When Mohamed Morsi assumed the presidency in June 2012, Egyptians anticipated a broad break from the policies of ousted president Hosni Mubarak. However, from the early weeks of former president Morsi’s reign, it became clear that developing "a categorically different foreign policy" was not high on the new regime’s agenda, according to one senior Egyptian diplomat.
For the most part, "the grand parameters [of foreign policy] remained the same, despite appearances," the diplomat said. Indeed, what differences that did emerge were largely in the execution of policy, which became less efficient "due to the duality and confusion of decision-making."
According to the senior diplomat, foreign policy decisions under Morsi were made at two levels: first by state bodies, including the foreign ministry and national intelligence, and then by the Muslim Brotherhood's foreign policy advisors.
"Contrary to the Brotherhood's anti-American slogans, Morsi's priority was to maintain good relations with Washington. This was not just about aid, but about the political support promised to Morsi in return for a particular set of American demands,” another Egyptian diplomat said.
The demands, he added, were the same as under Mubarak: observe the peace treaty with Israel, refrain from supporting Iranian regional influence or anti-American governments in the Arab world, and facilitate Palestinian talks with Israel.
In addition, Morsi was called upon to stop Hamas attacks on Israel and to encourage Islamist militants from Afghanistan to Mali to consider a deal to stop targeting American interests, the same diplomat said.
According to a number of Cairo-based US and European diplomats, Morsi and the Brotherhood kept their part of the deal.
"They were careful, for the most part, to avoid ... embarrassing the US administration when it came to human rights and minorities. There were mistakes, but the Brotherhood was always very careful to contain the damage," a European diplomat said.
According to some Egyptian diplomats, even when Morsi defied the US by visiting Iran in August for the Non-Aligned Movement summit, he was careful not to imply any serious intent to resume relations between Cairo and Tehran, which had been severed for over three decades.
"The US saw it as an act designed to impress public opinion; they accepted it as such and it did not escalate," another Egyptian diplomat said.
He added that when the US requested a firmer stance against the Iranian-supported Assad regime in Syria, Morsi turned his back on Iran "at a time when Tehran had promised to help fix Egypt’s large fuel shortage problem."
The status-quo was also largely maintained when it came to Israel. Three separate Egyptian diplomats told Ahram Online that even when Egyptian-Israeli relations were put on hold at the official level, key strategic communication channels were observed.
According to one senior government source, although there were no high-level visits between Egypt and Israel during the last 12 months of Morsi’s presidency, everything else "went according to the stylebook. When we had a security alert we shared it with them and [vice-versa]. If we sent troops into Sinai we notified them, and if they had an issue with anything they told us."
Hassan Abou Taleb, a senior analyst at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, says the Muslim Brotherhood "simply copied the Mubarak regime" when it came to the US and Israel, as it did "on so many other foreign policy choices" as well.
Away from Israel, US
In his early months of office, Morsi visited European capitals and received several envoys from the European Union, a key economic partner.
Morsi tried to induce confidence and encourage economic support, while the Europeans took a policy of wait-and-see. According to one European diplomat, the European stance was more often positive than negative.
At the same time, Morsi began to face unanticipated domestic battles over the constitution, the judiciary, and government performance and composition.
In November 2012, a European visit was interrupted by confrontations over Morsi’s far-reaching constitutional declaration.
According to a Cairo-based European diplomat, the European capitals that had been impressed by Morsi early in his presidency began to grow wary.
They became concerned when Morsi started to avoid praying at big mosques in order to skirt angry crowds.
Speaking to Ahram Online on the eve of the 30 June mass protests, several European diplomats in Cairo said they had not expected such a big turnout.
In the words of one diplomat, however, "Since the fight over the constitutional declaration it was clear Morsi was not reaching out to the political opposition and he was not serious about keeping the promises he repeated to several European officials including [EU Foreign Policy High Representative] Catherine Ashton."
According to European diplomats, it was this uncertainty about Egypt’s political future that blocked potential aid and investments pending the $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund loan.
Senior analyst Amr El-Shobak says the declining relations with Europe were due to Morsi’s failure to live up to basic democratic expectations, a fact that was met with much friction in European parliaments.
With regards to the Arab states, Morsi was also holding onto tenuous support. His attempt to stabilise traditionally close ties with Saudi Arabia through a joint statement on Shia Iran influence was unsuccessful. Saudi aid was limited, pending a demand for a political-legal arrangement to spare Mubarak and his sons from imprisonment over charges of corruption and killing protesters during the 25 January Revolution.
Kuwait, lining up with the Saudi position, was equally unforthcoming due a historic dislike of the Brotherhood. Qatar was Morsi’s only backer in the region, and it was essentially Qatari deposits that maintained the country’s struggling foreign currency reserves. Saudi Arabia contributed small deposits only to prevent Egypt from coming under the exclusive patronage of Qatar.
The United Arab Emirates, a traditional friend of Egypt, broke all ties with Morsi after what Abu Dhabi said was a Brotherhood-orchestrated attempt to stir up protests against its leaders because of the UAE’s sympathy for the Mubarak regime and the hospitality it granted to former regime figures such as Ahmed Shafiq.
According to one European diplomat, while Morsi took a series of missteps in his dealings with Algeria, Jordan, and Iraq, "nothing [came] close to the disaster of cutting relations with Syria – this was simply uncalled for. It did not put any pressure on Assad or help the opposition in any way."
Morsi announced he was severing relations with Assad’s regime in June, just weeks before his ouster. To many analysts, this decision was a mistake, deepening sectarian divisions and revealing short-sighted policy at a moment when unity was key.
The Syria move came after an equally misguided diplomatic incident involving Ethiopia’s decision to begin construction on its Nile Renaissance Dam, which is feared to damage Egypt’s water supply.
The gaff involved an unintentionally televised meeting of Morsi’s advisers, during which military action was proposed against the dam. Although Egypt’s stand on the dam "was politically and legally correct," being caught "threatening to incite unrest in Ethiopia and neighbouring African states at a presidential meeting" was a "damaging mistake," an intelligence source commented. "Ethiopia has successfully used this to garner support from African countries," he added.
During his tenure, Morsi also tried to strengthen ties with Brazil, becoming the first Egyptian president to visit the South American country. The visit came at the end of a tour to other BRICS countries [an acronym for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa], during which Morsi hoped to gain admission to the group of growing economic powers. But according to diplomats from these countries, Morsi failed to impress, as he did not offer a clear vision for cooperation.
"It was mismanagement of the first order – really on all fronts," says Diaa Rashwan, director of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.