Illustration: Sun Ying
After consolidating his power by dismissing top military generals, newly elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has probably reasoned that it is time he turned his attention to foreign policy. A series of his recent diplomatic activities such as visiting China, attending the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Iran and his visit to the US set for late September raise the question of whether post-revolution Egypt is in the process of rolling out a new active, independent foreign policy.
There is little doubt that the 2011 revolution broke out primarily because of domestic reasons, such as the deterioration of socio-economic conditions, rampant corruption and former president Hosni Mubarak's ill-advised plan to groom his unpopular son, Gamal Mubarak, as his successor. However, foreign policy issues cannot be totally excluded from the factors that drove millions of protestors to demand his ouster. In his last years in office, Mubarak's policies drew closer to the policies of the US-Israel axis, which came at the expense of an acute drop in legitimacy at home.
Mubarak harbored a deep-seated distrust of regional militant Islamic groups, particularly Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), then Egypt's most organized opposition group. He collaborated with Israel in the inhumane blockade of Gaza, exported scarce gas to Israel and turned a blind eye to Israel's maltreatment of the Palestinians.
A departure from this past was almost inevitable. The new president would most likely reconsider his ties with Israel and search for a new formula of relations with the US.
With regard to Israel, the honeymoon is undoubtedly over. The peace treaty will be kept, but Egypt may attempt to amend some of its provisions, particularly to allow for the deployment of more Egyptian troops in the Sinai Peninsula to curb the rising violence of local militants. Despite the MB's heated rhetoric, there will be no return to war, but neither will there be a close alliance.
A totally new chapter with the US is not in the offing. Even before Morsi's election, the MB made overtures to the US administration, assuring them of continued political and economic cooperation, and guaranteeing that the peace treaty with Israel would not be annulled. Egypt is still in need of the US' generous military aid, and Washington's political support is crucial to secure badly needed financial assistance from international financial institutions. Egypt has already requested a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.
But Morsi will attempt to diversify his international alliances, and lessen his predecessor's dependence on the Americans. In addition, and in light of Egypt's current economic malaise, its government will seek to bolster its economic relations with the world's major powers, including China and the EU.
It is within this context that Morsi's visit to China should be viewed. Modern Egyptian-Chinese relations date back to 1956, when late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser recognized the People's Republic of China against a backdrop of Western denunciation. Since then, economic relations have constituted the backbone of the bilateral ties. Egypt is looking forward to attracting Chinese investors and tourists, and various cooperation agreements have been signed during Morsi's visit.
The future of Egypt's diplomatic relations with Iran represents the real litmus test for change in Egyptian foreign policy. The Egyptian-Iranian bilateral relations have been severed for more than 30 years. Since Ruhollah Khomeini's death, the Iranians have sought a rapprochement with Egypt, but Mubarak was not interested. With him gone, the road seems to be paved for the resumption of relations. Indeed, a few days ago, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali-Akbar Salehi said that both countries are moving toward restoring diplomatic relations.
How soon that will happen remains unclear. Morsi would first have to alleviate the fears of Gulf States leaders, who are concerned that an improvement in Egyptian-Iranian relations would tip the regional balance of power toward Iran. Needless to say, the US shares the same reservations. But mending fences with Tehran will signal Morsi's determination to pursue an independent foreign policy that is neither constrained by Egypt's "special" relationship with the US nor by its need of financial assistance from oil-rich Gulf States.
The foreign policy challenges facing Egypt today are abundant. Morsi will have to decide where Egypt stands on a number of fast-evolving regional issues, such as the civil war in Syria, US-Iran discord, and Arab-Israeli relations. Moreover, there is a general feeling in the country that, under Mubarak, Egypt abandoned its responsibilities and forfeited its leading role in the Middle East.
Morsi is expected to restore Egypt's strategic and political clout, and may have just taken the first step toward that goal.
The author is a PhD and political researcher based in Cairo, Egypt. firstname.lastname@example.org