of the most rigorous analysts of the experience of modern Egypt, advised us in the frank assessment of our society that he wrote in the 1990s that failing to reflect seriously on modern Egypt’s experience would mean repeating many of the mistakes made on the road to the present. The four interlinked questions presented above could be an opportunity for such a rigorous assessment. Thinking about them may offer a framework for bringing many of the bewildered young closer to a narrative of belonging and contributing. In the process, many demons lurking in the shadows will be doused.  

In his novel “Autumn Quail,” the doyen of modern Egypt’s storytellers, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz, presented a man at a moment of delicate societal transition, one seemingly overwhelmed by the succession of grave challenges that had fallen on him, one often angry at what seemed to be the gruesome options facing him, and one who at times refused to acknowledge his own agency.

This man was a symbol of large sections of the society at a previous moment of peril at the time that novel was written. It was through a long and honest reflection on himself, his journey, and his real wants and objectives that Mahfouz gave us his protagonist, his version of us, as an opportunity to resuscitate the best in himself.  


The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).

* A version of this article appears in print in the 4 January, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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