Soon to complete 100 days in office, Egypt’s President Muhammad Mursi is still engaged in sifting allies from fair-weather friends, rivals and potential foes, while the powers that be in the US and Israel hover nervously over his shoulder.
He’s in no rush to make up his mind, saying he’s open to forming ties with any state that doesn’t set conditions that would impinge upon Egypt’s geopolitical independence. That’s a tall order as the most populated country in the Arab world struggling to keep its economy afloat, one that straddles Israel’s borders and controls the Suez Canal, can never be Switzerland.
If he were to buddy-up with the Iranians and the Russians he would alienate the US, Europe and most Gulf states. Conversely, if he makes too many concessions to Israel or the US he will be accused of selling-out his long-held principles.
Mursi has made pledges to better the lives of his grassroots supporters, primarily the poor and less educated, which he cannot fulfill without mega injections of cash—and if he wants to retain their backing, he can’t afford to be choosy about its source. Those heady days when he still basked in electoral victory he confidently eschewed assistance from the IMF based on his ingrained ideology. But ideology doesn’t feed the hungry and neither does it produce jobs or deliver potable water to villages whose sole supply is contaminated, which is why the Muslim Brotherhood’s presidential pick has U-turned by agreeing to a controversial US $ 4.8 billion IMF loan, condemned by Egyptian Salafists as un-Islamic.
The newish president’s balancing act is unenviable. He was obliged to quit the Muslim Brotherhood following his election win but the organization’s wider political goals and social mores still form part of his DNA. Liberals were suspicious of his promise to be a president for all Egyptians, but, thus far, he has proved to be adaptable, exchanging his former fiery rhetoric for diplomatic-speak and showing a moderate visage to the international community. His debut speech to the UN General Assembly last week came across as positive, strong and statesmanlike, especially in comparison to Benjamin Netanyahu’s gloom and doom cartoonish act that set Twitterdom snickering.
President Mursi was also wise enough not to bear a grudge—in public at least—against President Obama for refusing to characterize Egypt as either ally or foe on the heels of the attack on the US embassy in Cairo by demonstrators, compounded by the US leader’s cool response to his request for one-on-one time during his New York visit.
When he was asked by The New York Times whether he considered the US an ally, he answered “that depends on your definition of an ally” adding with a wry smile that he perceives the two nations as “real friends.” He no doubt understands that Obama can’t be seen cozying up to a former Muslim Brotherhood head honcho who has spent most of his adult life railing at Israel mere weeks before Americans cast their ballots. However, Mursi did take the opportunity to clarify that he has expectations for his country’s ‘real friend’ vis-à-vis America’s “special responsibility” to ensure the terms of the 1978 Camp David Accord, including Palestinian statehood, be adhered to in full.
Obama was right on one count; Egypt’s first democratically-elected president is, indeed, still feeling his way. No one can predict how the political deckchairs will be rearranged this time next year. Mursi’s natural allies are few and far between as a number of predominantly Sunni states are guarding against Islamist infiltration. But if there’s one that stands out, it’s Turkey.
On Sunday, President Mursi traveled to Turkey, accompanied by 50 Egyptian businessmen, where he was warmly received by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul and invited to attend a Justice and Development Party conference. There, he praised Turkey for being the first to support the Jan. 25. Revolution and discovered that he shares similar views to the Turkish Prime Minister on a variety of topics.
“On the Syrian question, we agree with Turkey on all issues,” Morsi told the media at a joint press conference. “And again on the Palestinian problem, we share the same thoughts and concerns. We also agree that the Palestinian people should be supported to help them win their independence.”
Reaching out to Ankara is the cleverest move Mursi has made so far on the foreign policy front. The two sides are now set to forge close ties and as if to seal the deal, the Egyptian leader walked away with a US $ 1 billion loan under his belt. But there could be more than economic and trade deals involved in this new cooperation.
Together and united, Turkey and Egypt could be a force to be reckoned with, a bulwark against US Bush-era-type adventurism in the Middle East which Obama’s rival Mitt Romney seems keen to re-embark on, as well as Israel’s expansionist ambitions. Mursi and Erdogan are champions of the Palestinian cause and are eager for Syria’s Assad regime to step down in accordance with the will of the Syrian people. And neither was afraid to show his disdain for Al-Assad’s cheerleaders—Russia, China and Iran.
Both leaders are moderate Islamists with modest backgrounds. Son of a coast guard member, Erdogan once sold sesame buns on the streets of Istanbul; Mursi, the eldest son of a peasant farmer, rode a donkey to school. Both have served terms in prison for their beliefs and since coming to power have had to walk a fine line between their country’s powerful military and civilian governance. If their personal chemistry gels as well as their respective histories, for the peoples of Turkey and Egypt, this could turn out to be a match made in heaven.
Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at email@example.com.