New Egypt’s Foreign Policy: Change or Continuity?

Monday, July 23, 2012

Mohammad Khajouei
Master’s Degree in Middle East Studies

Egypt’s new president, Mohammed Mursi, chose Saudi Arabia as the destination of his first foreign visit in order to put the dormant apparatus of the country’s foreign policy into gear again. Back from Saudi Arabia, he had a meeting with the new president of Tunisia, Munsif al-Marzuqi, followed by a meeting with the United States’ Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Afterwards, he went to Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, in order to attend a meeting of the African Union.

During one and a half year that passed since the fall of Egypt’s former dictator, Hosni Mubarak, the absence of an elected government and high level of political tension in the country had left less room for Egypt’s foreign policy to be active. However, after the election of the new president and establishment of the new government in Egypt, the country is expected to become more active in the area of foreign policy.

The main question, however, is how Egypt’s foreign policy will fare in the country’s new political era? Should we expect basic and serious changes in Cairo’s foreign policy orientation?

On the whole, the foreign policy of every country is usually a function of its domestic situation and is affected not only by that country’s political structure, but also by relative influence of political forces and their approach to national interests. Naturally, the changes that have happened in the political structure of Egypt following the fall of Mubarak as well as the new arrangement of political forces in the country will undoubtedly affect Egypt’s foreign policy as well. However, despite some expectations, developments in Egypt’s foreign policy under the new government will not be basic, infrastructural, or too fast.

A major obstacle to rapid and fundamental changes in Egypt’s foreign policy is the issue of balance among as well as plurality of the existing political forces in the country. As a result of such diversity, any kind of fundamental change is sure to be met with opposition, resistance and obstructionism by various groups. Although Mohammed Mursi is the first civilian and Islamist president of Egypt, let’s not forget that firstly, the Egypt’s military is still one of the most influential political institutions in the country. Secondly, Mursi’s fragile vote in presidential elections and a 3-percent difference between his votes and those of the next runner-up, Ahmed Shafiq, in an election which was attended by less than 50 percent of eligible voters does not allow him to bring about major changes in the country’s foreign policy single-handedly. Moreover, even the revolutionary and Islamist currents in Egypt are very diverse in their tendencies and this can be another restraint which may further restrict the new president’s maneuvering space.

Another obstacle on his way is the impoverished situation of the Egyptian economy which makes the government dependent on the attraction of foreign investment for reinvigoration of the national economy. As a result, the government’s foreign policy should avoid tension and move on cautiously both at regional and international levels.

Since the fall of Mubarak up to the present time, Egypt’s economic indices have been under strenuous pressure. In 2011 alone, inflow of foreign capital fell by 90 percent. Revenues from Egypt’s tourism industry have taken a nosedive and trade balance deficit has added up to 30 billion dollars. In addition, the growth rate of Egypt’s gross domestic product has reduced from the previous figure of 3.8 percent to the current figure of about one percent. The success or failure of Mursi’s government will greatly depend on the future outlook of the Egyptian economy.

Despite the above facts, the Egyptian foreign policy is sure to see changes in certain areas which need more attention.

It seems that the most important index of Egypt’s foreign policy in the new era is a kind of balance and regionalism. The balance means that new Egypt will try to diversify its foreign relations and reduce mere dependence on one or a few regional and transregional powers. Regionalism, on the other hand, means that the main priority of Egypt will be to expand ties with regional countries and restore Cairo’s influence on regional political equations.

As a result, strengthening and development of relations with Arab countries in the region will be the highest priority for Egypt’s foreign policy under the new government. Egypt, as the most populous country in the Arab world which has also been a pioneer among the Arabs in various fields, will try in its new era to regain its past influential position among Arab states.

Mohammed Mursi has frequently emphasized on the need to expand ties with Arab countries. Even in his first foreign visit, he went to Saudi Arabia where he clearly warned that the security of the Persian Gulf is a red line for Egypt.

To revive its economy, Egypt will be in dire need of the money and capital which is found in abundance in Arab countries of the Persian Gulf. In addition, the new government of Egypt will have to gain the trust of various Arab countries in Egypt’s political trend and new developments in the county.

As for relations with big power such as the United States, Cairo is expected to maintain the existing close relations. High influence of the Egyptian military which has direct ties to the United States, the economic exigencies, political requirements resulting from plurality of political forces in Egypt, and the government’s effort to gain confidence of the world will cause the new Egypt to show no willingness to make any negative change to close ties between Cairo and Washington. Under these circumstances, it will also be very important for the United States to maintain and expand relations with a country like Egypt which is among main non-NATO allies of Washington.

One of the most controversial issues in Egypt’s foreign policy, however, is the issue of relations with Israel. After signing the Camp David Accord more than three decades ago, relations between Cairo and Tel Aviv have been quite close. However, subsequent to the Egyptian revolution, certain incidents occurred which have greatly shaken the fundaments of relations between Egypt and Israel. They included frequent explosions along the main pipeline which takes the Egyptian gas to Israel, a severe attack on Israel’s embassy in Cairo, and abrogation of a previous contract for selling Egypt’s gas to the Zionist regime of Israel.

Following election of Mohammed Mursi as the candidate of Islamist and revolutionary groups, many in Israel and, of course, the United States, were worried about future outlook of the Camp David Accord. They were concerned that the new government, influenced by the anti-Israeli wave in Egypt, will have to revoke the accord. However, in his first address following his election win, Mursi announced that he will remain committed to all international obligations of Egypt. His announcement stood in contrast to the fact that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which had originally nominated Mursi for the presidency, had frequently called for changes to be made to the contents of the Camp David Accord.

Therefore, analysts believe that although relations between Egypt and Israel will not be totally severed in the future, they will not be as warm as they were in the past and will gradually become colder. In other words, some sort of cold peace will be the main feature of the two countries’ future relations.

Relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran constitute another area in which the Egyptian foreign relations will probably see changes. Egypt and Iran are two countries with ancient civilizations and long cultural background with much potential for political closeness. Although some regional and transregional powers are not willing for these two countries to get close, it seems that relations between Tehran and Cairo will become more cordial in the near future, though not at a high pace, but through a gradual procession. Under the current circumstances when the West and Arab countries are acting in unison to form an anti-Iranian front, it is quit natural for Egypt to proceed in its relations with Iran at a speed which will not arouse regional and international sensitivities.

All told, Egypt’s foreign policy in the country’s new political era will move slowly ahead, just as is the case with Egypt’s domestic developments. Therefore, although changes are sure to occur in Egypt’s foreign relations, they will occur quite insidiously and cautiously.

Key Words: Egypt’s Foreign Policy, Change and Continuity, Balance and Regionalism, Arab Countries, United States, Israel, Islamic Republic of Iran, Khajouei 

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