Egypt was always widely renowned for its soft power, which it used to shape and influence millions of Arabs – those living in the Middle East region as well as Arab emigrants abroad. Unfortunately, we have been steadily losing our clear superiority in this area over the last few decades, due to hindrances created by the flailing Egyptian state. The socioeconomic and cultural edge that we used to enjoy has been diminishing – not because of advances made by another Arab country, but as a direct result of the manipulations of Egyptian rulers.
Egypt used to be a culturally driven country, where scholars, artists, authors and intellectuals in general played an essential role in shaping society and determining Egyptians’ behaviour, attitudes and values. Regrettably, our rulers’ manipulations and interference have – intentionally – led to a shrinking of the role played by the ‘cultivated segments’ of our society. Egypt was never a wealthy country, but it used to be a relatively modern one, deeply influenced by the knowledge of the well-educated segment of its society. Wealth was a privilege, but it was not a deal-breaker.
The situation described above established the foundation for Egypt’s soft power and gave us a tremendous advantage, not only across the Arab World, but also in many western countries that recognised our relative weight in the region and the constructive and instrumental role we fulfilled in engaging with the rest of the world. This, in essence, was Egypt’s hidden leverage. Consecutive rulers were able to capitalise on this soft power platform to enhance Egypt’s status and reinforce its international role.
Capitalising on its soft power, Egypt used to lead Arab citizens from a distance and by setting examples. Sometimes, Arab citizens even supported the Egyptian perspective on issues that could conflict with the policies of their own governments. The vast majority of Arabs were aware of our tiny-gritty political and socioeconomic developments – some were more knowledgeable about these issues than Egyptians themselves. Citizens of other Arab countries were eager to do business in Egypt; not only driven by profit, but also wishing to expand their presence in the region’s leading and largest country.
The richness of Egyptian intellectuals’ works (widely available in the schools and bookstores of all Arab countries) and the presence of a great number of Egyptian professionals working in almost all of the Arab countries, supported by our huge entertainment media productions, are all factors that succeeded in making millions of Arabs highly passionate about Egypt.
Unfortunately however, authoritarians and intellectuals were not able to coexist harmoniously for long! At a certain point, the rigidity of authoritarian leaders must, naturally, clash with the broad-mindedness of intellectuals. Hence, consecutive Egyptian governments have worked on manipulating intellectuals and artists with the aim of ensuring their blind support and unquestioning loyalty to the country’s rulers.
A number of deliberate actions were taken to minimise the role of Egyptian intellectuals in our society. Less qualified, mediocre citizens (who can hardly be labelled as intellectuals) have consistently been appointed to replace genuine, renowned intellectuals in various governmental positions. Obviously, these positions come with advantageous financial rewards, and they are also accompanied by efforts to heavily promote the works of their occupants. This has ended in the creation of a class of unqualified opportunistic citizens who praise the ruler, along with the marginalisation, and exclusion from all influential positions, of genuine intellectuals who differ with the ruler.
As a result, the media only heeds ideas that praise the ruler; artistic performances that express admiration for the ruler receive continuous media exposure. This corrupt policy has concluded in shrinking the role of our soft power, distancing and alienating many Egyptians and Arabs who are only eager to attend, or view, genuine, authentic cultural activities and performances.
Soft power is a blessed cultural trait that cannot be created by any ruler. However, rulers can easily expand or shrink the role played by intellectuals in society. Sadly, efforts expended by the state to dry out our intellectual resources have resulted in the loss of Egypt’s soft power edge. Previously, our soft power advantage was capable of resolving most of the conflicts between Arab governments and even many of society’s internal disputes. Neglecting this advantage and offering, instead, our hard power resources in exchange for financial reward has put us on an even keel with other Arab countries.
I am convinced that the wealth of Egyptian talent and intellectual productivity that we used to have in the mid-nineteenth century (the work of Egyptian writers, musicians, singers, artists and many others) continues to exist on a large (but hidden) scale. Unblocking our cultural channels to permit the emergence of genuinely talented intellectuals and artists will allow us to regain our soft power edge.