Egypt in the Balance

by David Wallsh on October 22, 2012

The anniversary of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s first 100 days in office this month offers a timely opportunity to assess his intentions for the future of Egyptian foreign policy and the U.S.-Egyptian relationship in particular. Indeed, the anniversary comes on the heels of a tense few weeks for the once robust allies. Morsi has irked many in Washington since rising to power by reaching out to longtime U.S. adversaries like Iran and Hamas. Following Morsi’s tepid response to the breach of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, President Obama publicly questioned whether Egypt still deserves the title of U.S. ally.

So what motivates Morsi’s apparent disregard for U.S. preferences? Ideological and domestic political considerations certainly loom large. For one thing, any new post revolutionary government is likely to distance itself from its predecessor by reshuffling foreign alignments. Much ado has also been made about the rise of ultra-orthodox Salafi groups in Egypt, as elsewhere, and drawing closer with groups like Hamas will certainly help Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government to check Islamist rivals at home.

Nevertheless, Egypt’s actions must ultimately be viewed within the framework of classic balance of power politics. Regionally, the combination of local power vacuums and the lack of a unifying popular ideology are paving the way for a newly, if tenuously, democratic Egypt to fill the void. Globally, in a world dominated by a single U.S. superpower, medium powers like Egypt can increasingly be expected to pool their resources together with other second-tier powers as a means of reducing dependence on the hegemon. As one of Morsi’s policy advisors, Essam El-Eria, recently stated, “Egypt today must restore balance to its international relations and foreign policies in order to be open to the entire world, and not be exclusively limited to a specific country.” In other words, the fact that Morsi’s government is an Islamist one is not the underlying cause of his slipping Washington’s leash.

A quick survey of Morsi’s foreign policy rhetoric and decision-making points to a revisionist state looking to restore to Cairo its long-lost leadership of the Arab World. In addition to his appearance at the meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran in August, Morsi has launched a new Middle East Quartet calling on Egypt, Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia to take regional ownership over the crisis in Syria. Cairo also concluded a series of meetings with Hamas officials during which Egypt reportedly agreed to the opening of a Hamas office in Cairo and the formation of a joint security body to deal with border issues and Sinai-based terror.

Egypt’s efforts to “rebalance” have also extended beyond the Arab world. President Morsi’s first official trip outside the Middle East was to China, where he signed a number of agreements that more than anything signaled to Washington that Cairo has other options.He has also placed a noteworthy emphasis on relations with Africa. After addressing the African Union Summit in Ethiopia earlier this summer, his UN speech drew attention to numerous challenges in Sudan, Somalia, and elsewhere on the continent, while he repeatedly referred to Egyptians as “we Africans.”

Of course, Egypt’s bid to restore its primacy in the Arab world will not come without challenges. Making progress in Syria, where so many others have failed before, is one example. In addition to the obvious challenge of ending the violence there, Egypt will have a difficult enough time managing relations among its colleagues in the new so-called Islamic Quartet. Saudi Arabia was notably absent from the first high-level meeting of the group.

And what bid for Arab leadership is complete without expressions of support for the Palestinian cause? Morsi certainly embraces this language when he speaks about Washington’s unfulfilled obligation to Palestinian self-rule as laid out in the 1978 Camp David Accords. The problem, however, is that drawing closer to Hamas will jeopardize Egypt’s relationship with the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority (PA). PA President Mahmoud Abbas has already formally protested Egypt’s decision to welcome a Hamas delegation last month. An Egypt that divides rather than unites the Palestinian cause may find it difficult to garner the transnational mass appeal it desires.

In the meantime, U.S. policymakers should expect Cairo to continue hedging its foreign policy options. Reports this week of warming relations between Egypt and Turkey and the expectation that the two countries will step up cooperation on economic, diplomatic, and security matters is just one more example of this trend. Nevertheless, Washington must also recognize that the same forces underlying this trend will similarly prevent Egypt from aligning too closely with U.S. adversaries and potential adversaries. The United States remains valuable to Cairo as a bulwark against nearby threats and other regional aspirants, while America’scontinued financial aid will help Morsi with his crucial task of rebuilding Egypt from within. Most importantly, Washington should not interpret Cairo’s diversifying its alignment portfolio as an abandonment of the U.S.-Egyptian relationship and must resist taking drastic decisions like revoking or withholding aid that would in fact force Cairo to secure alternatives to U.S. support.

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