Special report: Why Egypt’s power has dimmed

Cairo–At Bayoumy's, a dingy, smoke-filled tea shop in downtown Cairo, Egyptian football fans groaned at the "biased" referee as they watched their national team lose 2-1 to the Gulf state of Qatar in a friendly last week. Once the television commentary had died away and people turned back to their backgammon games, some pondered an awkward question for Egypt, which prides itself on being the pre-eminent regional power. Why is it that gas-rich Qatar, a football minnow ranked 113 in the world, will host the 2022 World Cup–the first in the Middle East–while Egypt did not win a single vote when it bid for the Cup six years ago?

"Qatar does not have the history that Egypt has, but it has vision, money and the goal to be a leader among nations in the region," sighed the tea-shop proprietor Mr Bayoumy, reflecting on the past under former president Gamal Abdel Nasser. "Egypt had vision and resolve in Abdel Nasser's time and was even more independent than Qatar now, which has the largest US military base in the Middle East. But this country has no vision any more, only officials who look after themselves."

Sipping his tea, Haj Masoud, 67, also lamented Egypt's lack of vitality. "Qatar is new at everything: diplomacy, history, wealth," he said. "Egypt has a long history in all of these areas but its people are too busy making ends meet."

Egypt may still be a football powerhouse–it captured the Cup of African Nations for the seventh time this year to bring its FIFA world ranking to ten–but it can no longer claim automatic primacy as the foremost political, economic and cultural country in the Middle East. Non-Arab Turkey, Iran and Israel all arguably pack a bigger punch than Egypt these days, while oil giants Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates outmuscle it financially. Even an agile lightweight like Qatar can dodge into a diplomatic–and sporting–ring that Cairo once dominated.

"Egypt has virtually no influence as far as I can tell," says Beirut-based commentator Rami Khouri, who dates the decline in Cairo's clout to then-leader Anwar Sadat's 1977 peace-making trip to Jerusalem, when the Arab world pointedly declined to follow his lead. "Egypt used to be a creative, dynamic place, culturally and politically. Now it's very static and others have become more dynamic–the Syrians, Hezbollah, the Iranians, the Qataris. None of them has become the dominant actor, but they all play a role that used to be more monopolised by Egypt."

Related Articles

Back to top button