For Egypt, the 20th century was the century of the struggle for independence and national liberation, both of which were achieved.
A majority of Egyptians agreed on what “independence” meant, seeing it as implying political, economic, and up to a point cultural independence.
And many, probably the vast majority, believed economic independence meant self-sufficiency. In fact, the slogan used by former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser was “from the needle to the rocket.”
This may sound laughable now. But history enables us to understand this goal. Egypt had originally lost its independence as a result of debt, and many Egyptians also felt that in cosmopolitan pre-revolutionary Egypt, non-Egyptians, Westerners or Levantines had owned the lion’s share of the country.
However, we never achieved the target of self-sufficiency advanced by the 1952 Revolution, and we never even came close to it. Even the policy of import-substitution by industrialisation failed for the simple reason that this was an utterly unrealistic goal.
The situation has not changed today, and if anything, it has become clearer. A country with more than one hundred million inhabitants cannot produce all its own food, for instance, especially when the desert rules supreme. We have to buy a lot of food on the international markets instead.
Egypt’s political leadership has understood this, at least since the final decade of former president Hosni Mubarak’s regime. But a lot of people, including many senior civil servants and intellectuals, have yet to come to terms with the fact that we have to rely on the rest of the world and can no longer close our doors and lock our windows.
Another problem is that our economic infrastructure and economic system are not adapted to the fact that we need to export and to import to live. Things will improve, but this will take time.
Let us consider the problem from another angle. The Egyptian state likes large, even pharaonic, projects that cost an enormous amount of money but have huge and lasting returns.
The Aswan High Dam, the Suez Canal, the New Administrative Capital and the Cairo metro network are all impressive examples of this. I think the state is less smart when it comes to managing micro-projects, but this deserves another article.
What I want to say here is the following: in some areas, the state’s know-how regarding large projects that will bring huge returns is and will remain necessary. In others, it is no longer of much use, to the state’s dismay.
The most interesting cases are fields where long-term planning is necessary but risky as the returns are not guaranteed. It cannot be known whether the research you fund or the technology you develop will be of permanent use. When the final product is ready, it may also be outdated.
I have pharmaceuticals, weapons, planes, cars, artificial intelligence and telecommunication networks, etc., in mind.
Egypt is a poor country, and it cannot afford to invest huge amounts of money riskily, possibly or probably to no avail. As a result, the implications are clear: we often reluctantly leave these areas to other countries, and then we buy their products and may be also their technology. This seems wiser and safer as a way of using our scarce resources.
But this also means we are “dependent” on foreign countries for such products and technology. However, there is a difference between dependency and interdependency, even if many people still do not realise this and remain addicted to self-sufficiency.
The plain fact is that we are dependent, in a sense, because of our resources and capacities, and this constrains our actions, tactics and strategies.
Overcoming this situation will take decades, and one of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s virtues is his willingness to introduce reforms that cost him political capital even when the results of them are not likely to be seen in the near future and will only benefit one of his heirs.
Reforming our education system is a very difficult task, for example. Entrenched interests, bad habits and reactionary mindsets are formidable obstacles to reform, and meanwhile some of our brightest children prefer to leave and go to countries where salaries are more appealing, living conditions and ways of life more decent, and better opportunities await them.
The struggle against poverty at home devours a lot of money, and rightly so it is the government’s top priority.
We are condemned to a state of dependency for a long while yet, and we have to think about what this means. However, we may be able to choose the camp to which we are dependent. We can develop a strategy.
Do we put all our eggs in the same basket? If yes, which is the right one? After all, if we become captive to one camp, this will also be our prisoner in a sense, as we are an enormous country.
Do we prefer to diversify our foreign relationships? How should we do this? We could ally ourselves with one camp in one domain, while preferring another partner in another. We could have many partners in each.
The answers depend on the state of the technology available, our own financial conditions, the political preferences of others and the political price they ask for or the costs we can afford. They should also depend on reliability, however. And here we have a serious problem.
It is not just that many in the United States and Europe have wanted us to do things that have been tantamount to suicide, or that many have displayed a worrying eagerness to go the way of sanctions. It is not just because they underestimate the importance of economic development and the seriousness of the problems we face.
The main issue, or at least the one that worries me most, is the issue of decline. All the main players are facing a decline, having a lot of resources but questionable leadership.
I grew up thinking that in the long-term democracies always win because they are able to mobilise and to focus and because they can produce men and women who are courageous, curious and committed to freedom. The existence of democracy and free debate enables each participant to learn and to improve.
However, I am no longer so sure that this is true. Do you want to hate democracy? Try looking at the European countries and the United States.
It would be tempting to say that the issues now are more complex, that the ties that bind individuals are much weaker, and that too often we are faced with situations in which each actor follows a rational course and adopts a rational decision but that this yields a collective result that may be disastrous as a result.
This is the usual and most comfortable explanation. It has a grain of truth to it, but it is no longer sufficient. I am not sure that today’s leaders are not blinded by bias. However, one bet seems sure: I am still convinced that whatever happens Russia will not emerge as a winner.
We should design a strategy aimed at reversing this trend, and, more urgently, another one aiming at minimising the negative consequences of this state of affairs on our national security and well-being.
This starts with the following questions. Can we choose the country to which we are dependent? Can we avoid putting all our eggs in the same basket? Can we separate out different issues and different fields? Or would it be better to link certain issues to others? Can we exploit our economy’s size to gain leverage and improve conditions regarding the transfer of technology? Can we organise a competition between different bidders?
I will leave the answers to these questions to the experts, but in the meantime I have many things to say. In theory, of course, diversifying our options is a good idea.
In practice, it is not always possible, especially at present with the increasing competition between the great powers and the growing brutalisation of international relations. This is not only the fault of US President Donald Trump, as many other heads of states have contributed to it.
President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has tried to diversify Egypt’s options, especially after former US president Barack Obama’s ill-considered moves, and he has achieved many notable successes.
Nevertheless, the West has remained our main partner since former president Anwar Al-Sadat switched sides in the 1970s and reversed our alliances.
We use US and European weapons and technology. We study in their universities. We cooperate with them on security issues. We speak their languages, read their newspapers, watch their films and look at their TV channels.
But is the West still a reliable partner? In fact, this question entails many different ones. It implies, first of all, that Western foreign policies, especially those of the Americans, lack consistency and are too easily reversed.
Second, it seems that we are witnessing a constant and perhaps irreversible decline in the West, especially in Europe.
Third, even if this downward spiral can be stopped, we still cannot be sure that China will not win the competition for world system leadership.
Western societies have also changed. In each, sharp polarisation opposes those who have benefited from globalisation and those who have suffered from it.
This polarisation has meant that in the United States it is now impossible to reach bi-partisan consensus on almost all the major issues. The consequences of this are all too clear: we can be considered to be a key ally for one administration and a liability for the next for no apparent reason.
Presidents Obama and Trump share some habits: they like mocking the Washington foreign-policy community, and they have tended to consider many of America’s traditional allies to be liabilities, not resources, too often allowing this to lead them to unilateralism. Of course, those who liked working with Obama now hate Trump and vice versa.
And the two presidents’ recipes have greatly differed even as their outcomes have not been brilliant, although it might be too early to tell.
I do not want to open old wounds here. Suffice it to say that our leaders have had some difficult times with the Western media and with US presidents Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama over the past 24 years.
But the fact that our strategic and political alliance with Washington has survived those 24 years proves that our relationship and its mutual benefits are solid enough to withstand such storms.
Our relationship can withstand the antipathy that has sometimes existed between the leaders of our two countries.
Nevertheless, there are causes for concern. Washington has been increasingly prompt to use sanctions, even against its allies. Too often, it wants us to do things we simply cannot do. In general, it tends to consider all its allies to be free-riders.
It does not mind “experimenting” with things that obviously cannot work. Moreover, Egypt has many foes in Washington. Paradoxically, the fact that we are reliable means that few monitor what is happening in Egypt, as no unpleasant surprises are expected. This gives room to our enemies to spread false ideas about our role.
It is clear, however, that we need the relationship with the West. We need to address its critics, and we need to develop it without endangering our own sovereignty. We should propose our own ideas and initiatives. Above all, we should begin to ask whether we need a US with universalist and empire-like aspirations.
Should we prefer a power that uses offshore balancing? How should we deal with these two postures? We should be ready for some difficult times ahead, as many in the liberal camp want to “punish” us for not being as nice as they think they are.
The same thing goes for Europe, but with some caveats. First of all, Europe needs our help on migration, terrorism and trade. Like us, it does not like risky experiments, and it does not feel as safe as the US.
Geographically, it is more exposed, and financially its resources do not match those of the US. It cannot launch an invasion.
Strategically, Washington can claim it needs to be involved in the crises in the region. While I do not necessarily buy this, there is a case for such an argument. Europe cannot afford to ignore the Middle East either, and this fact has pros and cons. While it cannot toy with our future, it may be tempted by politics appeasing radical and aggressive fundamentalism.
In both cases, a lot will depend on a factor we cannot control: the future of the West’s relations with Turkey. The latter’s strategic importance is obvious, as it controls the gates to Eastern Europe, Russia, the Middle East and Central Asia. It has a powerful military, even if its abilities have sharply declined.
But it is also crystal clear that its leader is unreliable, perpetually changes alliances, and is prone to brutality. He has frequently manipulated and helped jihadists, and there is no sign that he will stop doing so. He is a master tactician, but his strategic thinking is cloudy. Above all, he has a propensity to interfere in the internal politics of any country that irritates the placid and patient Europeans.
Of course, many in Europe and the United States think they can develop close relations with both Egypt and Turkey. They think they do not need to pay attention to the Turkish leader’s regional behaviour. But time will probably prove them wrong.
A version of this article appears in print in the 29 August, and 5 September 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.