Advertisement

Egypt foreign policy tone may change, but not its substance

Egyptian President-elect Mohamed Morsi waves to supporters Friday at a protest in Cairo's Tahrir Square.
(Amr Nabil, Associated Press)

CAIRO — Egypt’s foreign policy under its first Islamist president is likely to change in tenor but not substance, at least in the short term, as the new government can ill afford to strain relations with the U.S. or risk international furor by abandoning Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

President Mohamed Morsi faces domestic social and financial crises that are expected to eclipse foreign affairs in coming months. Rhetoric against Jerusalem and Washington may sharpen, but Morsi, who ran as the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, is desperate for Western and regional investment to ease the economic turmoil that has overwhelmed the Arab world’s most populous state.

The new president, who will be sworn in to office Saturday, will be further constrained by the nation’s secular military, which receives $1.3 billion annually in U.S. aid. Days before Morsi was elected, the generals, who have controlled the country since Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow early last year, suppressed the powers of the president to counter the rising influence of conservative Islamists.

“There will be no change in the peace treaty with Israel, and strategic relations with the U.S. will continue,” said Emad Gad, a foreign affairs expert with Cairo’s Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “Morsi will actually enhance relations with the U.S. The Muslim Brotherhood’s program is based on free markets and is liberal when it comes to the economy.”

Advertisement

Still, the new president has made it clear that his approach to the Israelis will be less compliant than that taken during Mubarak’s 30-year rule.

“The peace treaty between us and the Israelis has constantly been violated by the Israelis,” Morsi recently told an Egyptian TV channel. “They must understand that peace is not just words. It is actions on the ground. The aggression on the Egyptian borders, their violence against Egyptian soldiers, and the threats they sometimes made to Egypt are all unacceptable. They should no longer think that the Egyptian president will back down.”

Some regard Morsi’s rise as the foreshadowing of a strident political Islam that will have consequences from Abu Dhabi to Washington. For now, however, it is unclear whether Morsi and the Brotherhood will mirror the diplomatically bold yet religiously moderate policies of Turkey or a more rigid, anti-Western Islam.

“For the United States, Morsi’s election, coupled with Osama bin Laden’s killing a year ago, underscores a shift from the threat of violent Islamist extremism to a new, more complex challenge posed by the empowerment of a currently nonviolent but no less ambitious form of Islamist radicalism,” said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Advertisement

Morsi will also quickly confront the sensitivities of his Arab neighbors. He has promised to restore Egypt to its regional prominence after years of decline under Mubarak. That is viewed apprehensively by Saudi Arabia, a close Mubarak ally, and other Persian Gulf Arab states whose international stature has ascended in pivotal dealings with Lebanon, Syria and Iran while Cairo’s has diminished.

“The rebalancing of the political order and the emergence of Egypt would have a huge impact on regional political dynamics, but we are a long way off from that,” said Michael Wahid Hanna, a Middle East expert and a fellow at the Century Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank. “A stronger, more independent Egypt would be on a course that would both balance and clash with the Saudis’ power.”

Egyptian activists don’t see Morsi as embodying the ideals of the revolution that overthrew Mubarak. But for gulf monarchies, he represents a dangerous Islamist populism that may inspire revolts and threaten their reigns in an era of uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa. Some analysts predict that gulf states may scale down billions of dollars in prospective loans to Egypt until they feel comfortable with Morsi’s style.

The election of Morsi, a U.S.-educated engineer, reflects a region in tumult, where autocrats who once buttressed U.S. and Israeli policies have been swept aside. Some analysts say such an unpredictable atmosphere makes it time for Israel to push in earnest for Middle East peace.

Advertisement

“Windows are closing all around and this is the time for fast action. Not hysterical, but certainly swift,” said Yisrael Hasson, an Israeli lawmaker and former deputy chief of Israel’s internal security agency. “Israel is already three years late in putting forth a peace initiative and this is the time to move.”

A crucial issue for Cairo and Israel is the increase in lawlessness and Islamic militants in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula. The desert that borders the Gaza Strip has become more dangerous since Mubarak’s fall; Israel has been pressing Egypt to crack down on militant networks that have launched rocket attacks and deadly cross-border raids.

“I believe the peace treaty will be kept, although it will undoubtedly be a colder peace,” said Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, an Israeli lawmaker and former defense minister. “I hope he [Morsi] enables the army to continue dialogue with Israel because we have at least one common concern that can set the region on fire, namely Sinai, which has become a home to terror around the world, from Al Qaeda to Hamas.”

The militant group Hamas, which controls Gaza, celebrated when Morsi was elected. The Muslim Brotherhood has strong ties to Hamas, and Morsi has criticized Israel in recent months for what he claimed was violence against Palestinians and intransigence on reaching an accord on a Palestinian state. This sentiment, which reflects Egypt’s disquiet over its treaty with Israel, may eventually lead to a reevaluation or collapse of the peace

Advertisement

“We are 90 million [people]. It is not possible for a country of 5 million to intimidate 90 million,” Morsi said, referring to Israel.

Egypt has not become an “enemy state threatening Israel’s borders, but the intelligence and military establishment in Israel should nonetheless regard the old friend as a country that has to be relearned, and should prepare accordingly,” Alex Fishman, a military analyst, wrote in Israeli daily newspaper Yediot Aharonot.

U.S. diplomats have been meeting with Muslim Brotherhood officials for months. There is a growing understanding between the sides, but the Brotherhood’s insular nature has made it difficult to read Egypt’s regional intentions beyond its economic interests. Will it, for example, aid the Muslim Brotherhood faction battling Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime? Will it reverse years of Mubarak policy by seeking to reopen relations with Iran?

Both questions — and many others — characterize a Middle East in flux and will determine whether Egypt regains its influential voice. It is likely that Cairo will gradually become less beholden to U.S. designs, but Morsi will be hemmed in by an Egyptian military closely aligned with Washington.

Advertisement

The battle over how much power the military will relinquish to Morsi will define Egypt’s brand of political Islam and its wider foreign policy. Much of the struggle will be determined by how pragmatic and patient Morsi and the Brotherhood are in weighing religious and political interests.

Citing the military’s firm grip on Egypt, Hanna said, the “power dynamics now don’t favor a civilian president, especially when it comes to foreign policy.”

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

Special correspondent Reem Abdellatif in Cairo and news assistant Batsheva Sobelman in The Times’ Jerusalem bureau contributed to this report.

Advertisement


Advertisement