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Egypt foreign policy tone may change, but not its substance

As its first Islamist president takes power, the nation can't afford to harm relations with the U.S. or abandon its peace treaty with Israel, at least in the short term, experts say.

June 29, 2012|By Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times
  • Egyptian President-elect Mohamed Morsi waves to supporters Friday at a protest in Cairo's Tahrir Square.
Egyptian President-elect Mohamed Morsi waves to supporters Friday at… (Amr Nabil, Associated Press )

CAIRO — Egypt's foreign policy under its first Islamist president is likely to change in tenor but not substance, at least in the short term, as the new government can ill afford to strain relations with the U.S. or risk international furor by abandoning Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

President Mohamed Morsi faces domestic social and financial crises that are expected to eclipse foreign affairs in coming months. Rhetoric against Jerusalem and Washington may sharpen, but Morsi, who ran as the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate, is desperate for Western and regional investment to ease the economic turmoil that has overwhelmed the Arab world's most populous state.

The new president, who will be sworn in to office Saturday, will be further constrained by the nation's secular military, which receives $1.3 billion annually in U.S. aid. Days before Morsi was elected, the generals, who have controlled the country since Hosni Mubarak's overthrow early last year, suppressed the powers of the president to counter the rising influence of conservative Islamists.

"There will be no change in the peace treaty with Israel, and strategic relations with the U.S. will continue," said Emad Gad, a foreign affairs expert with Cairo's Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "Morsi will actually enhance relations with the U.S. The Muslim Brotherhood's program is based on free markets and is liberal when it comes to the economy."

Still, the new president has made it clear that his approach to the Israelis will be less compliant than that taken during Mubarak's 30-year rule.

"The peace treaty between us and the Israelis has constantly been violated by the Israelis," Morsi recently told an Egyptian TV channel. "They must understand that peace is not just words. It is actions on the ground. The aggression on the Egyptian borders, their violence against Egyptian soldiers, and the threats they sometimes made to Egypt are all unacceptable. They should no longer think that the Egyptian president will back down."

Some regard Morsi's rise as the foreshadowing of a strident political Islam that will have consequences from Abu Dhabi to Washington. For now, however, it is unclear whether Morsi and the Brotherhood will mirror the diplomatically bold yet religiously moderate policies of Turkey or a more rigid, anti-Western Islam.

"For the United States, Morsi's election, coupled with Osama bin Laden's killing a year ago, underscores a shift from the threat of violent Islamist extremism to a new, more complex challenge posed by the empowerment of a currently nonviolent but no less ambitious form of Islamist radicalism," said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Morsi will also quickly confront the sensitivities of his Arab neighbors. He has promised to restore Egypt to its regional prominence after years of decline under Mubarak. That is viewed apprehensively by Saudi Arabia, a close Mubarak ally, and other Persian Gulf Arab states whose international stature has ascended in pivotal dealings with Lebanon, Syria and Iran while Cairo's has diminished.

"The rebalancing of the political order and the emergence of Egypt would have a huge impact on regional political dynamics, but we are a long way off from that," said Michael Wahid Hanna, a Middle East expert and a fellow at the Century Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank. "A stronger, more independent Egypt would be on a course that would both balance and clash with the Saudis' power."

Egyptian activists don't see Morsi as embodying the ideals of the revolution that overthrew Mubarak. But for gulf monarchies, he represents a dangerous Islamist populism that may inspire revolts and threaten their reigns in an era of uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa. Some analysts predict that gulf states may scale down billions of dollars in prospective loans to Egypt until they feel comfortable with Morsi's style.

The election of Morsi, a U.S.-educated engineer, reflects a region in tumult, where autocrats who once buttressed U.S. and Israeli policies have been swept aside. Some analysts say such an unpredictable atmosphere makes it time for Israel to push in earnest for Middle East peace.

"Windows are closing all around and this is the time for fast action. Not hysterical, but certainly swift," said Yisrael Hasson, an Israeli lawmaker and former deputy chief of Israel's internal security agency. "Israel is already three years late in putting forth a peace initiative and this is the time to move."

A crucial issue for Cairo and Israel is the increase in lawlessness and Islamic militants in Egypt's Sinai peninsula. The desert that borders the Gaza Strip has become more dangerous since Mubarak's fall; Israel has been pressing Egypt to crack down on militant networks that have launched rocket attacks and deadly cross-border raids.

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