Mohamed Morsi won't make drastic foreign policy changes - his biggest challenge lies at home, writes Ian Black.
Mohamed Morsi’s victory in Egypt’s presidential election has brought him congratulations from across the Middle East. But there have also been mixed feelings, loaded messages – from Israel to Iran – and uncertainty about the future direction of policy.
Islamists everywhere were delighted by the historic achievement for Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, but conservative monarchies hoping to avoid the Arab Spring unrest were not. Compliments from Saudi Arabia, where King Abdullah still laments the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, sounded distinctly formal.
Morsi’s main challenges lie in the domestic arena. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is determined to hold on to its powers to control defence, foreign policy and internal security. “There will be no dramatic changes,” said Egyptian analyst Said Shehata.
Still, even a weak president will want to speak out on the sensitive issue of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. The Brotherhood’s position is respect for international commitments, although that does not preclude an attempt to renegotiate military deployments in Sinai.
Abrogation of the 1979 treaty would return Egypt to a state of war that cost it thousands of lives and would risk strategic relations with the United States.
It is hard, too, to imagine any tolerance for Mubarak-era support for the blockade of the Gaza Strip, where jubilant Hamas leaders hailed Morsi’s victory as “a defeat for the programme of normalisation and security co-operation with the enemy”. The Rafah border is likely to be more open to Palestinians, although without triggering an immediate crisis with Israel.
Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s largest-circulation newspaper, expressed alarm about what it called “darkness in Egypt” – a reference to one of the biblical 10 plagues. That was in contrast to a terse formal message from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, but it reflected popular Israeli fears about the long-term dangers of the Arab Spring.
Morsi’s first foreign problem arrived from Iran when a news agency quoted the new Egyptian president as saying he wanted to reconsider peace with Israel. It was swiftly and emphatically denied, as was the reported statement that he wanted to see a “balance of pressure” in the region. US diplomacy towards Egypt is based on the assumption that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces will retain control of these issues. The US will be anxious to keep overflight agreements and free passage through the Suez Canal. The generals in Egypt will not want to jeopardise $1.3-billion a year in US military aid.
“Morsi will not make any difference on the Palestinians or the treaty with Israel,” said Nadim Shehadi of Chatham House, an independent policy institute based in London. “It will be a continuation of the old system when the military and Brotherhood play good cop and bad cop and keep the balance.”
Middle East expert Juan Cole wrote on the Informed Comment blog: “Mursi and his colleagues will only change things at the margins for US policy.” Morsi’s reputation for caution was reinforced recently when he dismissed as “delusional, slanderous and baseless” the suggestion that the Brotherhood had direct relations with Iran or Hezbollah, its Lebanese ally. “We will never stand with the forces who threaten friendly countries in the Arabian Gulf,” he pledged.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are at odds over Bahrain and Syria and any rapprochement between Cairo and Tehran would anger the Saudis and Gulf partners. It could risk economic aid and investment in Egypt.
The Saudis backed Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s last prime minister and Morsi’s rival for the presidency. So whatever else happens, “Egypt’s relations with Saudi Arabia will never be the same again,” respected columnist Ahmed Asfahani said.
Jordan, another Western-backed Arab monarchy nervous about the pressures of the Arab Spring, will be privately unhappy about Morsi’s victory – not least because it will encourage the country’s Islamic Action Front, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.
In Syria, where the Brotherhood makes up a significant part of the anti-Assad opposition, the government offered its formal congratulations, avoiding the vexed question of whether Damascus is likely to see a free and democratic election soon. – © Guardian News & Media 2012
Head of state seeks global legitimacy
The Arab Spring entered a new chapter last weekend when Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was declared Egypt’s first democratically elected president.
Sixteen months after the fall of his predecessor, the dictator Hosni Mubarak, official election results gave Morsi, a United States-educated engineer, 51.7% of the vote against 48.3% for his rival, Ahmed Shafiq, a former prime minister under Mubarak.
The turnout was reported to have been 51.6%.
It is the first time Egypt will be led by an Islamist and the first time a freely elected civilian has come to power.
The new president, who is 61, studied and taught at State University in California, before returning to Egypt to enter politics, winning election as an MP in 2000.
He spent months in prison during the Mubarak regime before rising to become head of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice party, in 2011, in the aftermath of Mubarak’s fall.
He owes his rise in the Muslim Brotherhood to his allegiance to its deputy head, Khairat al-Shater, who remains the most powerful figure in the movement.
He told the Wall Street Journal last Friday that the movement’s foreign policy priority was a “strategic partnership” with the US that aimed to gain access to
international credit markets and global legitimacy. – Abdel-Rahman Hussein