Pragmatism or independence: What drives Morsi's foreign policy?

Dina Ezzat , Wednesday 17 Oct 2012

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi must move beyond mere outreach diplomacy and get down to business on a host of serious foreign policy issues, say experts

Mohammed Morsi
Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi addresses the members of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party in Ankara, Turkey (Photo: AP)

"His visit to Tehran was an enormous coup"; "We feel that Egypt might be coming back home to Africa"; "His policy on Syria needs to be better formulated." These were some of the remarks that Cairo-based foreign diplomats – Western, African and Arab – provided in their assessment of President Mohamed Morsi's foreign policy performance during his first 100 days as Egypt's first freely-elected head of state.

During his first three months in office, Morsi did make some foreign policy waves: he visited China before visiting the US in a move that discomfited Washington; he visited Tehran at the head of the Egyptian delegation to the Non-Aligned Movement summit; he has shown a keen interest in Africa, which his predecessor had overlooked for a decade; and he has made sure to court both Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Morsi has also avoided any form of confrontation with Israel, with his spokesman stating last month that Egypt was not even considering the revision of the security arrangements on the volatile border between Egypt and Israel. Morsi had opened up to Hamas, arch-enemy of the Palestinian Authority (PA), and was publicly reprimanded for it by the head of the PA.

Meanwhile, the president has sent the West considerable reassurances while promising the Europeans to maintain business as usual during a visit to Brussels. He also patiently accommodated the public show of American displeasure over the recent clashes near the US embassy in Cairo.

Morsi's most portentous foreign policy move, however, has arguably been his open call for regime change in Syria, in which he equated the Damascus regime with the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

"But beyond this, he has not done very much to attend to a crucial national security issue – the crisis in Syria," asserted political analyst Hassan Abu-Taleb. "Stability in Syria is a national security issue for Egypt."

Taleb argues that what Morsi really needs in order to serve Egypt's national security interests is the formulation – and implementation – of a coherent Syria policy. "But he didn't do this," said Taleb, "and his proposal for establishing a four-member committee to formulate a policy is not picking up."

In August, at an Islamic summit in Saudi Arabia, Morsi proposed the establishment of a committee – consisting of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran – to address the Syrian crisis. A few meetings have already been held, with Saudi Arabia absenting itself to protest Iranian policies in the Gulf. These meetings, according to participants, have failed to yield any concrete results.

Taleb argues that Morsi's Syria policy is only one of several examples of his foreign policy style, which, he says, is "based more on diplomatic outreach than on serious engagement based on a clearly conceptualised foreign policy."

"He went to Iran, but did this lead to the resumption of Egypt-Iran relations [severed for 30 years] or the restoration of Egypt's regional standing?" Taleb asked. "He went to China with a delegation of businessmen, but did he clinch any new economic deals? The answer is definitely no."

Still, Taleb argues that Morsi's outreach has been "useful, as it helped the world to get to know Egypt's new president." That said, he added, this introductory phase should not go on too long.

"Morsi must get down to serious business on foreign policy," he said. "He needs to work with all concerned bodies to formulate an overall foreign policy framework and set a list of priorities and to work on pursuing them."

According to Amal Moukhtar, Latin America expert at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, this list should not overlook Latin America. "The dream of South-South cooperation is worth reanimating in a pragmatic way," Moukhtar said.

Morsi had been supposed to visit Peru for an Arab-Latin summit last month, following his participation at the UN General Assembly. The Peru visit was meant to be followed by one to Brazil.

The president's Latin America trip was delayed at the last minute, however, to the dismay of the would-be hosts. But the presidency promised a more elaborate trip to the continent that would involve more than only these two countries.

Moukhtar, for her part, asserted that Morsi "should not take too long before taking serious steps towards Latin America."

"There are endless opportunities for trade, cultural and political cooperation with Latin American states," Moukhtar argued. "What's more, there is a very influential Arab community there, unlike in the Western countries."

She stressed that Brazil in particular, which managed within ten years to go from near bankruptcy to one of the ten leading world economies, should "definitely be made a priority."

"And Brazil is very keen on cooperation with Egypt and has made several proposals that should be seriously considered," Moukhtar added. "Not to mention the fact that there are some 12 million Brazilians of Arab origin."

Africa meanwhile, said Amira Abdel-Halim, an expert on the continent at the Ahram Centre, should remain a top priority for Morsi "almost above all else."

Abdel-Halim is particularly concerned with the state of Egypt's relations with Nile Basin countries, which have in recent years announced plans to significantly reduce Egypt's share of Nile water – at a time when the country is already facing mounting water scarcity.

"Morsi's visits to Ethiopia and Uganda were useful, but they aren't enough," said Abdel-Halim. "We must work on joint projects and draw up cooperation proposals. It isn't enough to merely send delegations and envoys."  

If Egypt were to focus on key African issues, said Abdel-Halim, this would help it regain its former influence on the continent.

"For example, Egypt should resume its 1990s-era interest in the Somalia crisis," she said. "It's this kind of attention that makes African states believe Egypt is keen to help them and isn't simply working to advance its own narrow interests."

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