by Abdellatif El-Menawy
Egypt is rich in soft power but its exploitation has been vivid at times, while its lights and roles have been dim at others. But necessity is the mother of invention and the Egyptian state’s need for soft power now is large and still growing, given the regional and global challenges it faces.
The mid-20th century Egyptian film industry, generously financed by the state, was the third largest of its kind in the world during the 1950s. Naguib Al-Rihani, Ismail Yassine, Faten Hamama, Soad Hosny and Shoukry Sarhan were able to influence Arab populations everywhere. They made them laugh and cry. Listening to Umm Kalthoum, Abdel Halim Hafez and Mohammed Abdel Wahab was not limited to Egyptians, but rather they reached the entire Arab audience. Egypt’s theaters were also able to attract leading Arab stars, with the works of Abu Khalil Qabbani and Maroun Al-Nakash the starting point for a great theatrical revival.
It was not only the arts that thrived, but also culture and literature. Taha Hussein, Naguib Mahfouz, Tawfiq Al-Hakim and others were the favorite writers of all Arab intellectuals. This golden age even reached other soft sectors, such as education, as President Gamal Abdel Nasser sent hundreds of teachers to Algeria to learn the standard Arabic in schools at the time.
The Egyptian dialect in particular and the Arabic language in general played a major role in bringing people in the Arab region closer together; through newspapers, magazines and movies that aimed to unite the Arab peoples against colonial powers.
All this happened even before the concept of soft power was coined decades later by the American Joseph Nye, who defined it as “the ability to attract and co-opt, rather than by coercion (hard power), which is using force or giving money as a means of persuasion. Soft power is the ability to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction.”
In the last three decades, there has still been interest in art, music and creativity, but in foreign policy the regional influence of Egypt has declined due to the radical changes witnessed in the world order. Egyptian culture has also been affected by globalization and the revolution of information and communications technology, which has seen it lose its special character. Qualified and creative Egyptian minds also fled as a result of the failure of the Egyptian state to cater for their needs and the availability of attractive alternative countries, mainly in the Gulf.
“Egypt’s government must try to revive the cultural golden age of the 1950s as a means of growing the nation’s soft power.”
Rival regional forces emerged, seeking to extend their influence in Arab countries through soft power. These regional forces tried to promote themselves as the ideal model to emulate by employing the media and arts to influence other cultures.
With the period of political unrest that followed Jan. 25, 2011, there was a significant decline in Egypt’s soft power internally and regionally, particularly when stars such as Adel Emam and Elham Shahin were chased by legal cases. This had a negative effect on the arts in general.
The Egyptian culture, embodied in art, literature, drama and music, became an expression of a negative reality in which the addict, the bully and the deviant were prominent. The impact of Egyptian culture on the regional arena declined, and the image of Egyptians was undesirably affected on the international stage.
In the last four years, however, the Egyptian leadership has once again begun to pay attention to the soft power bases present in culture as a supporting pillar in its domestic and foreign policies. President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi adopted a different policy to his predecessors, trying to rebuild the internal and regional status of Egypt through the arts, media personalities and writers. This was reflected in the many meetings he had to listen to the demands of prominent figures in these fields. El-Sisi even accompanied a number of them on visits to strengthen foreign relations at the level of popular diplomacy.
However, the decline in economic growth rates remains the biggest obstacle to the progress of soft power. This handicap has to be met with a counter-incentive. It is the political will of the ruling elite to reinvigorate the role of soft power through political and religious reform, offering greater freedom of opinion, expression and creativity in all its forms.
It is also necessary to strengthen soft power through legislation and laws that protect intellectuals and creative individuals, as well as supporting it by political forces and civil society organizations. Soft power must also be employed to face the psychological wars experienced by the Egyptian state, which have been trying to blur the national identity, exhaust civilian forces and systematically destroy them, and disperse public opinion through media platforms.
Recent actions taken by the state have been very important, especially increasing the proportion of exports of cultural products at the rate of 20 percent per year; increasing the number of cinemas and theaters; and building an accurate and comprehensive information system on Egypt’s present cultural realities by releasing a number of annual indicators, such as indices of cultural freedom and creative empowerment.
Soft power is the most important tool of the Egyptian state in carrying out its domestic and foreign policies to defeat the discourse of hatred, violence and extremism, and promoting peaceful coexistence between the various fabrics of society.