Nour Bakr evaluates the Egyptian President’s foreign policy during his first 100 days in office, looking at signs of a departure both ideologically and in policy terms from the previous regime.
In the field of Foreign Policy, Morsi’s key predecessor was not Mubarak but the ‘transitional’ regime which consisted of an ugly hybrid between SCAF figures and high ranking felool. Their crackdown on ‘foreign’ funded NGOs was a cowardly, albeit successful challenge to the U.S. in the context of its relations with Egypt. For those who believe Egypt-U.S. relations are entirely one sided in favour of the latter, they need only to look at the NGO crackdown saga to see just how much the U.S is willing to put up with in order to maintain good relations with their ‘indispensable ally’.
The relevance of this case to Morsi’s own foreign policy is the clear similarity in stances taken towards the U.S. None save Morsi and his advisors can explain with certainty his reticence after the attacks on the U.S. embassy last month. Nevertheless, his bullish refusal to deliver an unreserved apology and his forthright responses in an interview with the New York Times the following week gave clear signs of a deliberate policy. In the interview Morsi confirmed that ‘we took our time’ in responding to the embassy attacks, displaying bluntness apparently reserved for international duties.
As if to inflame the situation further Morsi went on to clearly imply that the U.S. had in part brought the attacks upon itself;
“Successive American administrations essentially purchased with American taxpayer money the dislike, if not the hatred, of the peoples of the region,” he said, by backing dictatorial governments over popular opposition and supporting Israel over the Palestinians.
Morsi, like the transitional regime directly before him is trying to reshape Egypt’s standing in relations with the U.S., or at least perceptions of it. Why? Or more fittingly why not? Its a popular stance amongst many Egyptians including his core supporters and those who may not support him but simply dislike the U.S. for any number of reasons including its close support/relations with Mubarak and/or its close support of and relations with Israel. This differs slightly from the transitional regime that utilised the NGO crackdown to stoke up xenophobia in the hopes of brushing off blame onto the now visible foreign hands. Nevertheless this almost confrontational stance in dealing with the U.S. has been characteristic of both regimes in their short periods of rule. One is tempted to think Morsi is benefiting from not alienating the military with and utilising the experience of the military’s top brass in dealing with the U.S.
Despite what many will view as Egypt’s petulance, the country will nevertheless still receive the badly needed economic aid from the U.S. Even in the unlikely event that conditions are placed upon its delivery, one suspects any such conditions will be easily overlooked by an administration which has twice been forced to show its hand, and twice proved that its position in relation to Egypt is not as strong as many believe it to be. Now, arguably it is possible to view the U.S. approach as ‘speak softly and carry a big stick’, with $450 million in aid being a particularly large stick. But again, the Obama administration has shown a great reluctance to use this stick. Why? The truth is their metaphorical stick is more like a well wrapped gift with a kind message and kisses on the attached label. Under Morsi, Egypt is likely to become a much more active regional player, considering its peace treaty with Israel, its stature in the region and its size, it is a regional player the U.S. is clearly willing to pay a great deal to keep on its side.
Who are the alternatives to Egypt? Algeria, despite having strong ties with the U.S. is of comparatively marginal importance regionally with little threat of any impending instability. Libya for its part cannot be considered a stable ally until it has brought under its control the roving Islamist militias, some of whom have shown a clear distaste for the U.S., with terrible consequences. Tunisia, like Algeria, is a similarly marginal player whilst as long as Assad remains in power, relations between Syria and the U.S. are irreparably broken. The Gulf countries have proved to be important and powerful allies when dealing with a situation like Syria, but are not as geographically and politically important when it comes to Israel/Palestine.
Stance on Syria
It would be perhaps unfair to expect Morsi to have taken any serious action on Syria when far more powerful forces remain in gridlock and genuine progress slow. Whilst Syrian flags have adorned Tahrir and support for the uprising amongst Egyptians has been vocal, there has understandably been little in the way of actual policy from Morsi; he has acted accordingly and spoken both loudly and firmly.
While strong words alone will contribute little to Syria’s ongoing plight, they speak volumes about Morsi’s regional ambitions for Egypt. Like his plan for a quartet of Egypt, KSA, Turkey & Iran to deal with the Syrian crisis, one at least gets the impression that the intention is there even if it is limited by the difficulty of the situation in Syria and Egypt’s dire economic situation. At the very least we can say Morsi has made a clean break from the Mubarak regime in terms of supporting the Arab Spring, but then again Mubarak being who he was plays a large part in that.
On Israel & Palestine
There have been some who expected Morsi, as an Islamist, to waltz into power and immediately tear the Camp David accords to shreds, send a force into Sinai and prepare for attack. However Palestine is another issue where Morsi, at least for a while, will be restricted to simply paying lip service. Unsurprisingly with Egypt in bad condition domestically, economics will determine the extent of Morsi’s boldness when it comes to actual policy. Whilst as argued earlier, the U.S. is almost tied into delivering aid to Egypt, the Camp David accords are a red line.
The Strong Party, founded by ex-presidential candidate Aboul Fotouh, released a statement yesterday condemning Morsi for "not amending the Camp David treaty or forcing complete Egyptian control over Sinai or opening Gaza crossing to transfer goods to our Palestinian brothers." The problem for Morsi on the latter two points is the lack of security in Sinai which culminated in the attack on an Egyptian army base, killing 16. He must secure the peninsula both militarily and by reaching out to those alienated by the Mubarak regime. Some steps have been taken in this field; on Friday he visited Sinai, reaching out to the region’s Copts – many of whom have been forced to flee their homes. He has also promised to order a review of court rulings delivered under Mubarak against Sinai residents while in absentia.
There has definitely been some positive signs that Morsi is trying a different approach to that of Mubarak, although the recent crackdown on militants in the region was quite similar to Mubarak’s anti-terrorism policy in the peninsula. Nevertheless, only if and when Morsi can bring some semblance of security to the area will we potentially see some progress regarding the opening of the Rafah crossing.
For a look at the Egyptian economy and Morsi's policies, check out our story Thank God for the Muslim Brothers' economic policy?