BOGOTA / ABU DHABI: Egypt has seen a decade of upheaval since the fall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, battling two revolutions, environmental pressures and, more recently, the economic challenges of COVID-19.
And yet this most populous Arab country, which stretches across the African and Asian continents, emerged from the turmoil with a new meaning and a desire for more commitment to the region and the world.
Egypt is to be nominated to host the UN climate conference COP27 for 2022 – an award that seemed unthinkable just a few years ago.
This October not only marks the 48th anniversary of the 1973 war with Israel; Forty years ago, on October 6th, President Anwar Sadat was assassinated by Islamist extremists during the annual Victory Parade in Cairo.
For many in the Middle East, Sadat’s positive legacy is in the works: the Egyptian-Israeli peace process, Egyptian economic development and political liberalization, the Palestinian peace process, and overcoming the challenge of violent extremism.
“What I have seen lately, especially last year, is that Egypt is much more interested in determining movement on regional issues,” said Nabil Fahmy, former Egyptian foreign minister, during a discussion at the previously held world policy conference at October in Abu Dhabi.
“Egypt faced a few hurdles. But (look at) the strength of his system. I doubt that very few countries in the region and some abroad, frankly, have survived two revolutions in three years and emerged as standing. “
The latest economic forecasts show that Egypt is now entering the recovery phase after the blows of the COVID-19 pandemic. “There is clear evidence of economic progress,” said Fahmy. “Even after the pandemic, we expect growth of 4 to 5 percent in the coming year, which is significant.”
His observations were repeated by the Egyptian politician and academic Mona Makram-Ebeid at the same conference.
“Now there is a glimmer of hope in the form of natural gas discoveries that have the potential to boost Egypt’s limping economy and forge a new trade alliance with the Eastern Mediterranean and Israel.
“Egypt hit the jackpot in 2015 with the discovery of a huge reservoir called the Zohr, which has become one of the largest single gas fields in the Middle East.”
To date, Zohr is the largest gas field discovered in the Mediterranean, with almost 30 trillion cubic feet of reserves. The field – operated by the Italian company Eni – started production in December 2017.
All in all, there has been significant progress, and not just in the economic field. Egypt is also making progress on institutional reform, strengthening the rule of law and addressing international concerns about its human rights record.
“Only three weeks ago we released a new human rights doctrine,” said Fahmy. “It’s not perfect. Human rights doctrines and applications around the world are not perfect. But it is a huge step forward. And it is a reflection that we want to move forward.
“In the short term, it will be a challenge. In the medium term, I’m much more confident. But as an Egyptian, given our weight and the role we have to play, I would also like to be able to act on a long-term basis and make contact with our neighbors. “
Makram-Ebeid praised the new teaching and said that it would have a positive impact on several aspects of Egyptian life.
“It will provide access to employment, education, health care and freedom of religion,” she said.
Egypt’s last decade of upheaval began on January 25, 2011 when thousands of protesters flocked to the streets of Cairo to call for change. Aggressive police tactics to crack down on the protests culminated in calls for Mubarak’s removal.
When he was finally overthrown from power, the young Egyptians felt that their moment had come to create a fairer society. In reality it was just the beginning of a new period of discontent and insecurity. The country has been rocked by new economic disasters and the seizure of power by Mohamed Morsi – an Islamist politician associated with the now banned Muslim Brotherhood.
The “second Egyptian revolution” came in 2013, one year after Morsi’s inauguration. The resumption of street protests that summer resulted in Morsi being ousted and the Muslim Brotherhood being classified as a terrorist organization.
The following year, Morsi’s Defense Minister Abdel Fattah El-Sisi won the presidential election and was sworn in.
“The fundamental challenge between the Muslim Brotherhood and the rest of the Egyptian system was our identity,” Fahmy told the WPC event.
“Are we Egyptians with some Muslim Brotherhoods or are we the Muslim Brotherhood with some Egyptians? This is an existential threat and therefore the collision happened quickly. Not only political influencers, but also the middle class were actually against the form of government that the Muslim Brotherhood formed when it came to power. “
The brotherhood was founded in Egypt in 1928 by Hassan Al-Banna and later spread throughout the Middle East to Sudan, Syria, Palestine and Lebanon, and all of North Africa, where its affiliates had varying degrees of success.
“The Muslim Brotherhood was born in Egypt, so there will be some trends in Egypt. But the reality is, if you are trying to build for the future, then our youth want to get involved in the world, ”said Fahmy.
“A dogmatic ideology does not suit Egypt. We have to face the world and I think ideology is a threat to modernity.
“The Brotherhood’s influence in Egypt today is severely limited, and the government, whether agreeing or disagreeing with some of the details of the policy, is currently an activist government trying to respond to the basic, immediate needs of the people.”
Egypt’s greater emphasis on regional and global engagement has become evident in recent months. In addition to recent talks with senior Iraqi and Syrian officials, Egypt has also made diplomatic strides with its rivals. “We have started a dialogue with Turkey,” said Fahmy. “It’s slow, (so) don’t be too optimistic.”
One diplomatic front on which Egypt has made remarkable strides over the past year is Libya, which over the past decade has become a haven for people smugglers and religious extremists.
During the same revolutionary wave that overthrew Mubarak, the Libyan people rose against their longtime ruler, Muammar Gaddafi. However, a decade after its demise, the oil-rich country remains plunged into chaos and political stalemate.
Since the two countries share a permeable desert border, the extremists based in Libya have repeatedly managed to carry out attacks on Egyptian security forces and Christians.
For the past few months, Egypt has been working with Libya’s warring parties to ensure that the national elections are held in December as planned. Cairo believes that a fair and transparent election will help put its war-torn neighbors on the path to stability and recovery.
Fahmy says there has been good progress on the Libya issue, but doubts that the December 24 elections for the country’s recently installed government of national unity will go ahead as planned. “I would like to prove otherwise,” he said.
After his years as a diplomat and academic, Fahmy is highly regarded. He is founding dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and Distinguished University Professor of Practice in International Diplomacy at the American University in Cairo. He has studied Arab-Israeli diplomacy for many years, which has made him a leading authority in the peace process.
Last summer, the United Arab Emirates became the first Arab country to sign the Abraham Accords, a series of US-brokered diplomatic agreements between Israel and Arab states. The signing on August 13, 2020 marked the first time that an Arab country has publicly established relations with Israel since Egypt 1979 and Jordan 1994.
While the agreements have shown potential, critics say they have done little to bring the Palestinians closer to statehood. And while several governments have accepted the agreements, it has been more difficult to sell the normalization of relations with Israel to the Arab public.
“It cannot be stressed enough that the Palestinian issue per se is a very emotional issue in the entire Arab world and therefore the reactions to it are very strong in both cases,” said Fahmy.
“My point is this – and I have told my Palestinian colleagues this – I understand your concern, I understand your fear, but focus on building your case rather than criticizing anyone. Because in the case of the signatories of the agreements, they have all committed to building and supporting a Palestinian state, even if we do not agree to them.
“So my recommendation to Arabs: be a little sensitive in the steps you take. You will find that this is sensitive, you will get some criticism.
“I would tell my Arab colleagues, I would tell the Palestinians, develop ideas on how to move forward politically, and not let the political process die.”
In view of Egypt’s renewed assertiveness on the regional stage, Fahmy hopes that other Arab countries will follow Egypt’s example and come to the negotiating table to speak openly about the way forward. “Arabs are lovely in their ability to consent. Our problem is our inability to disagree, ”he said.
“I would like to take this opportunity to urge Egypt and the Arab countries: We should all talk much more about our vision for the future, for the region and what we want to see specifically for the Middle East as a whole.
“We don’t have to come to an agreement, but we have to enter into a dialogue and see how much agreement and how much disagreement we have. Because it is very dangerous to let others set the agenda. “