The current moment is fraught. The repercussions of the war in Gaza are upending the geopolitical order that has taken place in the Middle East in the past three decades, since the end of the Cold War. The establishment of a new order will take a long period and will entail hot and cold confrontations that will fuel tensions from the Gulf to the Atlantic. The tumult and transformations will affect Egypt strategically, politically, and economically.

Timing exacerbates the challenges facing Egypt. For two years now, Egypt has been confronting serious economic challenges, whose impact, ranging from biting inflationary pressures to a dearth of major investments, impedes growth, derails development, and imposes on decision makers a fire-fighting mindset, that of confronting urgent short-term crises.

Because Egypt relies on imports to secure some of its society’s basic needs, and because Egypt generates the vast majority of its hard currency from revenues highly dependent on extraneous factors, such as tourism, traffic in the Suez Canal, and the remittances of Egyptians abroad, there is an entanglement, in Egyptian thinking, between foreign affairs and political economy.

This entanglement underscores four questions that have, for decades, lurked in the collective Egyptian psyche, often addressed, but largely submerged under the weight of the problems of the here and now.

First, what are the geographic parameters of Egypt’s national security?

The most influential school in modern Egypt’s scoping of its national security has been that of the easternists. From the advisors – mostly French – who surrounded Ibrahim Pasha (the son of Mohamed Ali) in the 1820s and 1830s to Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, the most prominent strategist in 20th century Egypt, a prevailing idea was that all threats to Egypt’s national security have come from the country’s eastern borders. In the same vein, this school held that Egypt’s real opportunities for expanding its reach and therefore entrenching the soft power that has, for centuries, engulfed its name and image, are in the east – primarily in the Levant.

But there has been another view. Thinkers such as Rifaa al-Tahtawy (the curator of Egypt’s first major exposure to Europe’s modern culture), Taha Hussein (a leading innovator in interpreting Islamic history), Louis Awad (one of the most sophisticated literary critics in modern Egypt), and Boutros Boutros Ghali (the most important foreign policy advisor to President Sadat in the period before Egypt’s signing of its peace treaty with Israel, and later UN Secretary General) have all argued that Egypt’s real interests are in a cultural and political orientation focused on the north and south, at least as much as on the east. This has meant that Egypt needed to cease its obsession with the Levant and the reaches all the way to the Gulf, and instead to focus its attention across the Mediterranean, towards Europe, as well as to the south, to Africa, to which Egypt is linked by crucial bonds.

The two views differed in more than scoping the geographic parameters of Egypt’s national security. They differed in delineating Egypt’s civilisational orientation.

At heart, the two schools of national security offered two understandings of the identity of modern Egypt. This is the second question.

No issue absorbed more time and energy of a succession of Egyptian artists in the past century than attempting to define the identity of modern Egypt. Artistic creativity aside, the question about identity has always had direct political consequences. A purely Arab Egypt is not only by default oriented towards the east; it by necessity bears major responsibilities – and demands prerogatives – in the struggles taking place in the Levant.

But as opposed to a purely Arab Egypt, there has been another conception. That is, Egypt that sees itself linked to the Arab mashreq but also to the Mediterranean basin and to Africa, all in a crucible that has over centuries formed a unique identity, a melange of different constituents whose wholeness is much larger than its individual components. In this conception, Egyptian interests in the north, in the relationships with Europe, and in the south, in the bonds with east and central Africa, add other obligations and endow egypt with other prerogatives. The result is a map of Egyptian interests that are different from those that emerge from the easternists’ view of Egyptian identity.

The easternists’ view of Egypt is anchored on a long history. Still, the easternists’ view could be deterministic. The second view, that incorporates the north and south, is perhaps vaguer; it relies on older historical episodes for substantiation; but it is more flexible.

There are valuable benefits in strategic versatility. But as serious schools of knowledge throughout history have taught, such versatility, typically situated in a rich culture, must be anchored on truly knowing oneself, truly exploring the various constituents that make the culture in concern rich.

The third question concerns the role of the state in society. This is not an American-style debate concerning the underlying philosophies behind taxation and free enterprise or the benefits versus impositions of a nanny state. In Egypt, the question transcends socioeconomic policies. It is about the nature of the relationship between state and citizens. Because the founders of modern Egypt – Mohamed Ali, Ibrahim, and Ismail Pasha – were non-Egyptians, the state was formed with extensive control mechanisms as well as with top-down obligations towards the people. Republican Egypt, which started from the mid 20th century, expanded both, the controls and obligations. The economic liberalisation, of different sorts in the past four decades, lessened some of the financial responsibilities that the state was shouldering. But the overall expectations of the citizens from the state were not really shaken in the society’s collective consciousness.

The fourth question is psychological. The current geopolitical transformations and economic challenges make many Egyptians apprehensive about the future. But discerning the underlying drivers of the social mood necessitates reflecting on subtle but consequential changes that have taken place in the society in the recent past.

Egypt underwent major political changes in the past fifteen years. At the same time the Egyptian society has added circa twenty million people to its core component, the youth. This is a generation that has grown, because of the dominance of social media and the weakening of mainstream ones, at a time of dilution of historical and social narratives and of common public spaces. It is also a generation coming of age at a time of anxieties, regionally and globally. In societies undergoing difficult economic circumstances and with triggers of anger surrounding the youth, the old demons of radicalisation and rejection of state and society can rise. It is of paramount importance to find practical, serious ways to transmute the centrifugal force of apprehension into a gravitational force of contributing to the societal collective. At the heart of this must be new ways of thinking about the role of the state in such a modern, largely young, society.

Egypt’s fabric looks complicated these days, with dark spots attracting attention. But the fabric remains marvellous. Egypt is an extremely rich country in terms of its historical experience, social cohesion, resilience, human talent, administrative capacities, and geopolitical importance for the region. There were several moments in the past two hundred years – the experience of modern Egypt - in which many observers assumed dark scenarios for Egypt. Invariably they were proven wrong. But also, invariably emerging out of these difficult moments entailed wise, yet innovative, thinking about the key questions these moments presented.

The four questions that the current historical moment present are inextricably interlinked. Thinking about them, particularly through serious assessments of Egypt’s modern history, will prove illuminating in tackling the difficult geopolitical and political economy decisions facing the country.

Rushdi Said, one of the most rigorous analysts of the experience of modern Egypt, advised us in the frank assessment of our society that he had written in the 1990s, that failing to reflect seriously on modern Egypt’s experience ensures repeating many of the mistakes made on the road to the present. The four interlinked questions presented in this essay could be an opportunity for such a rigorous assessment. Thinking about them may offer a framework for bringing many of the bewildered young to a narrative of belonging and contributing. In the process, many demons lurking in the shadows would be doused.

In his “Autumn Quail”, the doyen of modern Egypt’s storytellers, Naguib Mahfouz, gave us a man at a moment of a delicate societal transition, seemingly overwhelmed by a succession of grave challenges that had fell on him, often angry at what seemed gruesome options facing him, and at times refusing to acknowledge his own agency. This man was a symbol of large sections of the society at a previous moment of peril. It was through a long honest reflection on himself, his journey, and his real wants and objectives, that Mahfouz gave his protagonist - his symbol of us - the opportunity to resuscitate the best in himself.