Egypt’s Waning Geopolitical Position in the MENA Region

Egypt has been a leader of the Arab world for much of the last century, but in recent years, economic, political, and cultural changes have eroded its status as a major regional power.
From left to right: Presidents Abdel Fatteh el-Sisi, Hosni Mubarak, Anwar Sadat, Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Linking the Middle East and North Africa, Egypt has long been an epicenter of the Arab world, geographically, culturally, and politically. It is home to the pharaohs and pyramids. It controls the estuaries of the Nile and the Suez Canal, one of the world’s most important trade routes. It is the birthplace of potent, political ideologies, such as Nasserism, and has produced prolific cinematic, literary, and musical traditions. It boasts the most significant Arab military–the twelfth largest in the world–and was a leader in the Arab-Israeli peace negotiations. Although Egypt is still the most populous nation in the Arab world, its power and influence have declined in recent decades, especially since 2011.

British occupation helped elevate Egypt’s economic status by further integrating Egypt into the world market, although it did so at a cost. As Egypt’s economy grew, British protectionism and trade policy stunted Egyptian industrial development by limiting the Egyptian market to British goods and establishing a near monopoly on Egyptian cotton, which was then exported cheaply to Europe. British rule also transformed Egyptian society, leading to the emergence of a middle class. Opportunities for social mobility increased as the British needed increasingly qualified personnel to fill its expanding bureaucracy. Egypt’s growing middle class would later play an important role in the nation’s independence movement.

Egypt emerged as a major power in the Arab world in the wake of World War II. European empires throughout the world collapsed, in part as a result of the massive destruction wreaked by both world wars. Britain declared the end of the Egyptian protectorate in February 1922, though it retained control in a few domains and elevated the sultan of Egypt to the status of a king. For the next three decades, a power struggle ensued between the U.K. and Egypt over the precise degree of independence that the latter would assume. The 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty confirmed Egyptian independence and further relaxed British control, including over the officer corps.

British presence in Egypt was fully ended in 1952, when the Free Officers Movement, headed by Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser and Mohammed Naguib, successfully led a coup against King Farouk. The new regime ushered in sweeping domestic and regional change, such as abolishing the constitutional monarchy, founding a republic, and ensuring the independence of Sudan. It adopted a staunch policy of Arab nationalism, inspired by Nasser’s vision of pan-Arabism — the idea that “Arabs are people linked by special bonds of language, history, and religion, and that their political organization should in some way reflect this reality.” In the 1950s and 1960s, Nasserism emerged as one of the most salient political ideologies in the region. Nasserism was a political movement calling for the liberation of Arab and African states colonized by Western powers, with Egypt as the anchor of the Arab world. This ideology contrasted sharply with the traditional monarchies of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Morocco.

Throughout Nasser’s tenure in office, his radio speeches evoked ideas of pan-Arabism. In July 1954, he referred to Arabs as “one nation.” In the 1962 charter he authored, he clarified that there was no conflict between Egyptian patriotism and Arab nationalism. Nasser’s speeches played a pivotal role in augmenting Egypt’s influence in the Arab world and his pan-Arabism resonated with Arabs throughout the region.

Egypt’s influence at the center of Arab culture and politics grew as Nasser stood up to the West by refusing to join the British-led Baghdad Pact, purchasing weapons from the USSR, and announcing Egypt’s neutrality in the Cold War. While Nasser skirted the issue of allying fully with either the USSR or the U.S. during the Cold War, the Soviet Union enthusiastically supported his independent and anti-imperialist policies and non-alignment with the West. Soviet aid in the ‘60s and ‘70s helped transform Egypt into a significant regional economic and military heavyweight.

Nasser’s victory over Israel, Britain, and France in the Suez crisis in 1956 increased his popularity in much of the Arab world. In Syria, Nasser became a national hero. In 1958, the two nations briefly joined to form the United Arab Republic (UAR), a short-lived sovereign state that lasted until 1961. Egypt also headed the Arab struggle for the liberation of Palestine, despite its military defeat by Israel in 1967. Finally, Egypt helped establish the Arab League and backed Arab liberation movements in their fight for independence.

Nasser died of a heart attack in 1970. Anwar Sadat succeeded him as president and reshuffled the country’s political order significantly, while maintaining Egypt’s clout on the world stage. American naval power in the Mediterranean Sea grew throughout the 1960s in comparison to Soviet power. Greece and Turkey, which controlled the Turkish Straits and Aegean Sea, had joined NATO and sided with the Americans in the Cold War, hampering Soviet power in the region. As the local decline of Soviet power became more apparent, Egypt began to turn away from the Soviet Union.

Despite a friendship treaty signed between the two in 1971, Sadat ousted the Soviet military from Egypt in July 1972, and in 1976 the treaty was abrogated. In 1973, an Egyptian-led coalition of Arab states launched another war against Israel. Sadat then signed a highly controversial peace deal with Israel in 1978, restoring Egypt’s alliance with Europe and the U.S. and securing Egypt’s position as the second largest recipient of American foreign aid after Israel.

Following Sadat’s assassination in 1981, his hand-selected vice president, Hosni Mubarak, assumed the presidency. Mubarak further solidified Egypt’s influence in the region, implementing a moderate foreign policy that balanced maintaining peaceful relations with Israel and maintaining close ties with the U.S. Egypt, for example, played a major role in the 1993 Oslo Accords, a set of agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Mubarak’s moderate foreign policy allowed Egypt to recover its relations with the majority of moderate Arab states. In 1987, during the Arab League summit, several Arab governments restored diplomatic relations with Egypt, which had been severed after the signing of the Israeli peace deal. Egypt was allowed to resume its membership in the league in 1989.

In the late 1980s, Egypt’s economic struggles became more blatant, however, as oil prices dropped. Egypt’s debt grew significantly, prompting the IMF to pressure it to sign onto its structural adjustment reform program—an IMF loan with stringent austerity requirements—in 1991. The Mubarak regime was forced to devalue the Egyptian pound several times, cut subsidies, and raise interest rates. The Egyptian population suffered from a loss in real wages, provoking many to turn to Islamic groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, which saw its popularity soar. Others were incited to protest, leading the regime to impose repressive policies to contain unrest. Despite domestic tensions, Egypt maintained its position as a leader of the Arab world in the political realm.

Cairo also asserted its dominance in the MENA region as a cultural powerhouse of cinema, television, and music starting in the 1930s. The Egyptian government offered generous amounts of state funding to these industries starting in the ‘40s. By the ‘50s, Egyptian cinema had developed into the third largest in the world, after those of the U.S. and India. Classic Egyptian cinema of the 1950s and ‘60s brought actors like the late Omar Sharif and the late director Youssef Chahine to world renown, while more recent films made icons of action-man Ahmed Al Sakka and comedian Ahmed Helmy.

Egypt had an equally influential television industry with hugely popular soap operas, dramas, comedies, and evening talk shows. The television programs and films–typically in Egyptian dialect instead of formal Arabic–have made the Egyptian dialect a sort of lingua franca throughout the Arab world. Mohamed Zayani, a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar, stated: “Arab countries used to acquire a lot of their TV programs from Egypt . . . which helped all Arabs understand the Egyptian dialect, which is not true for, say, the Moroccan dialect or the Algerian dialect.”

Pan-Arabism also helped propel the Egyptian dialect throughout the Arab word. Nasser became renowned throughout the region for his magnetic radio speeches, delivered in Egyptian dialect, disseminated on the Cairo radio station, Voice of the Arabs. By the time of Nasser’s death in the ‘70s, the Egyptian dialect was the most widely understood in the region. Egyptian poets, like Ahmed Goud Negm, Tamim Al-Barghouti, and novelist Enas Haleem, further perpetuated the use of Egyptian dialect by writing in Egyptian instead of Modern Standard Arabic.

Arab music has also not escaped Egyptian influence. From Egyptian music icons such as Umm Kulthoum, to Abdel Halim Hafez, Mohammed Abdel Wahab, Farid El Atrache, and more modern singers like Ehab Tawfik, Egyptian music and radio stations have been broadcast throughout the region. Arab pop arose from Egyptian music in the 1960s and ‘70s. Cairo additionally is the home of important performing arts venues such as the Cairo Opera House.

Egypt’s cultural institutions are not limited to music. The Library of Alexandria, one of the largest and most important libraries of the ancient world, reopened in 2002. Egypt has led the way in higher educational institutions such as the American University of Cairo and Cairo University, some of the highest-ranked universities in the region.

However, the new millennium has seen Egypt’s cultural and political influence decline. At the turn of the 21st century, political discontent within Egypt rose to new levels due to Mubarak’s intensifying crackdown on political opposition groups. Corruption levels increased, while state institutions deteriorated and Egyptian politics grew progressively out of touch with national interests. Internationally, other Arab nations increasingly viewed Egypt as subservient to the U.S. and Israel. Meanwhile, the regime’s failure to effectively stimulate growth and cap youth unemployment contributed to the underlying social grievances that would pave the way for the 2011 revolution.  

The Arab Spring ended the political order that had been in place for more than half a century, ousting Mubarak from power and installing Mohammed Morsi as the nation’s first democratically-elected president in June 2012. Despite his initial popularity, the public became quickly disgruntled with Morsi’s inability to follow through with his political and economic promises. The country had no money and massive fuel and gasoline shortages. Public security took a nosedive. Morsi’s tenure in power was cut short by another military coup less than a year later in July 2013.

Since current President Abdel Fatteh el-Sisi rose to power in 2014, Egypt’s position as leader of the Arab world has continued to fade. The first factor that has weakened Egypt’s international reach is Sisi’s inability to control the nation’s crumbling economy. Mubarak may have ignored certain economic problems, but the bulk of the economy’s spiral has occurred on Sisi’s watch. Egypt negotiated a new $12 billion IMF loan in November 2016. One of the conditions for the loan required the Egyptian Central Bank to devalue its currency from 8.8 Egyptian pounds against the U.S. dollar to 13. High inflation rates in 2017, coupled with fuel subsidy cuts and other austerity measures, have caused an erosion of real incomes. Egypt’s national statistics bureau reported this month that the annual inflation rate rose by 16 percent in September, reaching an eight-month high. That inflation rate surpasses the 13 percent target set by Egypt’s central bank, meaning that the bank will not be likely to cut borrowing costs for at least the next year.   

Price hikes in June 2018 of 20 to 40 percent for transportation, 30 to 50 percent in fuel, and nearly 70 percent for gas have led to spikes in poverty rates throughout the country, particularly in rural communities. This year, poverty rates in rural Upper Egypt reached as high as 60 percent in some governorates, according to the World Bank. Unemployment figures for 2016 were around 13 percent nationally, but college graduates and youth are disproportionately affected, at 34 percent and 30 percent respectively. Economic strain is fomenting popular unrest that is destabilizing Egypt internally.

After two revolutions, Egyptians are unlikely to instigate another revolution in the next few years, even when faced with a collapsing economy. The public is fed up with the political instability that inevitably comes with revolution, and the opposition is weak and fragmented. However, domestic instability has forced Egypt to turn inwards and Sisi to fail to deliver on his economic promises.

Although the regime faces no real opposition, it has carried out an unprecedented crackdown on dissent since 2014. Civil and human rights organizations have documented an increased number of arbitrary arrests, forced disappearances, and cases of torture. The Sisi regime has also turned on itself, ordering a number of unexpected dismissals of high-level military officers. In late 2015, 26 military officers were arrested for allegedly conspiring to overthrow Sisi in collaboration with members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Sisi also had his Chief of Staff, Mahmoud Hegazy, suddenly replaced in October 2017, and later put under house arrest for allegedly opposing regime policies. Leaked intelligence reports claim that Sisi has expressed a fear of assassination. Finally, Sisi rejected multiple attempts of resignation from Minister of Defense Sedki Sobhy, who had intentions of challenging him in the election.

The second element in Egypt’s fall from its position of regional power has to do with the diversification of interests within the MENA region since the fall of Mubarak. Prior to 2011, the region’s autocrats mainly shared common interests and objectives of maintaining authoritarian rule under the guise of nominally democratic institutions while suppressing opposition groups that stepped out of line. From Bashar al-Assad in Syria, to Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, to Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, and King Abdullah in Saudi Arabia, a quiet authoritarian stability was the norm. However, the 2011 Arab Uprisings that toppled Mubarak, along with several other of the region’s dictators, overturned the status quo.

Arab leaders became aware, first of all, that the U.S. would be unwilling to come to their aid in the event of a crisis. The U.S. had, after all, not stepped in to rescue one of its closest allies, the Mubarak regime. As Marc Lynch argues in his most recent book, The New Arab Wars, that new understanding evoked a deep existential fear among leaders who subsequently imposed erratic and counterproductive policies that exacerbated their domestic problems. Today, repressive and/or violent policies aimed at shoring up internal power include the Saudi-led war in Yemen, the blockade against Qatar, and arrests of activists in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, and Yemen, among others.

The U.S.’s refusal to come to Mubarak’s aid strained the alliance between the U.S. and Egypt, forcing Egypt to recognize that it was no longer the American priority it once was. Michael Wahid Hanna notes in a Foreign Affairs article that “[T]he current gap between their [the U.S. and Egypt] worldviews and priorities is larger than at any time in the past.” Following the 2013 coup against Morsi, President Obama put new constraints on how Cairo can spend U.S. aid and froze Egypt’s ability to acquire military equipment on credit. While President Donald Trump has showed support for the Sisi regime, Egypt has understood that the U.S. is not a reliable ally. That understanding has pushed it towards other regional powers like Saudi Arabia, and, surprisingly, Israel.

Another repercussion of the 2011 uprisings was that domestic turmoil forced many of MENA states to renew their focus on domestic security, political, and economic concerns. Arab states today face a unique blend of challenges that require specific and diverse policies, whereas previous interests were relatively uniform: Tunisia is presently struggling to establish a democracy; Libya is essentially a failed state; Iraq, Syria, and Yemen are mired in civil conflict, and the Gulf nations are desperately trying to retain the political status quo by undermining opposition groups. These factors have also contributed to Egypt’s loss of leadership status.

Culturally speaking, neither Egyptian music nor media have the same weight they once did. In recent years, Egypt’s monopoly of televised entertainment has been challenged by other Arab countries, in particular Gulf countries. Soap operas and series from Turkey and Syria are now attracting the attention Egyptian media once did. The Dubai Film Festival in 2013 named 35 Egyptian films produced before 1970, but only three films in the post-1970 period.

The decline of Egyptian film and television series is due in part to the government’s withdrawal from the industry. In the 1970s, it ended funding of film production. The rising cost of land and construction, combined with tense economic conditions in the 1980s, halted the construction of new movie theaters in the 1980s. Since then, hundreds of Egyptian theaters have closed.

Government film production companies have shifted to the private sector over the last four decades as the Egyptian economy has liberalized. While the government was concerned with producing high quality films to improve Egypt’s image, private companies are concerned more with profits than quality. Nader Khalifa emphasizes that today, “[t]he government is leaving the job of TV drama production to producers and private production companies that care only about the financial, not the artistic, returns of the works they produce. This is very dangerous.” Following that logic, many actors have turned to TV series, which pay better than films.

Rampant corruption under Mubarak further limited funding opportunities for filmmakers and increasing government censorship during his rule stunted creative expression. As Arab film critic Tarek El Shenawi explained, “[T]hings started to change in the 1980s,” as society grew more conservative and social freedoms regressed. Political and economic instability following the January 25 Revolution further contributed to making Egypt a poor environment for media production. Stars like actor Adel Emam and actress Elham Shahin faced legal repercussions for their art, further negatively affecting Egypt’s cultural environment.

Egyptian soap operas have also had to compete with Turkish series like “Nour,” an Arabic-dubbed version of “Gümüşm,” which became hugely popular in 2006. The drama depicts glamorous characters living luxurious lifestyles that especially appealed to politically disenchanted and economically struggling Egypts.

Although Egyptian dominance in Arab cinema is not what it once was, there are signs that the industry may be beginning to recover. Still, more than three-quarters of all Arabic-language films come from Egypt. According to producer and executive board member of the government’s Chamber of Cinema, Sherif Mandour Egypt produced 40 feature films in 2016, compared with just 20 in 2011. That number is expected to increase to 60 in 2017. He stated that, “[A]fter the revolution it was not secure to go to cinemas but now people are going again, and it is becoming a fruitful business.”

Egypt’s influence in the Arab world has slowly declined over the last couple of decades due to political, economic, and cultural changes. In particular, since the 2011 revolution, its preoccupation with domestic politics has curbed its leadership role in the region and pushed it to develop and strengthen new alliances. Egypt’s mounting internal political and economic tensions suggest that it will maintain an inward focus in the coming years rather than attempt to restore its former regional influence.