The visits are important for a few reasons. They show that Morsi has become more confident in his role as president, a development that Egyptian foreign policy likely will reflect. They also show that Morsi's decision to reshuffle Egypt's military leadership has been validated by his improved relationship with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
Raising Egypt's Profile
Morsi is visiting Beijing, where he and Chinese leaders are discussing several issues, including China's support for Iran and Syria over U.N. sanctions. Likely, they are also discussing Chinese investment in Ethiopia and Sudan, which historically have been in Egypt's area of influence. (Egypt is especially concerned with any plans to develop dams on the Nile.) Moreover, Morsi is seeking additional Chinese investment in the troubled Egyptian economy — as much as $3 billion rather than the current $500 million — including in power plants and desalination plants.
Morsi's trip to Iran is all about geopolitics. The visit is a significant development in Egyptian-Iranian relations — it is the first of its kind in more than 30 years — but it will not immediately normalize bilateral ties.Cairo wants to hedge its dependence on Saudi financial support by re-establishing relations with Iran. Egypt does not want to see a region dominated by any one power, and although Saudi Arabia cannot completely dominate the region, Riyadh's financial resources give Saudi Arabia an overwhelming advantage. By warming up to Tehran, Cairo gives itself more leverage in its relationship with Riyadh.
Morsi's visit to Tehran will complicate the regional positioning over the next government in Syria. Regional powers that are backed by the United States, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, have supported rebel efforts to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Recognizing that al Assad probably will fall, Tehran wants to be included in the post-al Assad transition talks. Until now, Egypt has mostly avoided the issue, participating only as a host to Syrian opposition meetings. Egypt's influence in Syria is limited to supporting various groups and inserting itself into the discussions. But Cairo can affect the outcome in Syria by lending its support to one side or the other. Given its historical role in the region, Egypt cannot be wholly ignored. Ultimately, Iran is hoping Egypt will remain neutral; Iran understands Cairo will not side with Tehran.
For its part, Saudi Arabia will be watching carefully. Riyadh is not comfortable with Morsi or his Muslim Brotherhood supporters, but it will welcome an alternative diplomatic avenue into Iran from Qatar, with which Saudi Arabia also has a difficult relationship historically.
Turkey will be particularly wary of Egypt's increased participation in the Syrian transition. Historically, Egypt and Turkey have been rival regional powers. Egypt has been mostly introspective in recent years, and thus left a vacuum for countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia to fill. With the fall of the Mubarak regime and the rise of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey expected it could influence Egyptian policymaking. Cairo's seemingly unilateral moves in dealing with Iran are upsetting Ankara's expectations. Thus, from Turkey's perspective, Egypt's expanded regional engagement complicates Ankara's efforts to accelerate regime change in Syria and to position its preferred opposition and rebel alliance in any transition government.
Syria will also be discussed during Morsi's visit to the United States in September. It is unclear whether Morsi will visit the White House during his trip. Egyptian officials have reported that U.S. President Barack Obama invited Morsi, but the White House has not announced the visit.
It is clear that the United States has decided to develop a working relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood; Morsi already has met with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. However, it is also clear that the United States is concerned with Egypt for several reasons. First, Morsi already has said Egypt's peace treaty with Israel would be open for review. This is because Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood want to establish parity with Israel on foreign policy issues. They also want to enhance Egypt's position regionally and internationally. As long as Turkish-Israeli ties remain limited, Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood would be the only Islamist force in the region openly talking to the Israelis and therefore the best positioned on such issues as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Second, Washington wants to encourage the pragmatic, moderate aspects of Islamist rule in Egypt, similar to those the Justice and Development Party adopted in Turkey and those the Ennahda adopted in Tunisia. The United States does not want to see radical Islamism proliferate in the region, and Washington will be looking to strike a balance that will allow the United States some influence and continued cooperation and stability of Egypt's troubled economy. Third, the United States will look for support for its agenda in Syria and its cooperation with Turkey.
Ultimately, Morsi is trying to reposition Egypt as a key geopolitical player in the region. In doing so, he will concern other regional players and complicate several issues, such as the Syrian transition. But Egypt's economic woes will prevent Cairo from rivaling Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia anytime soon, as will the fact that there are so many regional competitors already.
Geography will also limit Egypt because its natural area of influence is the Levant. One advantage, however, that will create an opening is the sister chapters of the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza and in Jordan, which could give Egypt an advantage in rebuilding its regional influence, at least in the Levant.