This article was first published here on ForeignPolicy.com on June 19, 2019.
News broke earlier this week that Mohamed Morsi had died in an Egyptian courtroom. To some, the deposed president is now a martyred hero. To others, he was the personification of evil. Morsi was neither, of course. He was an apparatchik who led a bloc of Muslim Brotherhood lawmakers, technically elected as independents, in Egypt’s People’s Assembly during the late Hosni Mubarak period. That is it. Had the Muslim Brotherhood’s Deputy Supreme Guide Khairat al-Shater not been disqualified from running for president in 2012, few would have ever heard of Morsi. He had no achievements (though to be fair, he was up against powerful opponents), was not particularly wise, and demonstrated little commitment to democracy except in its illiberal, majoritarian form. If nothing else, his truncated presidency and death—of an apparent heart attack—underline Egypt’s abject and terminal mediocrity on the world stage.
For better or worse, President Gamal Abdel Nasser was heroic: the officer who wrested control of Egypt from the British and—in the ultimate act of nationalist daring—declared the Suez Canal to be Egyptian for the benefit of Egyptians. It was the culmination of almost a century of struggle for dignity. His successor, Anwar Sadat, was heroic in an altogether different way. He oversaw the now-mythic “Crossing” in October 1973 that bloodied, but did not defeat, the mighty Israel Defense Forces. In four years’ time, he would stand before Israel’s parliament simultaneously admonishing his hosts and seeking their goodwill in peace. Mubarak was not heroic, but he was a well-respected Air Force officer of the 1973 generation, and by the time he fell from power in February 2011 he had an actual record of achievement. Morsi was middle management, thrust into the spotlight because the Muslim Brotherhood needed someone, anyone—the accidental president.
That Morsi gave way unwillingly to Abdel Fattah al-Sisi seems fitting not just because of the historical symmetry of the Muslim Brotherhood versus the military, but also because Sisi, too, is president by default. There is a pervasive sense in Egypt these days that life was better under Mubarak and that Sisi is president because there is little difference between him and the next military officer to take over. Sisi—like Morsi before him—promised Egyptians a renaissance, but he is presiding over Egypt’s long slide into irrelevance.
“Does Egypt still matter?” is a question that pops up every now and again in Washington. The answer depends on what those in the United States mean by “matter.” There is an argument to be made that Egypt is still important for the same well-known, oft-rehearsed reasons that U.S. policymakers, diplomats, and analysts have been offering for decades: Egypt is the largest Arab country, has the most powerful army, sits on the Suez Canal, and is at peace with Israel.
Then there is the metaphysical argument about Egypt that leaders in the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf often make. The undefinable but undeniable sense of Egypt’s civilizational weight that gives the country influence well beyond either its capacity or the desire among the Gulf residents for a greater Egyptian role in their affairs. In addition to their fear of a Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Cairo, the Saudis, in particular, seem to need Egypt on an emotional level. That’s why the late Saudi King Abdullah was steadfast in his support for Morsi’s overthrow in 2013.
This need is entirely in the realm of the abstract, however. Without ever having to do much of anything, Egypt and its 100 million people manage to provide 33 million Saudis with strategic depth. Apparently, just knowing that Egypt is in what they consider to be safe hands helps officials in Riyadh sleep at night.
On a more practical level, it is a stretch to argue that Egypt matters in a tangible way internationally. The Egyptians are a non-factor in the defining struggles of the Middle East. They largely opted out of the conflict in Yemen, which was smart, but they are not even part of the diplomatic conversation. Other than opening the Suez Canal to U.S. warships on short notice, Egypt has stayed away from the conflict with Iran. Until a number of countries began reopening their embassies in Damascus, Egypt was outside the Arab consensus on Syria, directly supporting Russia and the Bashar al-Assad regime. The Egyptians still have a stake in Israeli-Palestinian talks, but even when it comes to the issue on which Egypt is supposed to play its most important regional role, U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration chose to hold its “Peace to Prosperity” workshop in Manama, Bahrain, rather than Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Egypt is the referee in Gaza, an important, but limited, role that is a function of proximity more than anything else.
Against this backdrop, it is not a question of whether Egypt matters, but does the fact that Egypt matters less matter at all? Egyptian leaders like to maintain the pretense of regional power and influence—they tend to bristle at the idea that Saudi Arabia is now the regional leader—but in practice, the answer is no. The average Egyptian’s primary preoccupation is the country’s economy, whose neoliberal reforms have gotten good grades from the IMF but have made most Egyptians poorer. Under these circumstances, the saber-rattling by other Arabs in the Persian Gulf is of passing interest at best.
For those who are in charge, the economy is also paramount. In either a more repressive twist on Hosni Mubarak’s signature “stability for the sake of development” or a pale imitation of the Chinese Communist Party, Sisi and company have sought to depoliticize Egyptian society and focus its attention entirely on projects such as the Tahya Masr bridge (the widest suspension bridge in the world), new highway interchanges, resurfaced roadways, and gleaming airport terminals. This is what animates Egyptian elites these days: building the country. It is a laudable objective given Egypt’s dilapidated state, but there is also corruption and coercion at play.
Perhaps Egypt must in fact draw inward and put its own affairs in order before it retakes its proper role as leader of the Middle East. But even that would take wise and genuine leadership. Like Morsi before him, these are attributes that the current Egyptian president does not possess. Egypt is a great country with great potential, but it has become saddled with men like Morsi and Sisi—thinly educated, parochial, cynical, but, most of all, small. That is what Egypt has become, and few seem to mind.