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World

The Egyptian president's new foreign policy

Egypt's new president, for the first time since taking office, is on a visit to the US. But, President Morsi, unlike his predecessor Mubarak, has included the will of his people in Egypt's future foreign policy.

For decades, Egypt's dictators had been useful negotiation partners for the West. Their foreign policy decisions took only little account of what the people of Egypt wanted. A large part of the policies of ousted leader, Hosni Mubarak, was geared toward enriching a small group of the regime's elite.

But the people have hardly benefited from that, says Osama Nour El-Din, a political scientist with the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice party. "Under Mubarak, we blindly followed the United States. But now, that's different," he says. Now, the country's foreign policy was serving both sides. "We want Egyptians to see the results of Egyptian foreign policy."

Most Egyptians critical of the US

Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi (picture: Reuters)

President Morsi seeks to strike a balance between old and new allies

This new focus will lead to significant changes in Egypt's relations with the US, Israel and also Europe. The recent demonstrations outside the US embassy in Cairo were just a first taste of this. The trigger was an anti-Islam video, but the protests might have found fewer supporters had the country been on better terms with Washington.

According to a current poll of the renowned Pew Research Institute, around 79 percent of Egyptians do not like the US because of the countless dead in Iraq and Afghanistan, because of the unconditional support for Israel, because of Washington's past cooperation with Mubarak and because of the US detention camp at Guantanamo Bay.

Unlike Mubarak, Egypt's new president, Mohamed Morsi, can no longer simply ignore the will of the people; after all, he has to win elections. But, despite the anti-US sentiments in the country, the economic situation forbids him to break with the US. Since the protests, the ties between Cairo and Washington have already cooled down significantly. Just recently, US President Barack Obama described Egypt only as an ally and termed relations merely as "neutral."

Old and new allies

Israel, too, will have to deal with Cairo's new foreign policy. Almost all high-ranking Egyptian politicians stress that the peace treaty with Israel has to be respected. But also here, there will have to be adjustments. Especially the number of Egyptian troops deployed on the Sinai peninsula will be reconsidered.

Egypt's Freedom and Justice party headquarters (picture: Matthias Sailer)

The Freedom and Justice party has become the major political force in post-Mubarak Egypt

Again and again, there have been attacks that might have been prevented with more troops. Already in August, the number of troops was increased although this was in violation of the peace treaty. But the treaty, in its current form, is in fact more against the interests of Israel than of Egypt's, suggests Osama Nour El-Din, because "it leaves Sinai unprotected. It's a safe haven for terror groups which can do whatever they want there."

Policy changes are also likely with respect to the Palestinians. The past settlement policy of Israel, or the blockade of Gaza, is difficult to explain to the Egyptian people. A permanent opening of the border to Gaza would make life for the Palestinians there a lot easier.

Egypt in the past has often closed that border, which led to a lot of arms smuggling through clandestine tunnels. "Opening the border at Rafah will bring more advantages to Israel than to Gaza, because it would put an end to the smuggling through the tunnels," argues El-Din.

Getting everyone on board

Osama Nour El-Din (picture: Matthias Sailer)

Osama Nour El-Din says Cairo will no longer blindly follow the US

Another venue for a new, independent Egyptian foreign policy is the relationship with Iran. For a long time, the US put pressure on Cairo to isolate Tehran over its nuclear ambitions. But President Morsi chose Iran for one of his first foreign visits. He did controversially criticize Iran for its support of the Syrian regime, but, at the same time, tried to win Tehran over to help mediate a solution to the civil war. The US, meanwhile, remains skeptical about Cairo improving ties with Iran.

Osama Nour El-Din, however, has a different take on this development. "The Syrians believe that the war cannot be ended without the help of Iran." And even the US, he says, are happy about the Morsi trip to Tehran "because then they don't have to deal with the solution to the conflict themselves."

So Morsi is not really turning away from the West entirely, but is trying to win more allies, including Iran and China. The US – whether they like it or not – will have to get used to these new circumstances.

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