“What do you bring to the table?” asked an American politician replying to the question of why Egypt had not been invited to a regional meeting on Syria. We Egyptians believe that we are entitled to play a leading role in every conflict in our region – but we don’t think about what we can bring to the table as much as we do about securing a permanent seat at every table. Sadly, the Egyptian state has not yet realized that its political leverage in the region has almost disappeared as a result of its domestic policies.
The recent meeting hosted by the French President in Paris for leaders of the conflicting political parties in Libya, to which Egypt was not invited, was a clear sign of our declining political role in the region, a role already weakened with the appointment of a former Lebanese minister as United Nations envoy to Libya a few weeks earlier. I, and probably many Egyptians, belong to an old-fashioned and unrealistic school; we believe that, using its soft power, Egypt should take the lead in resolving all conflicts in our region. Unfortunately, the Egyptian state often dampens our aspirations by insisting on applying its outdated political thinking pattern.
If the Egyptian state today were to apply the proverb, “first deserve, then desire”, it would immediately become aware of its shrinking influence. Presuming to still possess the same degree of valid leverage, we over emphasize our political desires, neglecting to accurately assess our capabilities or to consider whether the solutions we bring to the table are even remotely acceptable to the conflicting parties. Our insistence on advocating for our perspective instead of playing a mediating role has shrunk Egypt’s political standing in the region; once recognized as a strong regional power, we are viewed today as a clearly biased party.
Our political activities in the region are shaped by our internal political dynamic and our bias toward our own viewpoints, causing us to perceive regional conflicts in the form of ‘Us & Them’! The Egyptian state does not want the Muslim Brotherhood or its affiliates to assume power in any of the region’s countries, period. However, this proposition clearly contradicts the status of political Islamists who have managed to gain a solid footing in many nations, which they won’t give up easily. Additionally, other countries in the region have realized that they are better off integrating political Islamists into their ruling mechanisms.
Our internal political dynamic has negatively affected our soft power capacity. By appointing exceptional state executives to undertake these tasks, Egypt used to be able to formulate constructive resolutions to political struggles and to persuade the conflicting parties to accept them. Most importantly, all parties were fully confident that Egypt had studied the conflict thoroughly and conceived the most suitable proposition for resolving it.
The functionality of our ‘soft power pillars’ substantially buttressed former President Mubarak’s regional and international weight; he was able to play a constructive mediating role in the region, receiving the blessings of most Arab nations and of key western countries with vested interests and strong leverage in the Middle East. Sadly, this effort has almost vanished. The strings we used to manipulate have become quite fragile, and we are steadily becoming marginalized in the region that we used to lead.
By default, any nation’s power and leverage go through periods of ups and downs. Our present shortcomings, which have caused us to hit political rock bottom, lie in our misperception of current regional dynamics, of why conflicts have emerged and how they can be settled. Framing ourselves in an ‘us & them’ situation has diminished our status; they are working to strengthen their position and we are being weakened because we listen only to ourselves.
Strength is better expressed inside out. Egypt can easily regain its political leverage in the region, starting by adopting a new domestic stance geared towards easing existing internal political tensions, re-establishing lost political pillars and relying on true experts rather than on the sycophants currently in charge. We must comprehend that, for better or worse, we cannot impose the political structure that we have applied in Egypt on other nations. We need instead to offer regional propositions that meet the needs of the current political dynamics of other nations – even if they contradict our desires.