For a variety of reasons, Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi’s visits to China and Iran this past week are remarkable. They herald Egypt’s active return to regional and international politics with comparisons between Morsi and Egypt’s most famous president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, already being made.
The parallels between the two men were perhaps most salient on Thursday August 30 when Morsi attended the Tehran summit of the Non-Aligned Movement, an organization which Nasser helped establish. Despite Washington’s concerns that Egypt’s participation would legitimize the Iranian regime, Morsi used his platform at the summit’s opening ceremony to criticize the Syrian government and extend his support to the Syrian opposition.
This was a major departure from the official Iranian script, which described Morsi’s visit as a win for Iran and a defeat for the West. The Iranian regime registered its displeasure with Morsi’s criticisms on Friday, August 31, when an Iranian official reportedly described Morsi as lacking political maturity.
Morsi has also called for the creation of a regional group consisting of Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt to help resolve the Syrian crisis. On his official Twitter feed, Morsi said, “Egypt considers Iran a strategic partner. The problems in Syria cannot be solved except with the help of the influential countries in the region of which Iran is one.”
This visit and Morsi’s plan for a regional group are clear indications that the Egyptian president means to pursue a more independent foreign policy than that of ousted Egyptian leader, Hosni Mubarak. This shift does not, however, necessarily mean major changes will occur in Egypt’s relationships with the United States and Israel, at least not yet. For now, economic relations, especially toward China, as well as sensitivity to Egyptian public opinion seem to be at the center of Morsi’s new approach. These moves are unsurprising and do not constitute a major “shift” toward the “East” in Egyptian foreign policy, as claimed in this op-ed in the Los Angeles Times.
While the State Department has lauded Morsi’s comments on Syria, it may be more circumspect about other statements made by the Egyptian leader, including a call to reshape the United Nations Security Council for the 21st century. Morsi has urged for the elimination or alteration of the veto powers held by the Council’s permanent members in order to better reflect the realities of a multipolar world.
As Morsi rightly believes, regional and international alliances such as the working group on Syria and the Non Aligned Movement will have growing importance in the future. It is, as such, high time that Cold War era rhetoric warning of rising, oppositional superpowers – whether Russia, China, or Iran as the occasion requires – is abandoned for more realistic descriptions of international relationships.