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Egypt's image problem
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 20 - 06 - 2019

It is not a striking revelation to say that we have an image problem. Many foreigners believe that Egypt is a dangerous country torn between jihadists and tyranny. Many foreign observers also think that the Egyptian state can do nothing good, claiming that it is addicted to jailing poor Islamists and nice young revolutionaries and harassing freethinkers.
Some foreign newspapers have quoted various prominent Egyptian public figures saying things that sound stupid. Others denounce archaic social practices in Egypt, like female genital mutilation (FGM). The only exception to this rule and the only international organisation saying nice things about Egypt is the International Monetary Fund (IMF), but conventional wisdom says that the IMF is blind and is only interested in financial reforms.
Yes, our democratic credentials are not impeccable. Yes, our human-rights record can easily be improved. Yes, some of us say things that are wrong, misleading, or even odious. Yes, we can be indifferent to social practices that should be denounced or even criminalised. Yes, we tend to dismiss anything we do not like and are often in a state of denial.
But one huge fact remains, which is that the international media coverage of Egypt is blatantly unfair, and we are often right to lose our patience with it. According to the foreign media, our president was not incredibly courageous when he launched the present economic reforms. He was simply indifferent to people's suffering.
According to this media, when our president focuses on improving women's lot, this is not because he believes women deserve it. He is doing it to “fool” the West, the foreign media says, but the West, thanks to its courageous media, is not fooled. According to the foreign media, the president's battle against FGM is only meant to wrong-foot the Islamist opposition. When Egypt's defence budget increases, this is not because our country faces huge threats, with growing instability in Sudan and Libya and aggression from Ankara. It is to be explained by the caprices of a childish army that wants more toys.
According to the foreign media, when the president builds a new capital, this is not because Cairo badly needs more oxygen, or because he is trying to create jobs for those who have not had access to higher education. He is doing it because he is a megalomaniac. According to the foreign media, the army's inroads into sectors otherwise overseen by civilians are to be explained by a hunger for power and money. It is not because the inherited situation in the country and the general interest require some serious arm-twisting to be carried out with various lobbies or inefficient bureaucracies with vested interests.
There are also other deeply entrenched stereotypes. One of them considers our judges to be regime lackeys, calling them subservient and inefficient and implying that any verdict or condemnation is suspect. We should not jail anybody, or sentence anybody to capital punishment, as our judges are not to be trusted and are in any case politically suspect. I myself believe our judges' performance could improve, and I am also against capital punishment. But can we live with the logical consequences of such foreign suspicions and abstain from sentencing anybody?
I tend to think that Egypt's judges, who may be too conservative and may have too many strong dislikes, are in general very cautious in handing down capital sentences. I would be tempted to go as far as to say that where there is capital punishment, the chances of a fair trial actually increase. But since we cannot know this for sure, I prefer to stick to my rejection of capital punishment.
The more I read, the more I am convinced that many people abroad simply cannot question the stereotype that authoritarian regimes can do no good. In any situation, such people say, democracies automatically achieve better results. Moreover, in an authoritarian regime, the executive and its head are responsible for anything that goes wrong and for any bad thing that happens in the country. Any misdeed can be explained by “oppression”. This idea, coupled with the bizarre belief that the moderate Islamists are democrats, explains much of the otherwise extraordinarily inaccurate foreign reporting on our country.
The latest enormity came in reports claiming that Egypt supported the current repression in Sudan. I read many of them, looking for evidence to support this claim. But they simply say that Egypt is not a democracy, and that therefore it is afraid of democrats. It cannot live surrounded by democracies, such reports claim, so it supports any authoritarian regime even if it does not have good relations with it. Then they add that the former Sudanese head of state was in Cairo some days before the events broke out in Khartoum.
What would people say if I wrote an article that said that “former US president Barack Obama had a phone call with president Morsi one morning, congratulating him for negotiating a truce between Israel and Hamas. A few hours later, Morsi carried out his infamous constitutional coup. The conclusion is obvious: Morsi must have informed Obama, who then approved the move.” Anyone reading this would almost certainly say I was paranoid and that this was neither analysis nor reporting. And they would be right to do so.
I do not want to dwell on specifics as I am no expert on Sudan, but with regard to the latter country we are cautious, do not panic, and resist the temptation of being overly enthusiastic. We do not like instability, but we do not claim that democracy entails it.
For us, the main threat is civil war, and the ultimate good is a peaceful society or a society in which conflict remains at a low and manageable level. We believe that in Egypt these things require a strong and powerful state. This is how we do things, and it is a recipe that has its virtues and its drawbacks. We also know that Sudan is not Egypt, that the Sudanese state is not the Egyptian one, that Sudanese society differs from ours, and that Sudanese traditions are very different too. We know from our experience that it is necessary to give things time.
Anybody, whether an Egyptian or a foreigner, has the right to dislike the Egyptian regime. But our foreign policy is cautious, clear, and predictable. This explains why many other states want to work with us as a partner. There are no unpleasant surprises when you deal with us. We know that the safest bet is to respect the people's choices. Our only war is against civil war and terrorism.
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The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.


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