By Joel Gulhane and Mariam Iskander
Although most of the criticism directed at President Mohamed Morsi in recent protests is inspired by his domestic policies, Egypt’s president has also delved into the world of international relations; Morsi began his tenure with trips to various countries, including a historic visit to Iran in late August, a country with which former President Hosni Mubarak maintained frosty relations, at best.
The Daily News Egypt spoke to Gamal Soltan, a professor of political science at American University in Cairo and was the director of the Ahram Centre for Strategic Studies to assess to Morsi’s first year of foreign policy.
“To begin with, President Morsi generally tried to keep Egypt’s strong foreign relations, which were established under the previous regime,” said Soltan. “At the same time, he wanted to diversify … and expand Egypt’s arena of foreign relations.”
Morsi and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have played an active role in international efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis. Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohamed Kamel Amr has attended almost every international meeting on the situation and continually expressed Egypt’s stance that there should be a political solution for Syria.
Despite this, Soltan believes that Egypt has not played much of a role in the conflict, and “all it has to offer Syria is diplomatic support.”
Morsi has repeated that Egypt is willing to talk to all sides of the conflict in order to find a political solution. According to Soltan, “what Morsi was trying to do was put Egypt as the mediator in the Syrian conflict, and he tried to act as a middleman between United States and Russia.”
In August 2012 Morsi invited Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to join Egypt in a quartet charged with finding a solution to the conflict. “He tried to bring together two of the most conflicting powers in the region, Saudi Arabia and Iran, knowing the marginality of Egypt’s role,” said Soltan.
The quartet itself was a failure, finding no solution after holding three meetings in 2012; Saudi Arabia was absent after the first meeting.
Morsi announced in a speech at Cairo stadium in June that Egypt has completely severed ties with Syria and threw his support behind a no-fly zone to be enforced over Syrian airspace.
“Just recently Morsi involved Egypt in the Syrian conflict, not through the Egyptian government’s control but through the extremist Jihadist groups in Egypt,” said Soltan, noting that the Muslim Brotherhood was amongst several Islamist groups in Egypt that have endorsed calls for jihad in Syria. “The Egyptian initiative is now in the hands of the extremist groups of Egypt, and not the in hands of the Egyptian government,” added Soltan.
Relations with Turkey have strengthened since Morsi came to power; both presidents have visited each other, and the two nations have coordinated on a number of regional issues, most notably on Syria and the Hamas-Israel conflict in November 2012. Prime Minister Hesham Qandil has also visited Turkey with a business delegation to strengthen economic ties, and Minister of Tourism Hesham Zazou has put much effort in to promoting tourism exchanges between two countries.
Soltan pointed out that Turkey provided Egypt with a large amount of financial aid, adding, “Turkey is a strong supporter of the Brotherhood’s regime and ideologically sympathises with them.” Despite the ideological link, Soltan sees Egypt as the weaker partner in the relationship and “might very soon start to become a burden on Turkey, and we cannot expect Turkey to sustain its support with nothing in return.” He added, “the only thing Turkey is gaining from this relationship is that it gets to be a leader and a vital player in the region.”
2013 marked the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the African Union (originally the Organisation of African Unity) of which Egypt is one of the founding members. Over the last year Egypt has been vocal on issues of African concern, most importantly the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
The diplomatic spat over the GERD is based on the issue of water distribution within the Nile Basin countries. Egypt firmly insists on the legitimacy of colonial agreements that allocate it the majority share of Nile waters. Morsi and Qandil have hosted diplomats from several of the Nile riparian countries, in order to gain support against Ethiopia, which maintains that colonial-era agreements are invalid. Egypt and Sudan have refused to sign the Entebbe agreement believing that it does not adequately serve their needs.
Soltan stated that “it is very far-fetched to think that Egypt will be able to improve its relations with any of the African countries,” adding that the Ethiopian dam crisis indicates how relations with the African countries have deteriorated.
Morsi began his first year in office on good terms with the United States; former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton travelled to Cairo to meet with Morsi, where she described the relationship as “broad and enduring”.
Although the US has continually expressed its support for Egypt’s democratic transition, giving both financial aid and military support, there have been testing times for the Egypt-US relationship.
Maintaining a stable security situation in Egypt, especially in the Sinai, is vital for the US, which also maintains strong relations with Israel. America has also been critical of several domestic issues, including Morsi’s constitutional declaration in November 2012 and the sectarian motivated violence in April 2013. In response, the state department has continually called for democratic principles to prevail in Egypt.
Members of both the US congress and senate have debated the status of aid to Egypt; in February 2013 one senator described Morsi as an “enemy” during a discussion on military aid to Egypt, and in March the congress elected to freeze further financial assistance.
United Arab Emirates
Egypt’s once-strong relations with the United Arab Emirates, as well as other Gulf countries, have steadily weakened since the 25 January Revolution. Soltan asserted that the Gulf countries, “to begin with, were not supportive of the Egyptian Revolution,” and that the resulting rise of the Muslim Brotherhood did not fix the situation, since none of Morsi’s policies managed to “reassure the Gulf countries and win them on the Egyptian side.”
The UAE government arrested in January more than 10 Egyptians for allegedly running a secret Brotherhood cell, and accused them of conspiring to topple the ruling Emirati regime. Egypt sent a delegation to try and solve the detainees’ dilemma but failed to assist them. Essam Sultan’s recent statements at the Shura Council condemning the Emirati government’s behaviour towards the detainees issue have only led to more complications.
For the first time in 34 years, Egypt held meetings and exchange visits with Iran, opening the door to a new era of foreign relations between the two countries.
Morsi travelled to Tehran on August 2012 to attend the Non-Aligned Movement summit; former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad responded in kind, travelling to Cairo to attend the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation’s (OIC) 12th session in February.
Not only has Egypt exchanged diplomatic visits with Iran, but sat at the same table to discuss the thorny issue of the Syrian situation; the Foreign Ministers of Egypt, Iran, and Turkey met at the Foreign Ministry in Cairo to discuss the on-going civil war, at the invitation of the Egyptian government.
According to Soltan, it is not yet clear if Egypt was trying through its relations with Iran to bring together the region’s most influential powers, or if it was trying to “use Iran as a means of pressuring the Gulf countries.”
Egypt’s relation with Iran was not limited to a number of political negotiations and diplomatic visits; the two countries signed a mutual tourism agreement in March.
Soltan believes that “despite the various attempts to put Iran on Egypt’s side, Morsi failed because Iran had a very different take on the Syrian conflict.” He added that strong relations with Iran might cost Morsi a huge sect of his supporters: Salafis. “Fundamentalists will never accept to have Shi’a Iran as their good friend.”
The recent election of cleric Hassan Rowhani to the Iranian presidency, coupled with the lynching of four Egyptian Shi’as, indicate that the future of Egypt’s relationship with Iran is uncertain at best.
Morsi’s rise to power seemed destined to strengthen the relations between Egypt and the Palestinian Authorities, especially Hamas, which is an arm of the Brotherhood.
After lengthy negotiations about the status of the Rafah border crossing, Egypt eased the restrictions on passing through the borders, increased the number of operation hours from 8 to 12, and increased the number of Palestinians allowed to pass to 1,500. Despite rumours that the killing of the 16 soldiers in August 2012 was committed by Palestinians, the Rafah border crossing was reopened only nine days after the accident.
Egypt’s support to Palestine was announced abroad as well; in Morsi’s first speech before the General Assembly of the United Nations he called for increased international will to resolve the situation in Palestine.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohamed Kamel Amr has made various statements condemning Israeli decisions to construct settlements in the West Bank, as well as the treatment of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons, and the Israeli policies towards al-Aqsa.
A reconciliation meeting was hosted in Cairo in February between the two Palestinian authorities: Hamas and Fatah. They discussed the creation of a new unified Palestinian government. Both sides failed, however, to reach an agreement on how to conduct elections.
Soltan summarised Egypt’s policy towards Palestine, saying, “Egypt is not talking about any peace agreements or war,” adding that the Brotherhood’s goals is to soothe the current Palestinian situation until it is “well established and firmly grounded in Egypt.”