Egypt’s revolution two years ago was not only about bread, freedom, and social justice, as its famous slogan went. It was also about its foreign policy as a regional power enduring international humiliation after decades of decline.
After the 2011 uprising, various opposition groups launched violent protests outside the Israeli, American and Saudi embassies in Cairo, demanding a more vocal and assertive foreign policy, including a stronger defence of the rights of Palestinians, the image of Islam in the West, and Egyptian expatriates living in the Gulf.
When Mohamed Morsi became president on June 30, 2012, he was quick to assert Egypt’s interest in new and active relations with the international community, based on respect and mutual interests.
Nearing the end of Morsi’s first year in office, foreign policy scholars, diplomats, and leaders within Egypt’s ruling Freedom and Justice Party told Al Jazeera the new vision for Egypt’s foreign relations is still a work in progress. The Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) is the political wing of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, which dominates the government.
“There is not a shared vision inside the Freedom and Justice Party itself,” AbdulMawgoud Dardery, a former member of parliament and FJP spokesman, told Al Jazeera.
Dardery said that is true on issues such as relations with Israel, regional stability, women’s rights, and Coptic Christians’ rights. He said such issues often come up in discussions with foreign diplomats, and he blames the Egyptian government’s dearth of defined policies on “domestic pressures”.
|Egypt’s president severs ties with Syria|
“We have just experienced a revolution with all its challenges. We did not have the time to conduct enough studies or to get ready for foreign policy at the party level,” Dardery said.
The party’s foreign policy platform should not be confused with that of the president, he said, emphasising “the presidency and the party became separate entities, but are communicating”.
Dardery said foreign policy was discussed when Morsi was still the head of the party, and Eassam ElHaddad was the head of the foreign relations committee.
Morsi resigned from the party leadership after last year’s election to show his independence from the Muslim Brotherhood, and ElHaddad became his top foreign policy aide.
ElHaddad – who declined a request by Al Jazeera for a phone interview – is seen by many as the main foreign policy architect.
The Office of the President directed Al Jazeera to a blog published by the Egypt Foreign Policy Forum, established in February, for official views on Morsi’s foreign policy.
The site has fewer than a dozen official short statements on the president’s stance on issues such as relations with Russia, Syria, Brazil, as well as countries in Africa.
A statement published on May 8 describes the ongoing conflict in Syria. “Egypt’s approach to the Syrian crisis is characterised by its non-involvement in the ignition of the crisis, and because of Egypt’s acceptability among all actors and its capability to mediate at all levels.”
But that statement now requires updating, considering Morsi’s recent decision to cut all ties with the Syrian regime.
Dardery, however, still credits Morsi for what he says are many foreign policy achievements. “Despite domestic challenges, Morsi has been able to give foreign visits and relations a large part of his time. Part of Morsi’s foreign policy success is that he has been able to visit many countries, and to get to know the nature of their relationship with Egypt.”
He also praised Morsi for prioritising relations with Arab and African nations. Dardery described Africa as “a priority” for the party, and noted Morsi’s first foreign visit as president was to Saudi Arabia.
Nabil Fahmy is Egypt’s former ambassador to Washington and a member of the opposition Al Dostour party led by former UN nuclear policy chief Mohamed ElBaradei. Fahmy argued that Morsi’s foreign policy has been motivated by Egypt’s economic challenges, and the need to attract investment.
I don't think Morsi has a decision-making group on Africa.
Fahmy also highlighted Morsi’s moves during the Israeli assault on Gaza in November 2012.
“I believe Morsi initially succeeded in calming the situation on the war front between Israel and Gaza,” he told Al Jazeera.
But he added he believed the president’s foreign visits reflect a partisan agenda, rather than one in the national interest.
“Morsi’s foreign policy moves seek to send a message to the world that the Islamist current is moderate and could be dealt with,” Fahmy said, pointing out a majority of the states Morsi has visited are non-Muslim and non-Arab.
“Visits were arranged by presidential envoys who represent the Islamist current rather than the foreign ministry. The message was to assure the foreign forces about the new orientations of the Islamist current.”
Hamdy Abdelrahman, a professor of African studies at Cairo University, said Morsi’s trips abroad are motivated by “an attempt to demonstrate achievement to a domestic audience”, rather than the result of a clear foreign policy strategy.
“When it comes to real achievements, such visits don’t achieve much. They are more of a public relations stunt,” said Abdelrahman.
He was critical of Morsi’s efforts in Africa, especially towards Ethiopia, where he claims the president was slow to react to that country’s construction of a massive dam on the Nile River that may affect Egypt’s water supply. Abdelrahman questioned whether Morsi had an African affairs adviser who provides helpful foreign policy advice. “I don’t think Morsi has a decision-making group on Africa,” he said.
Political observers whom Al Jazeera spoke to said domestic political concerns have delayed the development of a strong Egyptian foreign policy. Questions were raised whether Morsi is making the best use of the Foreign Ministry and its expertise, or if he was relying too much on the advice of a small circle of trusted Muslim Brotherhood advisers.
A person with close knowledge of the situation told Al Jazeera that Morsi’s direction on Syria and Mali did not include input from the Foreign Ministry.
The president and his team “only resorted to diplomats for details, adjustments, and help”, the source said, demanding anonymity for fear of jeopardizing his career.
“The remaking of a foreign policy is still under construction. There is not a clear vision. There are different initiatives that start as a reaction by the president to events, such as the Ethiopian dam,” he said.
Some pundits interviewed said they do not expect any serious foreign policy changes in Morsi’s second year in office, unless these issues were addressed.