Egypt is one of the most sensitive countries in the region to surrounding developments, given its location and resources.Thus many Egyptian interests are determined outside it and away from its borders. If Egypt does not bother about her role in the region, the region will certainly bother. Regardless of how realistic these ideas are, the idea of Egypt's role seems unavoidable.
The problem arose as Egypt's role became a complicated issue. Egypt is an ancient country, with multi-phase history. This fact made it, at least during the Pharaonic period, one of the few states best known to the rest of the earth's population. Egypt has practiced that role forcefully in the political, cultural and military arenas in different periods of time, in a manner that shaped the region's map sometimes. Some Egyptians have also taken some very distinguished international posts, turning Egypt's role into part of its character. In this manner, playing a certain role became essential to Egypt's interests and represents a priority that stirs sensitivities. Sometimes it brings Egypt under threat and never lets it be capable of keeping a low profile on the international level. Moreover, Egypt's external role has always represented a practical importance, as it contributed to bolstering Egypt's ability to maintain its national security and economic growth, or minimize the negative effects that could threaten them.
Egypt's ability to influence the region represented an element of power or leverage in running its affairs with international powers. Egypt's role was also an element crucial to supporting the legitimacy of the political regimes inside. Although this element constituted a source of strength for Egypt, it sometimes led to external hazards, confusing behaviour or "free attitudes" and public relations. The role also carried an exaggeration of viewing the effects of international developments on Egypt.
Nevertheless, it remained an extremely serious issue for Egypt.
But during the past few years, talk never stopped about Egypt's receding regional role, maintaining that other countries in the region have surpassed the Egyptian role such as Iraq before 1991, Saudi Arabia after 2001, Iran after 2004, or Turkey after 2007. Comparisons have even been made between Egypt and Qatar, especially in the media field. Usually some people referred back to Egypt's role in the region during Nasser's rule in the 1950s and 1960s. Despite a firm conviction inside Egypt that its role in the 1960s is now history, something impossible and sometimes undesirable, there have been "unrealistic expectations" about what Egypt should do all the time, despite the fact that everything has changed in the area.
Egypt provided explanations for this issue, as regional balances have changed completely towards a "multi-polar" system. There is a group of big nations which react within certain rules of engagement in the region. In that system, Egypt represents one of the main influential powers, especially when it's higher national interests are affected. Despite Egypt's inability sometimes to achieve what it wants, but it is able to prevent what it does not want, as it always has done. But this view did not give a convincing answer to anyone, especially when some countries in the region like Iran have started to play the role of a big regional power, which Egypt deems not possible.
This issue has been discussed on a broad base inside Egypt, and other explanations have been offered based on what Gamal Hemdan has also said about "the Egyptian nationalism" which surfaces sometimes, as is the case with what happened during the late 1970s.
Two observations were made. First, that the dominance of a trend that asserts the priority of internal affairs in Egypt, in the presence of different political and social problems. The trend asserts that a strong domestic bloc (especially economically) will lead to a stronger external role in the end, noting that the "political mainstream" among the masses cares about what the talk show programs stir. This fact goes contrary to what city intellectuals used to think, as Gaza war demonstrated.
Second, the idea of "direct interest circle" surfaced, as no one cares about the role of the 1960s, realizing that controlling Middle East reactions became complex, even for the United States itself. So certain circles have been marked as containing real Egyptian interests, drawing red lines so that moves would be initiated if these lines are crossed. This procedure was followed when Iran came close to the Egyptian borders. In the light of all this, the files of the Egyptian policy are not that many, but they are highly influential on the Palestinian-Israeli arena. Egypt seeks to maintain Sudan's integrity and to limit Iran's regional influence. Egypt has also connections with the Arab Gulf area, a vision towards the Syrian issue, wide interests in the Mediterranean region, a role in handling regional security problems like terrorism or nuclear proliferation. Egypt also has an influence inside multi-party international groups. Egypt does not care about what the national consensus does not see as a direct threat or a real opportunity. But this situation is still unsatisfactory to most Egyptians.
With the explosion of every regional crisis, or the emergence of a revolutionary state, or an ambitious country, or even the occurrence of unusual positive developments, debate spreads across Egypt on its regional role. Trends of "Egyptian nationalism" surface and there emerges a call for active engagement in the region, using money diplomacy, intelligence activity, the media, and revitalizing strategic programs. There are other realistic trends which assert the necessity to maintain current options, and to ease sensitivity towards other roles, as long as Egyptian national interests have not been touched.
But the Gaza war was a decisive point as Egypt faced a very complicated situation which led to an estimation expressed by Egypt's Foreign Minister Ahmad Abul Gheit when he said "There is a fierce war against Egypt launched by regional powers." This statement led to questions whether Egypt should think differently in running its affairs with Iran and some Arab states and the way Egypt is running this crisis through the media and diplomatically or through other tools.
There is a question also about whether Egypt should wait until the threats arrive to its borders in other times, or should it broaden slightly the scope of its national security.
Egypt has already started to show some teeth towards different parties and managed to control the course of the crisis. It also appears clearly that Iran has lost the confrontation with Egypt. But it is not clear whether Egypt will change its current attitudes concerning its regional role in the near future.
Dr. Mohamed Abdel-Salam - Head of The Regional Security Program at the Al-Ahram Center for Political & Strategic Studies, Cairo, Egypt.