After years of political turmoil and economic malaise, the time when the world looked to Egypt as a source of political inspiration can seem like ancient history. Yet as recently as 13 years ago, the dynamism expressed through Egyptian mass protests that toppled then-President Hosni Mubarak’s corrupt regime generated hope that the Arab world’s most populous state was on the cusp of a democratic golden age. The way Egypt’s revolt in January 2011 then attracted global attention reflected the country’s regional influence, buoyed by the charisma of past leaders such as Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar el-Sadat.
More recently, however, the autocratic regime of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has been unable to do anything more than react to crises around Egypt’s borders, generating a strategic vacuum that more disruptive actors have been willing to fill. Facing a severe economic crisis compounded by the Sisi regime’s incompetence, Egypt has become dependent on funding from Gulf states and bailouts from the International Monetary Fund, constraining Cairo’s ability to adopt a more assertive approach toward regional conflicts. With concerns growing over Egypt’s own stability, Cairo’s inability to play a substantial geopolitical role creates a vicious cycle, increasing the likelihood that the chaos around it further exacerbates Egypt’s own internal problems.
It is not easy to pinpoint the exact moment when Egypt began to lose its position of regional pre-eminence. Nasser achieved a position of global leadership during the Cold War through the Non-Aligned Movement and his defiance of French and British imperial intervention during the Suez crisis of 1956. But his own failed military adventure in Yemen and the collapse of his attempt to unify Egypt with Syria in the early 1960s marked a first major setback. The humiliating defeat against Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967 and the growing economic reach that Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates and other oil-producing states achieved in the decade that followed also diminished Egypt’s ability to shape the regional order.