The summer 2012 issue of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs, includes an article, “Egypt in the World,” by former Egyptian Ambassador to the US, Nabil Fahmy. He is clearly in the secular/modernist/democratic stream of Egyptian political discourse, and provides helpful insights to those who want to understand the Arab world beneath the stereotypes. His main theme focuses on the centrality of Egypt’s foreign policy in the region and the world, which he defines in three concentric circles. His observations flow from the assumption that “Now, in a region transformed by popular upheaval, Egypt has a chance to pick up the mantle and renew her place as a political and ideological wellspring for the Arab and North African Middle East.”
Well, I hope that the government of Egypt isn’t waiting for an invitation from surrounding countries to lead from in front or from behind. This notion of Egypt as the regional leader “… stems not only from the country’s demographic weight, geopolitical location, and military capability, but also from its historic and contemporary role as the heart of cultural and intellectual innovation in the Arab world.” With all respect to my friend and former mentor, I find the notion of Egypt as the resurrected leader of the MENA region a bit of a stretch given the transitions still in store within Egypt as well as the significant political and economic challenges in the region that make any leadership role problematic. This is even more apparent as Fahmy indicates, “… any new government must learn from the lessons of the past.”
Learning from the past or overturning the past? This was obviously written before Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi made waves at the Tehran conference of the Non-Aligned Movement—the first global vehicle for Nasser’s claim to regional leadership, and Morsi’s visit to the opening of the UN General Assembly, where he spelled out Egypt’s new foreign policy perspectives in a long New York Times interview. It is hard to conceive of a country, which may slide to a “collective caliphate,” as an emerging regional power that promotes democratic values when its own legitimizing political process is being sorely tested.
By this I mean that while Salafists call for the new caliphate, one can argue that Egypt must guard against a kind of “collective caliphate” where political and religious/moral leadership is held by a few who claim to speak for the many. We have already seen the problematic and counterproductive impact of Iranian foreign policy for US interests. Can we expect the same from Egypt?
Some more wisdom from Ambassador Fahmy succinctly summarizes the challenges: “Egypt should provide the seeds of freedom by supporting openness, transparency, and the rule of law throughout the Middle East, but the demand for and pace of reform must come from within states, not across their borders.” “…If domestic reality does not match the principled stand of our international proclamations, our newfound legitimacy will be unsustainable and or claim of leadership will fall on deaf ears.”
While I admire Egypt for its past contributions, the reality is that the Arab street has moved towards conflation with its Islamic identity and crossing that line has changed the tone and focus of what leadership means to “the people.” So as Egypt emerges from its transitions and proffers “her natural role as a leader in the Middle East and Africa,” will anyone take up the offer?