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Pragmatism will rule President Morsi's new foreign policy in Egypt

The current threat to western power is not from the Muslim Brotherhood but from ongoing revolutionary dynamics in Egypt.

President Morsi shakes hands with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao
President Morsi shakes hands with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. Photograph: Getty Images

If you’re in any doubt about the significance of Egypt’s foreign policy orientation, then consider some of the history. In 1956, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s bid for independence from the west drew Britain, France and Israel into an act of aggression over Suez, the failure of which marked a watershed in Britain’s decline from imperial power to lowly “spear-carrier for the Pax Americana”. By smashing the Egyptian military in a few days in June 1967, thus ending Nasser’s extensive capacity for regional subversion, Israel sealed its position as Washington’s number one cop-on-the-beat in the Middle East. And when Nasser’s successor Anwar El Sadat dramatically switched sides in the Cold War, and signed a separate peace treaty with Israel, he earned Egypt both the opprobrium of the rest of the Arab world and access to billions of dollars in US aid.

Barack Obama’s refusal to describe Hosni Mubarak as an authoritarian ruler (“I tend not to use labels for folks”), and Tony Blair’s gushing praise for him as “immensely courageous and a force for good”, reflected the value that western leaders placed on the Egyptian patriarch’s ability to maintain Cairo’s position as a cornerstone of the conservative, regional order. After Mubarak’s downfall, the hope must have been that the US-bankrolled military overseeing the transition period would insulate the key areas of foreign and defence policy from any danger of popular interference. But when the struggle between the junta and the Muslim Brotherhood culminated last month in President Mohamed Morsi’s mass removal of leading generals and nullification of the decree they had issued to limit his powers, a degree of nervousness among Western leaders would certainly have been understandable.

Less justified is the melodramatic response from some quarters to Morsi’s first steps on the international stage. Last week, the New York Times’ leading foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman scolded Morsi for planning to attend the meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran, and thus “helping to sanitize” the Iranian regime (this from a man who once described Bahrain as a “progressive state”). A few days earlier, a current and a former member of the neo-conservative Washington Institute for Near East Policy writing jointly in the Los Angeles Times, noted Morsi’s visits to Tehran and Beijing, and warned that the Egyptian President could be poised to defect to the East in a move comparable to Sadat’s in the 1970s. At the same time, Iranian state media were also furiously spinning Morsi’s impending arrival as a rejection of the US and its allies.

Hindsight is of course a wonderful thing. But when Morsi used his summit speech to denounce the Syrian regime supported by Iran and China - painfully embarrassing his hosts by equating the struggle of the Syrian people to that of the Palestinians – it needn’t have been too much of a surprise to anyone. For one thing, the position had already been stated. Moreover, with the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood heavily represented in that country’s opposition, and with an economically crippled Egypt still reliant on the largesse of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Morsi was only ever going to support one side in the Syrian conflict, which in turn could only preclude a move into the Moscow-Tehran-Beijing camp.

And there were scarcely any other grounds to cast Morsi as a latter-day Nasser or a Khomenei. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood have consistently been at pains to reassure Washington that they have no intention of severing relations (irrespective of who wins the US presidential elections in November) or of abandoning the treaty with Israel. This conservative approach is predictable enough from an organisation whose leadership (putting the rank and file to one side) comprises of businessmen and upper-middle class professionals who have shown a preference for caution, pragmatism and, as Egyptian revolutionaries would (correctly) argue, cynical accommodation with power.

Where some developments in Cairo’s foreign policy are concerned, the west should have no objections, or at least is in no position to complain. Given the recent militant attacks on its southern border, Israel ought to welcome any amendment of the peace treaty that allows Egypt’s military the necessary freedom of movement to secure the Sinai peninsula. Morsi’s attempt to include Iran in regional talks on the Syrian crisis is merely an act of realism given that no negotiated settlement is feasible without the involvement of the key actors (although whether Cairo is any better placed than Washington to bring the parties together, after the Tehran speech, remains to be seen). As for Morsi’s trip to China in search of investment for Egypt’s broken economy, Western complaints are likely to fall on deaf ears. The IMF-approved structural adjustment programs imposed under Mubarak proved devastating for ordinary Egyptians, and did much to create the conditions that led to last year’s uprising. Cairo may currently be too weak to extricate itself from the West’s economic grip, but it can hardly be blamed for wishing to at least diversify the range of actors on whom it depends.

If anything, Washington ought to be relieved that the effects of the Egyptian revolution on Cairo’s foreign policy have been so limited up until now. Seventy-nine per cent of Egyptians currently view the US in unfavourable terms. Sixty-one per cent see US military and economic aid as having a negative impact on their country. Sixty-one per cent favour overturning the peace treaty with Israel, with support for that measure surging recently amongst college-educated young people. A slight plurality believe relations with Washington should be less close (38 per cent) against those who think the status quo should be maintained (35 per cent), with this latter number clearly resting on insecure foundations. (See the Pew Global Attitudes Project report here (pdf).)

Commentators such as Friedman and his neo-conservative fellow travellers have made much of their claimed support for the democratisation of the Arab world. But the prospect of Egyptian foreign policy aligning itself with the views of the people is one they are likely to find hard to stomach. The current threat is not from the Muslim Brotherhood, an essentially conservative force, but from ongoing revolutionary dynamics in Egypt which have deep social, political and economic roots. If those processes continue to unfold, western power really will have something to worry about.

David Wearing is a postgraduate researcher on British foreign policy in the Middle East at the University of London. Find him on Twitter as @davidwearing.