In 2019, Egypt will mark 150 years since the completion of the Suez Canal. The waterway linking the Mediterranean and Red seas and providing a global shipping shortcut attests to the country's highly strategic location. But controlling a key chokepoint has not sufficed to ward off Cairo's declining significance on the global stage.
While Egypt's importance in the global system may be debatable, few in the Middle East would dispute its pivotal role in the region. Its willingness to involve itself in regional affairs, however, waxes and wanes according to how stable it is at home. Today, after years of political chaos since the Arab Spring and the return of the military to power, Egypt's internal politics have stabilized.
Though Egypt does not dominate global media coverage of Middle Eastern affairs, it nevertheless remains a key Arab power. After years of tumult, the country is now re-emerging from its inward focus, enabling it to act more assertively in its immediate neighborhood.
Under this renewed approach, Egypt's parliament is even debating relaxing presidential term limits, a sign of the government's confidence that it is immune to domestic challenges. And the economy is also back on track, with macroeconomic indicators stabilizing after the near-completion of an ambitious three-year International Monetary Fund (IMF) program. So while the last decade has been a time of internal focus for Egypt, the country is now positioned to return to its historic role as a middle power.
Egypt's Regional and Global Strengths
For much of its modern history, Egypt has acted as a strategic middle power in the Middle East, participating in or mediating various conflicts and providing diplomatic support to allies seeking to benefit from the country's heft. Egypt occupies a pivotal position in the Arab and Muslim worlds, with ample coastline along three key waterways, the Red Sea, the Mediterranean Sea and the Nile River. It also has the largest Arab military force, including a sizable navy and a sophisticated diplomatic corps.
While Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states have tended to be the most visible Arab states in public diplomacy in recent years, Egypt's government was a regional leader well before the modern Gulf states even existed — and before they found the oil that now fuels their power. Culturally, Egypt — which has the largest population in the Arab world at more than 100 million and rapidly growing — is a touchstone in the Arab and broader Muslim world. Cairo's al-Azhar Mosque and religious institute, for example, is widely acknowledged as the global center of Sunni Islamic education.
Egypt's importance as a middle power in the region, of course, factors into how it relates to the broader world. Modern Egypt has artfully leveraged its regional influence to extract benefits from global powers vying for dominance. Egypt's violent transition from a monarchy to a republic in 1952 is a classic example of this dynamic. At that time, the country found itself uniquely positioned to take advantage of burgeoning Cold War tensions between the East and West — first balancing the United Kingdom against the Soviet Union, then balancing the United States against the Soviet Union. This gained Egypt substantial military and economic aid in addition to diplomatic support from all sides since no global power was willing to alienate Cairo and risk losing access to the Suez Canal, or Egypt's powerful military, substantial consumer market and economy.
Today, Egypt continues this balancing act, receiving more than $1 billion annually in U.S. military aid, while simultaneously purchasing Russian military equipment and exploring nuclear energy development with Moscow. China is also pouring investment money into Egypt with an eye to its consumer market and manufacturing environment, and to ensure easy access to the Red Sea and Suez Canal as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. As Egypt emerges as a more confident regional player, these three global powers will also find themselves competing for Egypt's attention.
Egypt's Internal Weaknesses
But just as Egypt's inherent power may be hard to dispute, so are its weaknesses. When former President Gamal Abdel Nasser wrote in 1955 that "no country can escape looking beyond its boundaries to find the source of the currents which influence it," he was acknowledging how modern Egypt must position itself wisely, even between stronger powers. Nasser recognized Egypt's inability to fight the geographic reality that binds it to neighbors and rivals such as Sudan and Ethiopia farther up the Nile, or Turkey — another power seeking to dominate the Eastern Mediterranean. Nasser is better known for marshaling the Arab world against Western encroachment and Israel, though his successor famously switched course on Israel in 1979.
Periods of intense internal political and economic struggles in Egypt, however, have periodically undermined its ability to act as respected power and mediator between regional states. But they have not altered Egypt's primary regional imperatives. First, it will defend its population core along the lower Nile River and Delta from any security threats that risk bleeding over its borders. Second, it will fight anything, whether political or material, that threatens its access to the water, fuel and economic supplies it needs for its rapidly growing population. Third, it will fight to preserve its freedom to decide who it engages with or what conflicts it becomes involved in (which now often involves supporting friendly governments that reject Islamist movements).
Stabilizing the Home Front
The Arab Spring protests marked a rare moment of democratic optimism in Egypt, with the overthrow of longtime president Hosni Mubarak in 2011 followed by the presidential elections in 2012 that ushered in a Muslim Brotherhood government. It also marked the beginning of a tumultuous period that would see Egypt retreat from its historic regional role as part of a unique moment of democratic optimism for the entire Arab world. However, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the military body that dominates Egyptian affairs, viewed 2011-2012 as a period of frightening volatility.
The military coup in 2013, the drafting of the current Egyptian Constitution and the election of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in 2014 represented SCAF-led efforts to calm the turbulent political waters — even if that meant a violent crackdown on the opposition. As a result, al-Sisi's administration easily won a second term in 2018, giving him the next four years to solidify his legacy — and the SCAF plenty of time with a leader it approved of, along with a government it could both readily and discreetly control.
Meanwhile, Egypt's fragile economy improved, though it remains the country's Achilles' heel. Its continued weaknesses include high levels of debt, a hefty public wage bill, high subsidies that the government has struggled to reduce, high unemployment, dependence on a weakening agriculture sector, and a poor educational system unequipped to train a labor force for the country's future needs. Moreover, the Egyptian currency is weak and will likely continue to weaken, reducing the already paltry purchasing power in the country.
But at the macroeconomic level, Egypt's economy is emerging stronger than it has been in years, due in part to Cairo's commitment to the IMF program. The country has achieved its highest levels of growth in a decade and the most inbound foreign direct investment of any country in Africa in 2018, along with rising tourism numbers. Cairo's progress in stabilizing its economy and its internal political system means it is now comfortable enough to resume a more active role as mediator and leader in some regional conflicts.
Reaching Outward Once More
While Egypt has begun playing a more assertive role in the region, its focus remains on protecting its core at the Nile River and Delta. Over the past year, Egypt sought to lessen tensions with its southern neighbors Sudan and Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam that straddles the Nile. The need for solutions that ensure Egypt maintains access to sufficient water for irrigation and drinking has driven this more pragmatic approach. Historically, Egypt was the dominant player on the river despite being a downstream country. But lately, its upstream neighbors have proved more willing to use their leverage over the Nile against Egypt. During recent unrest in Sudan, Egyptian support for embattled leader Omar al Bashir testifies to Cairo's efforts to make peace with its Red Sea neighbors, though tensions over the allotment of the Nile's waters will undoubtedly persist.
Egypt's next priority is defending against militancy, most of which emanates from the vast expanses of desert on both sides of the Nile. Its western neighbor, Libya, has lately been a hotspot for militancy. For several years, Egypt has given military and diplomatic support to Libyan National Army leader Khalifa Hifter. Working quietly in conjunction with the United Arab Emirates, the Egyptian air force has also bombed Islamist militias in eastern Libya as it seeks to stop militancy from bleeding over the porous Libyan-Egyptian border. Differences over engaging with certain Islamist factions will eventually strain the Egyptian-UAE alliance, while deeper Egyptian involvement in Libya risks rousing the opposition of Saharan powers such as Algeria and Morocco.
In areas that do not border Egypt, Cairo is interested in helping work toward stability, but not without careful consideration.
Egyptian leaders have begun pragmatically re-engaging with the militant group Hamas in the Gaza Strip to boost security in the Sinai Peninsula after years of diminished engagement with the Palestinians. Egypt has also re-established itself as a primary actor helping Israel, the United States and Arab states negotiate between feuding Palestinian parties. Although the limits of these efforts are clear, since the latest reconciliation deal between Hamas and Fatah now appears to be failing, Egypt at least hopes to diminish the security threat that the Gaza Strip poses.
In its pursuit of reasserting itself as a Mediterranean power, Egypt has also become a key player in the oil and gas rush in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, where sizeable recent discoveries have given Cairo hopes of finding even more hydrocarbons. Eager for greater energy security and to be able to better fuel its manufacturing sector, Egypt has carefully sought to align itself closely with Greece and Cyprus, meeting with its Mediterranean neighbors in multiple summits throughout the year. Aligning with Greece and Cyprus, as well as with Israel and Italy, better positions Egypt to challenge chief rival Turkey in any disputes over future oil and gas discoveries in the eastern Mediterranean (where territorial lines often blur and overlap). The more Egypt pushes, however, the more likely it is to spark tensions with Turkey.
All of this activity in Egypt's immediate sphere of influence has increased under al-Sisi's presidency. This risks creating dissidence with other regional powers such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran and the United Arab Emirates, which have been active in the region during the time that Egypt's focus was largely turned inward. Cairo believes its disinterest in the affairs of countries farther afield in the region, such as Syria and Iraq and on the Arabian Peninsula, will mitigate these tensions. In areas that do not border Egypt, Cairo is interested in helping work toward stability, but not without careful consideration.
Egypt's participation in the partial blockade of Qatar is telling in this regard. Cairo is broadly aligned with the priorities of the Gulf Cooperation Council members and depends on their economic aid. Plus, it resents Doha for sheltering the Islamist movements it opposes. But even then, it has been the quietest of the four states that initiated the blockade. Likewise, Egypt has avoided significant involvement in the Syrian civil war, fearing it'll get drawn into a quagmire that would generate significant blowback. However, it has also swiftly warmed again to the prospect of a Bashar al Assad-led Syria — a reflection of Cairo's enthusiasm for stable Arab governments with little space for Islamists.
While Egypt may be emerging as a more solid Middle East middle power, it still faces significant political and economic headwinds. The more Egypt involves itself beyond its borders, the more it will meet complications with regional and global powers that do not share its priorities. The United States already objects to Egypt's close relationship with Russia, with Congress particularly opposed to Cairo's purchases of Russian arms. Increasing Egyptian economic cooperation with China will similarly become an issue in Washington, especially if Egypt increases its purchases of Chinese technology. But while domestic political opposition and economic fragility remain ongoing challenges, as long as Cairo feels more confident at home, Egypt will play a more active role in the Middle East.