By Sungtae "Jacky" Park Staff Writer October 29, 2012

Despite Egypt’s identity as regional leader, its true role in the Middle East is fast changing.

Egypt has traditionally been considered the political center of the Arab world by Egyptians and Western observers alike, despite the nation’s very cautious and passive foreign policy during the Mubarak era. Recently, Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s new president, has been trying to conduct a more active and assertive foreign policy in order to restore Egypt’s standing as the leader of the Arab world. Nevertheless, his efforts over the past few months to obtain economic aid from the International Monetary Fund and other regional powers show Egypt’s limits in reasserting itself in the region.

Egypt’s self-perception as the heart of the Arab world is anchored in important social, historical, and political factors. First, Egypt has the largest population (over 80 million) in the Arab world as well as in the Middle East. Second, it is one of the world’s oldest continuous civilizations. Third, until the mid-1970s, Egypt was the spearhead of the Arab struggle against Israel. Lastly, during the Nasser era, Egypt played a critical role as the leader of the pan-Arab movement.

Egypt’s effort to re-emerge with a more assertive and independent foreign policy was highlighted by Morsi’s attendance at the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit in August. The summit was held in Iran, and Morsi was the first Egypt leader to visit Tehran since the Iranian Revolution in 1979. The visit was a notable break from Hosni Mubarak’s foreign policy, which was clearly aligned and coordinated with the United States. At the same time, however, Morsi also harshly criticized Syria’s al Assad regime (a close ally of Iran) right in front of his Iranian hosts. The message he was sending to the world and to his domestic constituencies at home was clear: Egypt is no one’s lackey, and Cairo will conduct a staunchly independent foreign policy.

Despite its self-perception as the regional leader, however, Egypt has been desperately seeking loans from the international community, particularly from the IMF, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. So far, Qatar has pledged $2 billion; Saudi Arabia has pledged $1.5 billion; and Turkey has pledged $1 billion. Egypt will also be holding talks with the IMF at the end of October concerning a potential $4.8 billion loan package. These efforts at securing loans are clearly not characteristics of a regional leader. A true regional leader should be in the position to help others, instead of seeking the aid of its neighbors.

Indeed, increasing attention should be paid to other regional powers, particularly Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, as these countries actually have the capability to assert their influence in the region. First, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran (despite the sanctions) all have much larger economies than Egypt, whose economy is smaller than that of Israel. Second, while Turkey and Iran both possess militaries of comparable size to Egypt, there has been a significant decline in Egyptian military capabilities since the Mubarak era. In contrast, Turkey boasts modern and experienced forces, and Iran boasts a technologically inferior but ideologically driven military that is complemented by large paramilitary and asymmetric forces. Last but not least, the governments of Saudi Arabia and Qatar have large surplus oil and gas revenues they can use to support their foreign policy objectives, which include funding and arming proxy militants abroad.

Although neither Turkey nor Iran is in fact an Arab country, both have shown strong desires to claim regional leadership. Turkey, even though it is not an Arab country, has been the leading supporter of the Arab Spring movements and secular democracies and is very popular in the region. Iran, which is also not an Arab country, has been attempting to take advantage of the chaos in the region and assert its own influence, calling the series of uprisings an “Islamic awakening.”

Egypt is clearly outmatched by these countries. Morsi has been trying to conduct a more assertive foreign policy partly because of Egypt’s self-perception as the leader of the Arab world and partly because he needs to maintain the Muslim Brotherhood’s popularity. Nonetheless, Egypt in the end will not be able to make a clean break with its past foreign policy orientation and relationships, including its tie to the United States. Morsi will still depend greatly on U.S support but will also try to be more independent. Meanwhile, other more capable regional powers will continue to compete for influence and leadership in the Middle East. Despite the perception that Egypt is making a comeback as a regional leader, a reality check proves otherwise.

Sungtae “Jacky” Park is a M.A. Security Policy Studies student at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He has previously published for CSIS (Center for Strategic and International Studies) and Brandeis International Journal.

Photo courtesy of AhmadHammoud via Flickr.