- - Monday, September 10, 2012

CAIRO — Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi has been a man on a mission — or several missions — since taking office June 30.

He is trying to forge an unlikely collaboration among Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran to resolve the conflict in Syria.

He made China his first official state visit outside the region to cement and expand business and diplomatic ties with the world’s second-largest economy.

Late last month, he went to Tehran — a visit no Egyptian leader had made for more than three decades.

“There is a new Middle East player in town, and he is Mohammed Morsi,” said Middle East analyst Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian politics lecturer at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel. “Morsi has the credibility of a democratically elected leader who represents a system which has Islamic elements and meanwhile also works with the United States.”

Analysts say Mr. Morsi’s diplomatic initiatives show he is trying to assert himself and his nation as an independent force and revive Egypt’s role as a strong leader in the region.

Egyptians have long regarded their country as a cultural, political and strategic force. But Egypt’s role and standing over the past 35 years were sidelined and at times forgotten, said Tarek Osman, author of “Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak.”

“This aching for [a revival of] Egypt’s role in its region is what will drive the foreign policy of Egypt’s second republic, at least in the medium term — whether led by the Muslim Brotherhood or not,” said Mr. Osman. “Any political party or player seeking legitimacy from the Egyptian people today not only needs to cater to this aching, but cannot ignore it.”

Because Mr. Morsi came to power in his country’s first democratic presidential election, some speculate that he also will cater to the Egyptian public’s views on other issues, leaving many wondering what this means for Egypt’s cold peace with Israel.

Regional ‘contact group’

“Maybe most people in Egypt don’t want a kind of good relations with Israel,” said Dina Zakaria, a representative of the Freedom and Justice Party, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm formerly headed by Mr. Morsi. “But let me tell you also that they don’t want war. The official situation is that we are really respecting the international treaty, and people accept that.”

Analysts say Mr. Morsi is trying to build upon the momentum of the revolution in Egypt last year that ousted longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak. Although the new president hasn’t made any official shifts in foreign policy, he is treading the world stage in ways that play well domestically.

Mr. Morsi’s first major foreign affairs initiative was to announce a plan for a “contact group” of Middle Eastern nations — Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran — that would work to oust President Bashar Assad from Syria.

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry on Monday confirmed that it was hosting the contact group’s first meeting after Iran said it was attending, Agence France-Presse reported.

Turkish, Saudi and Iranian delegations would “exchange points of view on the tragic developments in Syria and ways to end the bloodbath and achieve the aspirations of the Syrian people,” Foreign Ministry official Nazih al-Naggari said in a statement.

Egypt would “work to reach a consensus over an immediate halt to the killing and violence; the preservation of Syrian unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity; [and] the rejection of foreign military intervention in Syria,” the statement said.

Regional powers in general are willing to share the stage with Mr. Morsi in recognition that without a bold Arab initiative, the Syrian issue will remain unresolved, said Khalil Al-Anani, a Middle East specialist at England’s Durham University.

“The question is: Who should lead this? Will Egypt pay the price if this initiative fails?” Mr. Al-Anani said. “It’s a very risky game, and it might fire back against Morsi if he can’t succeed in achieving real results.”

The problem is that Iran wants its longtime ally Mr. Assad to remain in power while Turkey and Saudi Arabia insist he needs to go. “So far, this plan or initiative to resolve the Syrian issue is still on paper,” Mr. Al-Anani said.

Allies near and far

In late August, Mr. Morsi visited China to bolster Egypt’s diplomatic and economic ties with the Asian powerhouse. Some analysts view the move as a way for Egypt to distance itself from the U.S., its longtime ally that has provided billions of dollars in aid annually.

Even so, Mr. Morsi wants to maintain ties with its Mubarak-era allies, analysts say, but rebalance those relationships, which many Egyptians say lean too strongly toward the West.

“Morsi is trying to say, ‘Look, we are alive, we are friends, but there has to be a distance and we have to keep our dignity,’” said Said Sadek, a political sociologist and affiliate professor at the American University in Cairo.

Partnerships with powers such as China would help Egypt create a fairer and more equal relationship with the U.S., said Said Shehata, a London-based analyst who specializes in Islamist movements. “And Egypt will be taken more seriously,” Mr. Shehata said.

By attending the summit of Non-Aligned Movement nations in Tehran on Aug. 30, Mr. Morsi became the first Egyptian president to set foot in Iran since its revolution in 1979, the same year Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel. Still, he gave a speech denouncing Syria’s president — a poke at Iran.

One reason the visit to Iran was important was “to show that now we are willing to be open to everyone, even Iran,” said Ms. Zakaria, suggesting that Mr. Morsi isn’t ruling out any alliances.

Mr. Morsi didn’t make the trip to have bilateral talks, however, and analysts don’t foresee Egypt establishing ties with Iran anytime soon. But he will need to play his cards right if his diplomatic efforts are to benefit Egypt, analysts say.

“Morsi has the best of both worlds: the Islamic world — the Muslim Brotherhood — on one hand supporting him, and on the other $1.3 billion [in annual military aid alone] from the U.S.,” said Mr. Javedanfar. “If he can balance both, he can serve Egypt’s interests as a new player in the Middle East.

“But if he tries to pander too much to fundamentalists and the Muslim Brotherhood, then that could backfire,” he said. “It could also backfire if he is seen as too close to Israel.”

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