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After A Century of Egyptian Independence, It’s Still Complicated

Guest: Karim Haggag, former Egyptian diplomat, visiting fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and a professor at the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo.

In addition to his positions in academia, Karim Haggag is a career Egyptian diplomat with over 25 years of service in Egypt’s diplomatic corps. Throughout his career, he has served in numerous capacities focusing on US foreign policy towards the Middle East, Middle East regional security, arms control and non-proliferation, and Arab-Israeli diplomacy.  

As Egypt celebrates 100 years of independence from Britain’s colonial rule, its status on the global stage has changed. Egypt’s historic leadership of the Arab world has waned as Gulf states flex their money and muscle, and the U.S. criticizes Cairo for human rights abuses and withdraws foreign aid. President Al-Sisi now turns to other allies to retrieve Egypt’s influence. 

Egypt’s revolt from Britain occurred decades before any other African or Asian country managed to throw off the yoke of British, French, Belgian, German colonial power. For years, this act of revolution propelled Egypt to a position of regional and global policy leadership – from its role as a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement, the pioneer of Pan-Arabism, and of course, the first country to make peace with Israel. Now, human rights abuses and restrictions of freedoms have placed the most populous Arab country in a controversial light with its Western allies. But President Al-Sisi is turning elsewhere, to regional allies who seem less concerned about human rights. In 2021, trade between Egypt and Arab countries increased by nearly 20%, and Al-Sisi seems unbothered by his cooling relationship with the US.

At the beginning of the year, the US withdrew $130 million dollars in military aid to Egypt over human rights concerns, which undoubtedly harmed relations between Cairo and Washington. The Biden Administration has been vocal against President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s repression of liberties and human rights violations.

Egypt historically enjoyed widespread political influence. There’s no denying Egypt’s political legacy in the region was vast. Karim Haggag explains, “it’s important to note it wasn’t just Egypt’s political leadership […] it was also a leadership in terms of culture, in terms of thought. For a long time, Egyptian art, literature, movies, and education were nearly universal in the Arab world. […] It was very much a leadership role founded on soft power. An immense reservoir of soft power rather than hard power.” 

Despite this strong legacy, Egypt’s geopolitical role in the World seems to have changed. Altamar’s Peter Schechter asked, “Where is Egypt today? Has its role shrunk?” Karim Haggag noted, “The tumultuous change that Egypt went through as a result of the Arab uprisings took its toll. [Today,] there is a strong feeling that Egypt needs to prioritize its domestic development. It’s very focused on getting [its own] house in order so that it can resume its regional leadership role sometime in the near future. To be better positioned to play [a leadership role for] the benefit of the region.”

The Arab Spring led to varying political outcomes for countries of North Africa and the Middle East. “[It] developed along different trajectories. You did have the overthrow of regimes in Egypt and Tunisia. But in other countries, the Arab Spring degenerated into a vicious civil war. We’ve seen that in Syria, seen it in Libya. We’ve seen that in Yemen. Currently, in Tunisia, you have a deepening of political polarization between Nationalists and Islamists. In Algeria, you have a second wave of the Arab Spring, something that’s also playing out in Sudan. In Morocco, you had a very astute monarchy that was able to preempt demands for change early on during the Arab Spring. So, in many ways, all these cases represent different chapters of the story of the Arab Spring that’s still being written,” Haggag commented.  

We turned to Egypt’s role in regions outside of the Middle East. Altamar’s Muni Jensen asks, “What about Africa? Does Egypt have a role to play as a regional leader beyond the Sahara?” “There’s a sense among Egyptians […] that over the last 30 years, Egypt has neglected Africa. […] Today, there is a clear desire on the part of the government to renew and strengthen its links with the continent in terms of reviving Egypt’s development assistance to countries in Africa and its humanitarian relief efforts. During the whole period of COVID, there was a very interesting attempt at vaccine diplomacy and health diplomacy on the part of Egypt with countries in the continent,” said Haggag.

And what about the United States? Egypt and the U.S. were once strong allies, working together on several sensitive geopolitical issues. However, now Washington has placed pressure on Cairo regarding human rights concerns, and most recently withdrew development funding. Haggag pushes back against Washington’s more assertive policy.  “There many advocates in the United States, in Washington in particular, that have sought to leverage US assistance to Egypt to pressure Egyptian governments on the issue of human rights. I would argue that at no time has that worked in achieving or furthering the objective of human rights as they see it in Egypt.”

Egypt has made attempts in the last two decades to open its economy to competition and greater private sector leadership. We asked Haggag about the possibility of future reforms and the internal challenges. He acknowledged, “There’s a real sense of urgency about this. […] I think the next wave of reforms must address deep-seated institutional issues, institutions of economic governance- in terms of taxation, in terms of regulation – to unleash what has historically been a very vibrant private sector in Egypt.”

Haggag was optimistic about Egypt’s political stability and future economic reform. Will it pan out as he says? Or will the criticisms of human rights violations prove a bigger concern? Find out more by listening to the latest Altamar episode, available wherever you get your podcasts. You can download the episode here.

Image Source: Getty Images


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Episode 121