Amid a still uncertain Egyptian political scene, Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi recently conducted several official visits to neighboring countries. These visits came in the wake of numerous meetings among Morsi and international officials and organizations in Cairo. Many believe that such visits might help the president define Cairo’s foreign policy orientations, which until now remain unclear, given that Egyptian officials have been consumed with the country’s domestic affairs.
The first step toward delineating Egypt’s foreign policy priorities was taken in Cairo. Morsi and Egyptian Prime Minister Hesham Kandil met, [in the week of Aug. 19], with International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde to request a $4.8 billion loan from the IMF. The move has been fiercely criticized by a slew of revolutionary and non-revolutionary political coalitions, who believe that such a loan will subject the country to the IMF’s unfair terms. Many fear that Egypt’s future will become dependent upon the decisions of foreign countries and institutions. Moreover, popular movements assert that the loan request reflects the fact that the Morsi administration is following the same socio-economic policies of Egypt’s former regime. Over the past three decades, such policies have significantly contributed to a decrease in the standard of living and a deterioration of the economic conditions faced by the majority of Egyptians. These were the factors that resulted in the revolution that toppled the regime of Hosni Mubarak.
The meeting between high-level Egyptian officials and the IMF’s managing director have led various political forces to question the economic program that Morsi pledged to implement during his electoral campaign. Morsi had promised a program that would generate about $200 billion in foreign investments. The country’s principal political parties have called upon the government to adopt new economic policies and reform the state subsidy program in a way that allows subsidies to reach their targets and be put to practical use, mainly in the energy sector. Egypt’s political parties have also pushed for reforms to the fiscal system in order to make it more fair, and have called for a genuine national discussion about the future of the Egyptian economy. These calls came after prominent economic activists and experts made public several effective and practical solutions to the country’s economic woes.
Moving eastward, From Cairo to Beijing
Morsi’s second official visit to Beijing has drawn significant local and international attention. According to some analysts, the visit ushers in a new era in Egypt’s foreign policies toward the East. Others point to the strictly economic rationale behind Morsi’s trip. Although Egypt and China have taken different positions on the Syrian crisis, they have mutual economic interests and political ambitions. China has investments in various African countries and has a tight grip on several African markets, chiefly Sudan. China’s economic might surpasses the traditional power of other major economic forces like the US, France, and the UK. Beijing sees activities in Egypt as contributing to its own economic growth. Moreover, Beijing thinks that, in the long term, Egypt might serve as a platform for the world’s most populous country to better exert its political influence over the region.
In 1997, China and Egypt concluded an agreement that did not end up coming into effect under Mubarak. According to the agreement, a Chinese-Egyptian common industrial zone would be established in the Suez, which would later have been developed into a large agglomeration of high-tech industries. The area would then constitute a transit point for trade across the East, starting from China, Indonesia, and Malaysia and crossing the Port of Suez or Alexandria to western Europe and Africa. The development of such a project laid the groundwork for a strategic cooperation agreement between Egypt and China 12 years ago, which would have mainly covered industry, agriculture and armament.
The agreement was aborted under Mubarak because the leaders of the former regime controlled such lands formerly allocated to the project. Consequently, Chinese investments have remained very limited in Egypt. Cooperation between China and Israel, however, has rapidly expanded in the high-tech sector, and is now estimated at some $5 billion per year.
Politically, the new Egypt needs the support of an important country such as China, primarily when it comes to negotiations and gaining the support of other major forces such as the US and the EU. In addition, China exerts considerable influence over the African countries higher up on the Nile River. China plans to establish new dams that might have a serious impact on Egypt’s quota of the Nile waters. Furthermore, China wants to increase its presence in the MENA [Middle East and North Africa] region, primarily because its control over African and Middle Eastern countries like Libya and Syria has been diminished considerably as NATO’s influence grows in Libya and the crisis deepens in Syria.
Egypt and Iran: ambitions and reservations
In what signalled to some a shift in Egyptian foreign policy, Morsi visited the Non-Aligned Movement Summit (NAM) in Iran — a controversial move by many standards. This is the first time that an Egyptian leader has visited since mid-1979, when Cairo and Teheran broke off diplomatic relations under Mohammed Reza Pahlavi (Iran’s final shah) following the Iranian Revolution and after late Egyptian President Mohammed Anwar Sadat signed a peace agreement with Israel.
Morsi’s visit was admittedly also part of the protocol that the Egyptian president must follow to hand over the NAM summit presidency to the Iranians. However, further to this, the visit addressed several important goals of both parties, and made clear several serious reservations, mainly on the part of Egypt. Tehran welcomed the results of the presidential elections, which helped the Muslim Brotherhood candidate come to power. Tehran also described Morsi’s victory as the beginning of an era of “Islamic awakening” in Egypt. Iran today is willing to restore all normal relations with Egypt, and has passed the ball to Cairo to raise the level of its diplomatic representation in Tehran and open an embassy there. Diplomatic representation in both countries is limited, in fact, to a representation office located in Tehran and Cairo which is charged of protecting the countries’ mutual interests. However, Iran and Egypt are well aware that Morsi’s visit to Tehran does not mean a direct normalization in relations. The visit is just a first step down this path.
Furthermore, Cairo is aware that the fence-mending visit to Iran is a matter of considerable concern to the US and Israel. Although Egypt’s new regime needs to drum up support from Washington, it is willing to exert pressure on Tel Aviv through diplomatic maneuvers and by taking advantage of its diplomatic relations with other countries on bad terms with Israel.
In addition, Egypt’s new regime knows that Washington and Tel Aviv are not the only ones objecting to the normalization of relations with Iran. In fact, the Salafists, who are staunch allies of the Muslim Brotherhood, flatly and publicly refuse that Egypt restore relations with Iran. The Muslim Brotherhood cannot take a step that might upset the Salafists, mainly as its relations with civil, liberal, leftist and national forces are deteriorating day after. In fact, Egypt will soon conduct a poll on the new constitution, and parliamentary elections will follow to appoint the MPs for the new Constituent Assembly.
Cairo realizes that there are still unsettled affairs between Egypt and Iran, most importantly regarding Iran’s relations with the Arab Gulf countries and its support of the Syrian regime against dissidents there, notably Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood. Concerning Iran’s relations with the Arab Gulf countries, advisers to the Egyptian President believe that Cairo might play a role in mending relations between these actors. In fact, Cairo’s foreign policy deems relations with the Arab Gulf a top priority. Regarding the mending of relations, Egypt has suggested that a four-member committee be formed — including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey — to settle the matter.
At the present stage, Egypt’s new regime will not take major steps to restore relations with Iran. Such positive change in the relations of both countries might usher in the end of the aggressive statements that Iranian and Egyptian officials had grown accustomed to exchanging under Mubarak.
Slow changes between Egypt and Africa
When Morsi took power, it was expected that Egypt would improve its relations with its neighbors in the African continent, mainly countries along the Nile basin, would improve. Although Egypt participated in the African Union Summit - which was recently held in Addis Ababa - and despite Morsi’s meetings with several African leaders on the margin of the said summit, Cairo’s relations with the African countries are still limited to periodic diplomatic statements. In fact, there are no concrete results or any noticeable improvements in African-Egyptian relations. For instance, the cooperation projects with Sudan — Egypt’s most important African ally — are being executed at snail’s pace, even though both countries realize the importance of such cooperation.
There are, however, signs that the key highway linking Egypt to Sudan will open soon, a development that may help improve economic relations between both countries. Meanwhile, Egypt and Sudan must play their cards right and be prepared to fight the final and most strenuous battle that could help settle their disputes with the countries of the Nile basin concerning the Nile water-sharing treaty. According to provisions within the treaty, Egypt should, upon the election of a new government, decide whether it will implement the said agreement as is, or make new amendments to it, without prejudice regarding Egypt and Sudan’s historical rights to use the Nile waters.