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Egypt's low-profile interim president makes first trip overseas

Spotlight shines on Adly Mansour, who emerges from shadows to represent Egypt abroad for first time since assuming presidency

Dina Ezzat, Tuesday 8 Oct 2013
Egypt's Interim President Adly Mansour (L) listens to Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz after his arrival in the Saudi Red Sea port city of Jeddah in this picture released by the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) on October 7, 2013 (Photo: Reuters)

On Monday, Egypt's interim President Adly Mansour mimicked the footsteps of his now-ousted predecessor Mohamed Morsi by travelling to Saudi Arabia in his first official visit abroad.

The oil-rich Gulf country has maintained close ties with Egypt since the era of late-president Anwar Sadat, continuing to provide financial support throughout Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule.

In Riyadh, Mansour was expected to extend gratitude for Saudi's prompt financial assistance during the transitional period and to urge continued aid and investments.  

According to one Egyptian diplomat, the talks between Mansour and Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz were essentially intended to be "a general preview of where the situation stands on a bilateral front, and a general discussion of developments in Syria and across the region."

Saudi Arabia was the first stop in Mansour's regional tour, which includes three other traditional allies of Sadat and Mubarak's rule: the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Jordan.

The UAE is promising renewed financial assistance and extended investments, which, according to one government source, would help considerably with budget concerns and GDP activation. The Kuwait visit also brings assurances of additional financial aid.

In Jordan, Egypt's close neighbor, regional policy matters will be of particular concern, namely the situation in Syria and developments in the West Bank and Gaza.

Egyptian diplomats admit that Mansour's tour represents a resumption of the style and priorities of Egyptian foreign policy under Mubarak. However, they insist that these priorities represent Egypt's foreign policy needs.

"It was a mistake for Mohamed Morsi to neglect basic cooperation with these countries. It is not just about financial assistance but also about political reach and regional security," said one diplomat.

During Morsi's rule, these former allies took a back seat. Cairo's contacts became limited, focusing primarily on Qatar, a firm supporter of political Islamists in the region, and Tunisia and Sudan, also under Islamist rule.

Relations with Qatar, Tunisia, and Sudan have become tense since Morsi's ouster, but according to government sources, Egypt has tried to limit long-term damage.

"Our objective is to improve the potentially productive relationships and to avoid further decline in areas of tension," said a foreign ministry source.

The stops on Mansour's trip are perhaps less significant than the trip itself. Since accepting the role of interim president, Mansour has kept a low profile, leading some to suggest that his position is secondary to army chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi and Prime Minister Hazem El-Beblawy, who remains in close consultation with El-Sisi.

According to one informed official, the behind-the-scenes approach was Mansour's own choice.

"Mansour, by virtue of his style and his work as high constitutional court head, is composed, low-profile, and disinterested in media attention. That said, he is quite hands-on, working long hours every day and making daily contact with both the prime minister and the army chief. His views are valued, and taken into consideration for sure," a presidential aide said.

Mansour's decision to send foreign minister Nabil Fahmy as head of the Egyptian delegation to the UN General Assembly late last month was similarly calculated. Mansour wanted to avoid concern that he was monopolising power in the wake of Morsi's ouster, an event that was uneasily received by Western capitals.

"That is not to say the president did not fully review the talks Fahmy conducted there, he did. Mansour's choice to embark on this foreign mission came after an assessment that skepticism over Morsi's ouster has receded, and that it is time for Egypt to reach out. It is only natural that this would begin with friendly countries," said the same presidential aide.

According to this aide and others, while Mansour might come across as a mere 'honorary head,' he has devoted a lot of time to serious matters, including transitional justice and national reconciliation.

"He wants to use his time in the executive to deal with the roots of social hostility. Mansour has held endless meeting to discuss potential scenarios with his interlocutors," according to the same aide.

The aide added that it was Mansour who intervened to save an initiative presented by Deputy Prime Minister Ziad Bahaa El-Din to protect these issues from marginalisation by a "forceful wing" opposed to dialogue with Islamists in general and with the Muslim Brotherhood in particular.

Meanwhile, Egyptian diplomats overseas say that the few foreign visitors who have met with Mansour have expressed appreciation for his realistic and confident approach. They say the interim president is fully aware of the complications of Egypt's current political situation.

According to official and independent political sources, Mansour's performance has even prompted some to suggest that he could run for president with the state's support.

"Some say 'why not?'. Mansour could either run in the upcoming elections, or we can hold a referendum to keep him in power for two years, pending an end to the political turmoil which would allow for truly representative presidential elections," one official said.

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