While Washington struggles to keep pace with the crises that are currently engulfing individual Arab countries, it also needs to consider what might lie ahead for the Middle East region as a whole. Paradoxically, there is greater ability to foresee longer-term regional trends than there is in predicting shorter-term outcomes in individual countries. Policy makers, unable to forecast what type of government will surface next in Egypt, or when Syria’s civil war might wind down, would get a clearer picture of the future by stepping back and paying attention to these longer-term regional trends.
One of the longer-term trends U.S. policy makers should prepare for is a regional shift in power that will come about as a result of the Arab Spring, with Egypt emerging in a strengthened leadership position. Along with this shift in power will likely be a corresponding reduction of regional power for Iran, and for the Arab countries in Iran's sphere of influence, namely Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.
How is the argument for a rising Egypt even plausible given its current political turmoil and economic torpor?
First of all, Egypt’s internal politics is likely to push it towards a stronger regional role. Because the country is likely to be politically divided and economically hobbled for some time, it will be difficult for the next government to generate legitimacy by domestic means alone. A more robust Egyptian foreign policy, focused on the vexing issues facing the Arab world, is likely to be part of a strategy for creating regime legitimacy and domestic political stability. Second, Egypt will likely be pulled towards a stronger regional role by conditions of instability and weakened political structures in Syria and Iraq. So Egypt will be pushed into a regional role by its domestic politics, and pulled into that role by regional politics.
Let’s examine how Egypt’s domestic politics is likely to push it towards a strengthened role in the region. As politically divided as Egypt seems today, and as isolated from regional politics as the country was under former President Hosni Mubarak, Egyptians are fiercely nationalistic when it comes to both domestic and regional issues. There is historic evidence for this, particularly under former President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who led Egypt’s nationalist revival and assumed a regional leadership role under the banner of Arab nationalism in the 1950s and 1960s.
Nasser overplayed his strategic hand, and tragically for Egypt and the broader Arab world, he fell victim to his own bravado. His Arab nationalist movement collapsed after the humiliating defeat by Israel in the 1967 war. While the Arab political movement was discredited by the defeat, Egyptian nationalism continued to drive Egypt towards regional involvement. Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, picked up the regional leadership mantle by planning and launching a surprise attack on Israel by Egyptian and Syrian forces in 1973.
After Sadat's assassination in 1981, his successor, Hosni Mubarak, shrunk Egypt's regional role, keeping the country insulated from Arab politics for the next thirty years. But what the Nasser and Sadat eras teach us is that Egypt’s diminished role in the region under Mubarak was very much a historic anomaly, not the country’s natural predisposition. Unlike his predecessors, the situation Mubarak found himself in militated against a robust regional role. He inherited from Sadat a country that was a virtual pariah because of its peace treaty with Israel, that had been expelled from the Arab League, and that was plagued with domestic and regional legitimacy problems. Moreover, having learned a lesson about the perils of a high-wire regional foreign policy from his predecessor's assassination, Mubarak’s instincts were to avoid rocking the boat and tread softly on the regional and international stage.
Notwithstanding Egypt’s long political hibernation under Mubarak, Egyptians today are no less nationalistic than before. The protests of 2011 that led to Mubarak’s overthrow, and the street demonstrations of 2013 that led to the premature termination of President Morsi’s reign, are prima facie evidence of this. But Egypt’s history instructs us that nationalism has both an internal and external face. No Egyptian government can successfully play the nationalist card or generate legitimacy unless it solves the internal political and economic problems that are plaguing the country today. But Egypt's new leaders are likely to play to nationalism's external face in order to buy themselves time (and legitimacy) as they tackle the vexing economic problems the country faces. This means that regional foreign-policy issues, which have been somewhat dormant for many years, are likely to float back to the surface.
In addition to being pushed into a regional role by its domestic politics, Egypt will also be pulled into that role by instability and weakness in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. There are several reasons for this. First of all, Egypt is likely to emerge from its crisis earlier and in better political shape than Syria and Iraq, whose legitimacy problems run deeper and pose a greater threat to the existence of the state itself. Second of all, the inherent weakness of these states and the potential for a redrawing of the borders imposed by the European colonial powers will create demand for regional leadership. A more politically viable Egypt would be positioned well to fill that role. Lastly, Egypt, as the largest Arab country, is the natural counterweight to Turkey and Iran, non-Arab states whose rising regional power could be perceived as threatening to more feeble Arab governments. Moreover, Iran and Turkey have chosen different sides in the Syrian conflict, positioning Egypt to be more of a neutral broker. Should there be a redrawing of Syrian or Iraqi borders, or a political collapse in these countries, Turkey and Iran are more likely than Egypt to be perceived as exploiting the political wreckage. Turkey’s separate energy relationship with Iraqi Kurdistan, bypassing the Iraqi government in Baghdad, is a striking example of how political weakness of Arab governments can be exploited by non-Arab powers.
What would a strengthened regional role for Egypt mean for the United States? While Egypt in the future is likely to be less pliant than it was under Mubarak’s leadership, the potential for it to serve as a counterweight to Iran’s political influence in the region could serve U.S. interests. Even in the unlikely event that Egypt once again transitions to an Islamic-leaning government, the need to maintain support and legitimacy will mean its foreign policy will likely tack more in the direction of Arab issues, and less towards an Islamic agenda. Moreover, Iran's influence in the Arab world, and its success in playing a spoiler role through its proxies Hezbollah and Syria, was in large part due to a leadership vacuum in the Arab world. A restoration of Egyptian leadership could crowd out Iran’s influence on Arab issues and make it more difficult for Iran to play the spoiler role on Arab-Israeli issues.
But the rise of Egypt could also pose a challenge to the United States. While Egypt is unlikely to pose a direct threat to U.S. regional interests, it is likely to be more independent in its views and actions than it ever was under former President Mubarak. This means that on some issues U.S. and Egyptian interests may converge, while on others they might be in direct conflict. Because of this, the United States will need to re-gear for a foreign policy less dependent on “hard-wired” Cold War–style alliances and focus more on creating issue-specific coalitions. Diplomatic and intelligence capabilities will need to reflect the need to work with a more independent Egypt, which won’t reflexively follow the U.S. lead, but instead will need to be persuaded on a case-by-case basis of the merits of the U.S. position. But first the United States has to see beyond the current crises and pay attention to the longer-term trends of the Arab Spring, which involve shifts in the regional balance of power. Only the future will tell if Washington is up to that challenge.
Ross Harrison is on the faculty of the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, where he teaches graduate-level courses in strategy. He also teaches Middle East politics at the University of Pittsburgh, and is the author of Strategic Thinking in 3D: A Guide for National Security, Foreign policy and Business Professionals.
Image: Flickr/Ramy Raoof. CC BY 2.0.