A state of general — yet perhaps less articulated — dissatisfaction and frustration with Egyptian foreign policy over the last two decades has certainly been one of the causes for the accumulated popular fury that sparked the 25 January revolution. Foreign policy took a backseat to demands reflecting more pressing socio-economic and internal political grievances during the uprising and in the dominant discourse which followed the epic downfall of former President Hosni Mubarak. So much so in fact, that — regrettably — much attention was drawn away from foreign policy issues, especially US and Israeli intervention and desperate attempts to influence political outcomes during the height of the crisis in January and February 2011.
Over the last 20 years the regime has consumed us and itself with a meaningless “peace process” between the Palestinians and Israel. Its hostility towards regional players outside the umbrella of the American hegemonic agenda was obvious, yet largely inexplicable. By taking corroborative positions during the two major Israeli aggressions in the last decade on Lebanon and Gaza, not to mention the US invasion of Iraq, it proved to be a loyal servant to America and its plans in the region.
Over the last decade at least, Egypt’s foreign policy was clearly guided by a pursuit of American consent to Gamal Mubarak’s political succession of his father, rather than a desire to uphold real Egyptian national interests. Paving the way for Gamal’s accession to the presidency as a means of renewing the domination of cronyism and corruption networks which ruled Egypt under Mubarak was the regime’s main project in the last 10 years. Foreign policy, as much as most other tools and resources at the disposal of the regime, was mostly shaped by, and implemented to, the service of this final objective. Today, little is different.
In terms of form, President Mohamed Morsy’s recent stepping up of his foreign policy performance has two main objectives. First, it aims at portraying him as a worthy international statesman. Another important objective of Morsy’s foreign policy is to prove to the US and the West that he, and indeed the Muslim Brotherhood, are a worthy, responsible and reliable political group. Under the Brotherhood’s rule, Morsy has been keen to demonstrate to both the US and the desperately awaited cash donors in the Gulf that Egypt is not in the business of breaking away from American hegemony in the region.
Examples of such reassurances from the president are many: “Egypt does not export revolution” was the clear message he sent out during his first address to the nation as “sponsor of the Sunni project, of which Egypt is the protector.” Morsy’s first foreign visit was to Saudi Arabia, where he escalated his rhetoric towards the Syrian regime and President Bashar al-Assad as a clear signal to the international community as to which camp Morsy’s Egypt is part of, regarding the conflict in Syria.
Even when President Morsy attended the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran last month — a step the self-proclaimed “Iranophobic” Mubarak would have never taken — the president limited his Tehran visit to a few hours and was remarkably keen to reassure the international press afterwards that the resuming of diplomatic relations was not discussed in his meeting with Ahmadinejad. In his speech to the summit, he incorporated enough Sunni rhetoric to cut short any speculation as to the possibility of a prospective reconciliation with the Islamic Republic.
I can understand that some of us may be genuinely excited about finally living to see an Egyptian head of state who is actually capable of putting a few logical sentences together. But on the other hand I cannot help but assert that the substance of Egyptian foreign policy remains largely the same as it was under Mubarak. Such a frustrating preservation of the status quo is one of the many sins of the Mubarak era, which the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces refused to tackle during its reign. Even some of former Foreign Minister Nabil al-Araby’s early attempts to throw some rocks into those still waters by suggesting the need for reviewing the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty and expressing astonishment at the complete insanity that is the lack of diplomatic relations between Egypt and Iran, he was very quickly reigned in by the generals.
Egypt’s foreign policy after the 25 January revolution needs to be the product of a grand vision, which sees the country as the beating heart of the Arab world, and as the main agenda-setter in the region. We need to reformulate our alliances and establish new networks of cooperation, which put this admittedly old yet still valid vision to practice through new and creative dynamics. Egypt should not shy away from direct as well as clandestine action to enforce its vision and agenda. That is what regional powers do; they set their own vision and go ahead and implement it. Yes, it is that simple and everyone else in this region from Israel to Turkey to Qatar is doing it.
What we are seeing now under Morsy is the employment of Egypt’s foreign policy as a tool for paying political debts to international powers for their blessings to the Brotherhood’s ascendance to a position of domestic domination. Except for Morsy’s ability to sugar-coat his speeches and foreign policy statements with both an Islamic flavor and rather imposing revolutionary credentials, little is different from Egypt’s foreign policy under Mubarak.