by Derek Davison
Since coming to power in a 2013 coup and then being elected to office the following year, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has frequently been compared (for better and for worse) to another military officer-turned politician from recent Egyptian history, Gamal Abdel Nasser. Some comparisons are inevitable. Both military figures achieved political power through coups and spent much of the early part of their reigns suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood. But Sisi himself, or those working on his behalf, has also cultivated the comparison with a public campaign to revive interest in Nasser and to connect Sisi to his legacy.
However, the comparison between the two men falls apart when it comes to Egypt’s role in the Middle East and on the international stage. Nasser, and by extension Egypt, became a leader not only in the Arab world but also in the global Non-Aligned Movement of nations that sought to avoid entangling alliances with either of the two Cold-War superpowers. His vision of pan-Arab unity led to the brief (1958-1961) union of Syria and Egypt as the United Arab Republic. “Nasserism,” the mix of socialism, nationalism, and anti-imperialism that made up his political philosophy, influenced nationalist movements throughout the Arab world and leftist movements in Africa and Latin America.
In contrast to the robust role that Egypt played regionally and internationally under Nasser, Sisi’s time in power has been marked more by Egypt’s absence from external events than its presence. Despite its prominent status as a partner in Saudi Arabia’s anti-Houthi coalition in Yemen, for example, Egypt’s actual military role there seems relatively small.
In Syria, whose four-year-old civil war has seen outside intervention from nearly every other major regional actor, Egypt has largely remained on the sidelines. Cairo has tried to balance its support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad—based in large part on the fact that Assad and Sisi share two common opponents, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic State (ISIS or IS)—and the interests of wealthy Gulf states, who have delivered considerable economic aid to Sisi’s government and are staunch enemies of Assad.
Perhaps most tellingly, with a civil war raging in neighboring Libya that directly threatens Egyptian national security, Cairo has been able to do little more than launch a few airstrikes against IS targets there and to passively call for international action to settle the conflict.
Sisi’s Egypt is in no position to take on any larger international or even regional role so long as it is beset by so many internal challenges. One challenge has been the Egyptian economy, which, while showing some signs of improvement, is still struggling to produce enough jobs to keep pace with population growth. Egypt has also been having difficulty attracting the level of foreign investment needed to support Sisi’s major infrastructure projects, like a plan announced in March to build a completely new capital city east of Cairo. Another challenge, albeit largely self-inflicted, is that Sisi’s international reputation has been adversely affected by reports of his government’s rampant human rights abuses.
But Egypt’s most difficult internal challenge is its precarious security situation. In the west, Cairo faces spillover from the conflict in Libya and in the east its open conflict with IS affiliate in Sinai. Cairo itself has seen numerous terror attacks, like the late-June car bombing that took the life of Egypt’s chief prosecutor, Hisham Barakat. Speaking at the Middle East Institute’s third annual Egypt conference in Washington last week, Abdel-Monem Said Aly of Cairo’s Regional Center for Strategic Studies argued that these internal security concerns directly hamper Egypt’s ability to play a bigger role outside its borders:
What I think, strategically, that Egypt can do [is] to recover first, in order to play a regional role, and we have to define that regional role—it takes a lot of societal thinking. Part of it is to be successful in Sinai, to provide an example to the rest of the world and the rest of the region.
However, University of Exeter political scientist Omar Ashour suggested that Sisi’s own foreign policy is partly responsible for stifling Egypt’s regional influence. Criticizing the “very reductive role” that Egypt has played in Libya thus far, he argued that Cairo could play “a role of de-escalation,” which would undoubtedly give it a greater voice in the peace process there, instead of sidelining itself by supporting the “hawkish, extreme” faction led by Libyan general Khalifa Hiftar.
Candace Putnam, the director of the Office of Egyptian Affairs at the U.S. State Department, said that Egypt has a fundamental role to play in stabilizing the rest of the region, though she admitted that “a Nasser[-esque] resumption of influence is probably not in the cards right now.” She added:
When people ask this question, I suspect what they have in mind is Egypt resuming the role as kind of a stabilizing force in the region, so from that perspective…given the state of the region, the more stabilization the better. Obviously, they’ve gone through four years of economic and political turmoil, they’re facing a major security challenge both internally and on their border with Libya, so they’ve got a lot of things on the plate right now, before they could expand.
But it’s almost not a question, because Egypt has the largest Arab population, the largest Arab market, it controls the Suez Canal…they have Al-Azhar and other very strong religious institutions that can influence the rest of the Arab region…You just can’t envision the Middle East without Egypt.