Whether you want to call it withdrawal, redeployment or retrenchment, the American pullout from Afghanistan and Washington’s decision to replace its military presence in the Middle East with active diplomacy has created a new dynamic in the region looking to establish a new balance.
For decades now, the three major regional powers have been Turkey, Iran and Israel, while Arab countries are either military destroyed, like the case of Iraq and Syria, or still recovering from the turmoil of the once called “Arab Spring” led to failure by the Islamists – mainly the Muslim Brotherhood.
The healthy and wealthy Arab Gulf countries grouped in the GCC alliance could have provided Arab countries with a seat at the table with the other three regional powers, but political and destructive competition and rivalry threatened their unity until they recently settled in an arrangement to coexist with their differences and limit their rivalry to fair economic competition.
The only country capable of filling the Arab seat if it maintains its economic recovery is Egypt which, according to financial institutions and several diplomatic assessments, has made major progress and has become an investment destination for several Arab and regional investors.
Following years of political uncertainty, it seems Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi's government has managed to assert itself in the country and reinforced stability and security, although some critics allege that the economic growth and security came at the expense of human rights and political tolerance.
For sure, the government of Egypt, which was the scene of jihadi terrorist attacks, can improve its human rights record and relax its grip; economic recovery and democracy should not be on a collision course.
There is an economic success story in Egypt, which will enable Cairo in the near future to be a major political broker in the region. Lebanese, Syrian and Gulf investors are rushing to establish a presence in the lucrative Egyptian market. Since the economic collapse of Lebanon, several restaurants and Lebanese business firms looked to Egypt, restoring the affinity that once existed between Beirut and Cairo – the two capitals of Arab entertainment.
The success story has gone unreported mainly because of efforts by the powerful influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in certain pan Arab media. Also, Egyptian state control media is not helping because of their Stalinist propaganda style, which is not in sync with the recent progress of Sisi’s achievements.
For a long time, Egyptian soft power dominated Arab culture. However, today Arab networks air Turkish dubbed sitcoms and soap operas and the Egyptian movie industry has lost its dominance. This is an area that can help Egypt re-establish its presence and cement its role if managed correctly and smartly.
Cairo can play a political role in bringing about political stability in several Arab countries, such as Lebanon and Syria. Egyptian diplomacy is not viewed with suspicions and Cairo has positioned itself to be an acceptable broker in several conflicts. If it can secure financial resources, Cairo has the diplomatic and intelligence infrastructure to mediate and broker settlements.
Arab gulf countries should fund Egyptian efforts, while they are busy competing over which capital is more modern and can attract international firms and events. Some analysts assert that if the government of Sisi can maintain the current economic growth, it could easily reclaim its stature in five years. However, the current vacuum created by the American pivot toward East Asia may require Cairo to step forward sooner in order to establish a regional balance.
Mouafac Harb is a veteran American-Lebanese journalist based in Beirut. He contributes a weekly column in The Daily Star.