Tara Todras-Whitehill/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Long before the term was coined, Egyptians had been very proud of their country’s “soft power,” and rightly so. In the Arab world, Egypt is the most populous country and it has the most potent army, a pivotal location and an influential intelligentsia.
If Cairo sneezed, it was commonly said, the whole region would catch a cold. There could be no Arab war against Israel without Egypt, as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said. Indeed, Egypt was the trendsetter of the region, paving the way for war and peace negotiations with Israel in the 1950s and 1970s, respectively.
Furthermore, the manifestations of Egypt’s cultural influence are ubiquitous. Unlike other Arab dialects, colloquial Egyptian is widely understood and quite popular. The presence of Egypt’s arts - music, film, and television series - can be seen in almost every corner of the region.
It is common to hear the songs of the iconic Egyptian singer Oum Kalthoum in the streets of Fez, the souqs of Muscat or the nightclubs of Beirut. And for a long time, Egypt was the birthplace of ideas, the source of knowledge, and the propagator of ideologies; “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, Baghdad reads,” goes the classic adage.
However, unrivaled in the Arab world as it was, Egypt’s soft power – its political preeminence and cultural appeal - has worn thin in the past few decades. Politically, Egypt lost much of its appeal in the late 1970s when it defected from the anti-Israel camp. In tandem, politics in the Arab world shifted from the hotbeds of ‘thawra’ to the bases of ‘tharwa’, from revolution to wealth. In the decades that followed, moreover, Egypt seemed to be less ambitious and more uncertain of itself.
A population boom, shrinking resources and economic mismanagement have led to protracted socioeconomic crises and the proliferation of poverty. Egypt is now too weighed down by its own troubles to be able to radiate significant influence among its neighbors.
The images of Egypt that come to the minds of fellow Arabs today are that of an exploding population hemmed in by scores of constraints; cities that are impoverished and overly crowded; a society that is nearly falling apart from pressing social, economic and religious divisions; and a state of misery that begets sympathy. Furthermore, there’s the grip of an authoritarian regime that has lost touch with the world, and a fatigued economy that is unable to feed the citizens of the country.
The winds of change have simultaneously been blowing in the region as a new order unfolded in the aftermath of the oil boom of the 1970s. The Arabs of the Gulf states, who had traditionally been in Egypt’s shadow, have changed massively. Great windfall gains transformed them from simple Bedouins who lived by tending camels and sheep to entrepreneurs promoting ideas and investors building skyscrapers. The paths these states have taken have elicited admiration and their success stories have stolen the attention from poverty-stricken Egypt.
Dubai has become a trade and entertainment centre and a symbol of modernity to be emulated. Qatar will be the first Arab country to host the football World Cup, scheduled to take place in 2022. Last February, the UAE has appointed its first minister of happiness, a step taken “to create social good and satisfaction.”
In contrast, Egyptians complain more than anything else. The country’s confidence is shaken, its spirits are low, and its pride is wounded. For Egyptians, the notion of happiness is so distant, so unreal. At best, it is a far-fetched dream; at worst, an impossibility. Indeed, in the face of life’s great hardships, most Egyptians only ask for el-satr, protection and sufficiency.
Nevertheless, a few lights are still glimmering in the darkness of Egypt’s present. To be sure, great nations do not die or fade away overnight. Its pressing problems notwithstanding, Egypt is still a place that is full of life and activity. Its vibrant soul carries a great appeal, and on several recent occasions, Egypt was able to stir the imagination and captivate the hearts of its neighbors.
For instance, Arabs were awed by the thrilling images of the 2011 revolution. Watching peaceful demonstrators bravely defy police forces; pious prayer on the Kasr al-Nil bridge while they were being showered by water cannons; turning Tahrir Square into a hub of revolution and music and satire; and eventually forcing a despot, who ruled for thirty years, to step down (after less than three weeks of protests) was indeed inspiring. The revolution was young and vigorous and promising. It was nothing short of an earthquake that attempted to shatter the old world--old leaders, old institutions and old mentalities.
Then there is this aura of fascination about Bassem Youssef, the political satirist who rose to prominence after the 2011 revolution. Dubbed as Egypt’s Jon Stewart, Youssef capitalized on his own sense of humor and charisma to mercilessly lampoon figures of authority: the president, politicians, the top brass and religious leaders. At the time of his weekly show (suspended since June 2014), Arabs from the ocean to the gulf were glued to their television sets.
Despite the show’s peculiar Egyptian character, many Arabs felt they could relate to it. After all, their grievances and aspirations are very similar to Egypt’s. Decades earlier, the sharp political verses of the vernacular poet Ahmed Fouad Negm (1929 - 2013) had a similar impact, giving a voice to the voiceless. Negm was rebellious, outspoken, and humorous. His poems on revolution and love are still popular in the Arab world.
Where the sense of defeat is overwhelming, the spirit of resistance is appealing.
What is the common denominator between these examples? In one word: resistance. Where the sense of defeat is overwhelming, the spirit of resistance is appealing. One generation after another, Arab peoples have come to be deeply frustrated by various realities that seem unchangeable: autocrats that preside over republics and monarchies of fear, Israel’s military superiority in the region and its subjugation of Palestinians, the growing scientific and technological gap between the Arab world and the advanced world.
As a result, helplessness has defined the way they view themselves. They continue to be torn between a culture that idolizes manliness and a reality that is soaked in defeat and humiliation. For any action, as the laws of physics explain, there is an equal and opposite reaction. This is not the case in social sciences, especially in the Arab world where people descended into an ocean of despair, lamenting the wretched present and a history of missed opportunities.
In such a milieu, resistance is a psychological remedy, a cathartic experience. Whether seen as a means to an end or an end in itself, resistance makes defeated people feel human and alive and capable. In the Cairo Trilogy, Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz wrote that sexual instincts were implanted in humans by God only to make them feel the joy of resistance.
Indeed, the courage to resist is “the secret of a man,” as Jean-Paul Sartre put it. Another French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, wrote that resistance “is the most beautiful word in the politics and history” of France. The genesis of philosophy can, in fact, be traced to an act of resistance, that of Socrates challenging Athens and its values and ethos.
It is no exaggeration to say that resistance is an integral part of politics, of life itself. Foucault inverted Clausewitz’s famous line that war is the continuation of politics by other means. For Foucault, politics is necessarily a continuous struggle; “power is war, the continuation of war by other means,” he said. So where there is power, there is resistance. Therefore, resistance is a healthy sign of a vibrant society, not a reckless act of rogue minds, as authoritarian regimes want us to believe.
In the Arab world, even the smallest - and merely symbolic - acts of resistance, like burning an Israeli flag or quipping about an unjust ruler, can give a sense of self-worth. As it is rooted in practice and possesses the initiative, resistance could make the long-demoralized people feel that change is possible, that their defeat is not final, that even their wildest aspirations can one day be met. Resistance can be a garden of hope in the Arab world’s jungle of anguish.
If Egypt - the nation, not the state, regime or government - wants to rise from the ashes of defeat, its best bid would be to raise the flag of resistance, and not any kind of resistance. In order to avoid the setbacks that befell many endeavors in the past, resistance should not be an act in the void—incognizant of its limits, detached from reality, immersed in folly, and destined to fail.
A better, fruitful kind of resistance is the one that seeks to develop people, enable them to be more educated, conscious, and equipped with a sense of direction and a vision for the future. Standing in the middle, between silence and violence, and coupled with persistence and perseverance, this resistance should be committed to both peacefulness and rejection of the present state of affairs.
Above all, Egypt’s weakness lies in its docility and lazy ignorance. Egypt’s ability to rise above its wounds is hinged upon its capacity to shake the dust off its soul. Egypt the volition, the action, the resistance, not the status quo, is the panacea.