Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi visited Tehran today. He took a seat beside President Ahmadinejad of Iran and then demanded the ouster of Iran’s closest ally in the Arab world–Syrian President Bashar al Assad. It was the first trip by an Egyptian leader to Iran since Anwar Sadat visited in 1979 and it doesn’t seem to have gone as planned. Local Iranian media isn’t even reporting comments made by Egypt’s president. Initially, Mursi’s trip inspired anxiety in the Western press. Many speculated that Egyptian-Iranian relations would soon thaw and that Cairo’s attendance would buoy a regime that the West has so carefully tried to isolate.
But in his speech to the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), Mursi praised Syria’s revolutionaries. “Our solidarity with the struggle of the Syrian people against an oppressive regime that has lost its legitimacy is an ethical duty as it is a political and strategic necessity,” Mursi told the conference of over 100 world leaders and officials. “I am here to announce our full and just support for a free, independent Syria that supports a transition into a democratic system and that respects the will of the Syrian people for freedom and equality at the same time,” he said. Washington should be pleasantly surprised that Mursi challenged Iran’s leaders, who arm, train, equip, and provide manpower for Assad’s continuing crackdown.
As Mursi revealed in an interview with Reuters on Monday, he plans to pursue a more “balanced” foreign policy, meaning that he will not adhere so rigidly to the precedent set by Hosni Mubarak or the military establishment. But the Egyptian economy stands as Mursi’s number one priority. Before commentators get too excited about the prospects of warming Egyptian-Iranian relations, it’s important to remember that Iran offers nothing in this regard. Tehran is in no position to assist Egypt unlike the West and its wealthy Gulf Arab allies.
President Mursi spent three days in China before traveling to Tehran for the NAM summit. According to the Associated Press, Mursi signed multiple economic agreements with officials and met with President Hu Jintao and Vice President Xi Jinping. He also secured a $200 million credit line for the Bank of Egypt, which will complement previous injections of hard currency from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as well as credit extensions and an IMF loan which is still be being negotiated. The trip to China was Mursi’s first outside the Middle East; he visited Saudi Arabia in July after assuming office in late June. (He traveled there again two weeks ago for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation emergency meeting on Syria.)
Mursi won’t spend much time in Egypt before heading abroad again. His next official trip will be to the United States in September. The three-day visit will be split between New York, where he will attend the United Nations General Assembly, and Washington, where he will meet senior U.S. officials. He is also expected to visit Brazil, capping off a series of high-profile trips that serve to solidify his status as both a president with powers and a statesman representing the most populous—and arguably the most influential—Arab state.
The purpose of these trips is obvious. Egypt’s economy is under incredible stress. When Mursi meets with leaders from Saudi Arabia, China, and the United States, the conversation centers on the economy. Egypt is suffering from a crippling debt crisis and has used up more than half of its hard currency reserves in order to keep the Egyptian pound from collapsing. An absurd percentage of the state’s budget is being spent on servicing the country’s outstanding debt. Mursi seems to have realized that he cannot solve these problems without foreign assistance and investment. His likely acceptance of a $4.8 billion loan from the IMF later this year will draw criticism from leftists and Muslim hard-liners who despise usury, but Mursi’s statements, as well as those delivered by IMF chief Christine Lagarde, suggest the deal will be done by year’s end.
Mursi’s attendance at the NAM summit in Tehran was not geared towards fixing Egypt’s troubled economy. It was more a symbolic confirmation that Egypt had returned to the international scene after an uprising that seemed in jeopardy until only weeks ago, when Mursi forced the resignation of top military officials who had previously obstructed Egypt’s transition to civilian rule. The summit also offered Mursi a chance to cut his teeth in a forum that Egypt helped establish in the early 1960s. Gamal Abdul Nasser—Egypt’s beloved president from 1956 until his death in 1970—is considered one of NAM’s “founding fathers.” It was good practice for the UN General Assembly meeting next month.
While the visit may have upset some in the U.S., it doesn’t serve as proof that Egypt’s foreign policy is shifting in such a dramatic way that it might be mistaken for anti-American or pro-Iranian. On August 25, Mursi’s personal spokesman told Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, a Saudi daily, that “The matter [of restoring relations with Iran] is out of the question at this stage.” His comments were also aired by Egyptian media outlets. Leading up to his July visit to Saudi Arabia, Mursi was deliberate in hitting all the right notes on matters like Gulf security and Arab unity. Such sentiments also serve American interests, albeit in an indirect way, since they check Iran. Perhaps most importantly, Washington and the West should not be alarmed if Cairo reestablishes an embassy in Tehran. The Saudis have had one there for decades and only once has the embassy been shut down for an extended period due to a bitter dispute.
Mursi’s recent comments on the crisis in Syria are heartening. He is on record saying that Assad must step down. He believes Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran should establish a contact group in order to temper violence and remove Assad from office. The initiative has no hope of success but at this point none would. Of those four states: three maintain that Assad must step down (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey); two are actively supporting Syrian rebels (Saudi Arabia and Turkey); and one is backing the regime at all costs (Iran). From the perspective of Washington, Mursi’s blunt criticism of Assad—delivered in Tehran today—is a surprising and positive development.
Going forward, Mursi might seek balance, but he knows which countries and institutions have the most to offer Egypt. The Gulf Arab states are crucial since they have proven willing to invest in and extend loans to Egypt. International lending institutions, like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, are equally important. Continued aid from the U.S. is also essential since it allows the government in Cairo to focus more on services and the everyday needs of Egyptians, instead of the military. In the end, it’s safe to assume that Egypt will drift from America’s orbit and that Mursi will guide his country on a path more aligned with the will of the people—but Cairo may still tilt westward out of necessity.