For over 30 years Egypt’s foreign policy has stood on three key pillars: building strategic relations with the United States, maintaining the peace treaty with Israel, and promoting the security of Arab states in the Gulf. The presidency and the security apparatus, moreover, have often overshadowed and minimized the influence of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the policymaking process. These pillars solidified under the rule of Hosni Mubarak, and as a result President Mohamed Morsi will not be able to uproot them anytime soon. Though Egypt’s foreign policy under Morsi will undergo modest changes to its surface, its main foundations will remain cemented in place.
The fall of Mubarak received mixed reactions from regional leaders, most of whom had enjoyed a solid alliance with the deposed strongman and had concerns over the sudden uncertainty of Egypt’s political and economic future. The election of Morsi sparked a number of questions about the trajectory of Egypt’s foreign policy and the regional order of the Middle East. Would Morsi’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood influence Egypt’s regional and foreign policy? Would the first “popularly” elected president walk away from Egypt’s commitments and alliances, particularly the relationships with Washington, Tel Aviv, and the Arab Gulf states? Since assuming office, Morsi has sought to reassure the international community that Egypt will maintain its strategic relationships and international commitments. He has followed repetitive public guarantees with an array of state visits in an attempt to present himself as a statesman and assure Egypt’s allies that he, the Egyptian government, and the Muslim Brotherhood are reliable and responsible partners. And Morsi has also shown that, akin to Mubarak, he is adept at selecting a close circle of advisors to develop policy and even rival the duties of officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Steady Military but Wobbly Political Relations with Washington
Late Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat assumed leadership in 1971 with a determination to start a new chapter in Egypt’s relations with the West. Shortly after the end of the October War of 1973, Sadat adopted an open market policy to replace the socialist approach of his predecessor Gamal Abdel Nasser. Sadat famously remarked in 1976 that “America holds 99 percent of the solution cards” for the Arab-Israeli conflict. It was under Sadat’s tenure that Egypt saw the beginning of a long-term strategic relationship with the United States that would later influence many of Egypt’s political decisions regarding foreign policy. It was also in 1979 that Egypt signed the peace treaty with Israel and nominally accepted Israel as part of the region, policy shifts that cost Sadat his life and temporarily demoted Egypt from its traditional heavyweight position in the regional order, particularly due to the state’s subsequent removal from the Arab League.
Hosni Mubarak succeeded in bridging the gap with Arab nations after the rift of the 1979 peace treaty with Israel and regaining Egypt’s status as a dominant player in the region, through its various roles as host of the Arab League, broker in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and prominent member in the security alliance against Iran. Mubarak also strengthened Egypt’s relations with Western countries and benefited greatly from military and economic aid from the United States. The United States has and continues to value Egypt as a key partner in counterterrorism initiatives and regional security.
The military-military relations of Egypt and the United States remain steady under the Morsi administration, despite a range of political issues that have tested the friendship, including the ongoing trial against democracy and human rights NGOs, the scaling of U.S. embassy walls by protestors and Morsi’s delayed reaction and provision of security, the rolling debate in Congress on conditioning aid to Egypt, and the recent attention to anti-Semitic remarks Morsi made in 2010. The most striking symbols of the sustained military relationship have been the frequent visits of American defense and intelligence officials to Egypt during the past year, as well as the ceremonial delivery of new U.S.-produced F-16 fighter jets that was ironically held at a time when Egypt was plunging further into domestic strife. The recent visit of Secretary of State Kerry to Egypt was significant for its insignificance; vague, cordial public remarks and a pledge of economic assistance marked “business as usual” between the United States and Egypt.
President Morsi, Israelis, and Palestinians
After Morsi’s election Israel publicly stated its respect for the democratic process in Egypt and its outcome, as well as its intent to continue cooperation with the Morsi administration on the basis of the peace treaty. Though Morsi has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, which does not recognize Israel, he has shown that this fact will not be an obstacle for continued cooperation with Tel Aviv. Essam Haddad, Morsi’s assistant for international affairs, asserted this specific point in an interview with Reuters in February 2013.
Morsi was showered with praise from the international community and the United States in particular for negotiating a truce between Hamas and Israel in November 2012. His foreign policy achievement affirmed Egypt’s important role as a broker in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and initially suggested that Morsi may be able to make some political headway negotiating with Hamas where Mubarak could not because of Hamas’s ties to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
On the contrary, and in a fashion similar to Mubarak, Morsi has also shown that he and the army are willing to make unpopular moves that benefit Israel’s security and please the United States. Egypt’s flooding of tunnels between Sinai and the Gaza Strip illustrates this point clearly, and has brought simultaneous praise from Israel and the United States as well as sharp criticisms in Egyptian and Palestinian public opinion. As Hussein Ibish notes, furthermore, “Even if Morsi were inclined to intervene on behalf of Hamas at the expense of Egyptian interests, the military will almost certainly prevent this.”
Apprehension from Saudi Arabia
All of the Gulf States, excluding Oman, severed relations with Egypt after it signed the peace treaty with Israel in 1979. Mubarak’s support to Saddam Hussein in Iraq’s war against Iran and his later decision to join the American coalition to liberate Kuwait were among the main reasons that Egypt was able to repair its relationship with the Gulf monarchs. Egypt reaped the benefits of those close relations through direct aid, investments, and opportunities for Egyptian labor. The fall of Mubarak brought severe concerns to the Gulf monarchs, who have long suppressed popular and Islamist movements in their states. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia joined Mubarak in calling Egyptian protesters “infiltrators” seeking to destabilize their country. It was even reported that the King proposed to President Obama that the United States support a dignified exit for Mubarak and that Saudi Arabia would prop up Egypt’s economy if Washington decided to review its annual aid package to Egypt.
Since the Egyptian uprising, a schism is gradually emerging among the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) regarding relations with Egypt. This schism—chiefly among Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—has become more evident with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and the election of Morsi.
The Saudis’ current apprehension toward Egypt stems from their long history with the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite sharing values of Sunni Islam, Riyadh has shown concern with the Brotherhood’s religious political discourse that competes with its ultraconservative Wahhabi doctrine. The late Saudi Crown Prince Nayef, for example, accused the Brotherhood of “betraying” the Kingdom’s generosity and argued that the group is the source of several problems facing the region. Wary of this distrust and the Kingdom’s financial influence, Morsi’s first foreign visit was to Saudi Arabia. His visit was an attempt to defuse any rifts from the loss of Mubarak and assure the richest Arab country of Egypt’s obligation toward Gulf security. Acknowledging the importance of keeping Egypt to its side, the Kingdom granted Egypt $4 billion to help keep its economy afloat. Despite the apparent public recognition of the Muslim Brotherhood, however, the Saudis have boycotted the “Quartet for Syria” (Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, and Egypt) meetings initiated by Morsi during the Organization of Islamic Cooperation summit in Mecca in August 2012. The Kingdom is wary of recent interactions between Egypt and Iran, and it rejects any role for Iran in a solution for Syria, reluctant to overlook Iran’s role an instigator of the conflict through its funding and arming of the Syrian regime.
Politics in Reverse with Qatar and UAE
Mubarak had tense relations with Qatar after the current Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa deposed his father in 1995, and this tension was amplified by the recurring appearances of Egyptian opposition members voicing their criticisms of Mubarak on the Doha-based Al Jazeera. On the other hand, Mubarak enjoyed very close relations with the UAE and its late leader Sheikh Zayed al-Nahyan. Since Morsi’s ascendance to the presidency, however, Qatar and the UAE have reversed their stances toward Egypt. Like the Saudis, the UAE is no big fan of the Muslim Brotherhood. In fact, the UAE has put on trial over 90 individuals with alleged links to the Brotherhood for plotting to overthrow the regime. This trial follows the UAE government’s refusal to release 11 detained Egyptians with alleged connections to the Muslim Brotherhood. And although the UAE was amongst the first countries to pledge aid to Egypt in 2011, none has materialized due to the cold relationship between the countries’ leaders. This tension has escalated with the recent accusation that the UAE is financing anti-Morsi groups and establishing “hidden and conspicuous s” with members of Egypt’s intelligence. Morsi’s finger-pointing reference during his speech at the Arab League summit in March 2013 is seen as a direct message to the UAE and other regional countries (like Saudi Arabia and Jordan) that are skeptical of the Brotherhood’s ascendance in Egypt.
In contrast to the UAE, the Qataris are reaping the benefits of supporting Egypt’s uprising. Qatar dedicated Al Jazeera to support the anti-Mubarak protests and later the ascendance of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Qataris pledged not to allow Egypt to go bankrupt and injected $5 billion dollars into the ailing Egyptian economy. And the Qatari emir called upon other Arab states to support Egypt’s economy. However, this has raised many concerns in Egyptian society and among political forces. Doha is taking a giant leap of faith with the Brotherhood, aiming to forge a close alliance with Cairo and maximize its regional posture. Qatar offers the Brotherhood important assets, including financial capital and favorable Al Jazeera coverage, surpassing the influence of the UAE and approaching the amount of socioeconomic influence that Saudi Arabia once exerted and might exert on Egypt if it attains such political will in the future. But as Sultan al-Qassemi aptly observes, “while the UAE has alienated Egypt’s new leaders, Qatar has alienated Egypt’s population.”
From Tehran with Love
Iran has expressed a great interest in restarting its relations with Egypt. Iranian leaders have sought to capitalize on the country’s new Islamist government to forge closer ties. Egypt has, however, hesitated to fully embrace Iran. Despite the exchange of visits by both presidents for the first time in 30 years, the trips to Tehran and Cairo did not lead to the normalization of relations between the two states, though various groups within and outside Egypt expressed such concerns. Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was assaulted twice, including by a shoe in an Islamic Cairo neighborhood, and his country’s policies were heavily criticized by the Grand Imam of al-Azhar—the bulwark of Sunni Islam. Nonetheless, Tehran’s eagerness to lure Egypt into normalization led to its cancellation of the need for tourist and business visas for Egyptians to encourage travel to Iran and an offer of a “big credit line” to help Egypt’s ailing economy.
Iran’s anxious attempts to renew relations with Egypt may also be attributed in part to escalating pressure and international sanctions against Tehran. The United States and the EU have tightened sanctions on Iran, with particular focus on financial sectors and the oil industry. By re-establishing relations with Egypt, Iran may hope to win safe access to the Suez Canal and bypass sanctions by opening a new market for its goods. Read moreover, in light of the worsening conflict inside Syria, Iran may be pursuing an alliance with Egypt to counteract the potential loss of its Syrian ally. The Syrian crisis has left Iran standing alone while other regional players side with the Syrian opposition.
Despite the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, it is naïve to assume that Islamists in Egypt will automatically ally with those in Iran. Egypt’s Islamist movement is predominantly Sunni, as are its Arab allies in the Gulf who share an interest in countering Shi`i and Iranian influence in the region. Domestically, the Salafi party, al-Nour, is leading the fight against the spread of Shi`ism in Egypt. Its members have gone so far as to warn against opening Egypt to Iranian tourism, for fear that it would increase Shi`i influence and challenge Egypt’s Sunni character. In addition, Egypt seeks to preserve its vital relationship with the West and the GCC, at least in the short-term, to help overcome its growing economic crisis.
Un-Revolutionary Foreign Policy
The toppling of Hosni Mubarak has brought many changes to the domestic politics of Egypt. However, nothing revolutionary has materialized on the foreign policy front. We continue to see a relegation of the role of the Egyptian Foreign Ministry as an “implementer” rather than an “instigator” of foreign policy. Morsi is relying on close assistants in the presidential office like Essam Haddad to conduct much of the day-to-day business of Egypt’s foreign policy, from making public statements to holding private meetings with visiting foreign ministers. Indeed, it remains unclear whether and to what extent Morsi has such a working relationship with his own Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr and other career diplomats. Over the course of recent decades, moreover, Cairo has managed to tangle itself in the orbits of the United States, Israel, and the Gulf monarchies, a reality that diminishes opportunities for drastic changes in the short to medium term. Thus, it is difficult to see the Egyptian government’s attempts to seek Iraqi and Libyan investments and funding replacing those of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and international donors. For Egypt to change its foreign policy agenda, it must first stabilize its socioeconomic system and develop mature leadership with a clear vision and goals for Egypt’s future. None of these stars are aligned at the moment.
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 “Egypt seeks $4 bn bank deposit from Iraq,” Ahram Online, 25 March, 2013, ; “Libya mulls aid for Egypt,” Egypt Independent, March 27, 2013, .