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Mr Morsi comes calling

Publication Date : 26-03-2013


Egypt has had a hard transition from authoritarian to representative rule. The entrenched supporters of former leader Hosni Mubarak were difficult to remove and even today their influence lingers. It took repeated incursions by massive crowds into Midan Tahrir in the heart of Cairo to finally bring down the old regime. Eventually, it became an unusually bloody struggle in a country that has more often managed forceful change with little bloodshed--the 1952 Nasserist coup cost not more than a handful of lives, and the ousted King Farouk departed unscathed for the playgrounds of Europe.

In contrast, the Mubarak regime struggled hard and violently before yielding, and the losses have left a residue of bitterness which still affects public life, witness the continued strong demand to bring the former leader to justice.

After the ouster, the adoption of a representative system of governance was complicated by the deep fissures in society. A new Constitution incorporating necessary changes could be adopted only after intense discussion and dispute, and many were left discontented with the outcome.

Nevertheless, the new Constitution cleared the way for the elections that have brought President Mohamed Morsi into power. He had the backing of the Muslim Brotherhood, the first and still the most formidable organised Islamic political party of the Arab world, which helped him get the better of some internationally more prominent figures, like El Baradei, the respected former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and Amr Moussa, former Foreign Minister and Secretary General of the Arab League--also in his time a popular Egyptian ambassador to India. Morsi inched ahead of these and other rivals but the narrow margin of victory showed that great divisions of opinion remain.

Morsi has been at pains to narrow the differences and to promote unity rather than pursue a sectarian agenda, as was demonstrated in his decision to sever formal links with his party, in order to rule in the name of all sections.

The next major step of internal consolidation will be the parliamentary elections that are due to take place in the near future. Already, however, Morsi’s accession has had a marked impact on Egyptian foreign policy.

For decades, Egypt has been rather quiescent while strife and discord have raged in its region. This belies its past, when Egypt’s views and actions had extensive influence throughout the Arab world where it always had a central role to play. Simultaneously, it reached out to Africa, which was then emerging from colonial thraldom, and it was also one of the notable pioneers of NAM.

Egypt’s was a very active foreign policy, challenging the status quo and trying to serve the interests of the non-aligned and developing countries. Bruising wars with Israel and the progressive weakening of the Soviet Union discouraged the heady activism of the early phase of Nasserite foreign policy, and after Nasser left the scene, his successors in Cairo opted for prudence and calmer days.

The range of engagement in external issues was reduced and interests closer home began to predominate. The Middle Eastern balance took a different turn and the voice of Palestinians, in particular, became muted. This has changed now with Morsi’s bolder and wider ranging approach to regional affairs. He has been careful to reaffirm his commitment to the important treaties that had put Egypt on a different course at the time of his immediate predecessors but he has also taken a stronger position when it comes to supporting and promoting Arab and other causes that have traditionally drawn Egyptian sympathy. This has drawn renewed interest in Egyptian initiatives and statements and has had the effect of once again making that country a key actor in the events of its region.

Though besieged by domestic issues, Morsi has undertaken a number of foreign visits that have considerably raised Egypt’s international profile. Right at the start was a visit to Saudi Arabia, with which his country’s ties have not always been trouble free, but matters have now taken a different turn. Egypt’s economy is not in good shape: trouble in the region, fundamentalist resurgence in the country, and uncertainty about the future have taken a toll, especially on the tourism industry, which is very important to Egypt’s prosperity.

In Saudi Arabia, Morsi was promised very substantial financial support, to compensate for the losses it has suffered. Similarly, Qatar undertook to provide a big loan. Thus these two conservative Arab monarchies have emerged as important partners as Egypt re-builds and strengthens its ties in the Islamic world. Its reaching out to the OIC (Organisation of the Islamic Conference) provides a similar message. But it is simultaneously reaching out in other directions too, according to its current needs and changing global realities; thus he visited China in search of investment and to boost tourism. Success in these efforts can compensate for the reduced benefits Egypt now receives from Western sources that had extended much support in past years.

Morsi’s recent visit to India needs to be seen against this changing background. As it re-emerges, Egypt is making new associations and refreshing old ones. India has been one of Egypt’s closest associates at the time when the two countries were partners in their parallel endeavours to develop and prosper after long years of being ruled by others.

The goodwill of those days, the Nehru-Nasser heyday, is not yet dissipated, so Morsi received a warm welcome here. He was keen to find new areas of cooperation and partnership, this time not principally in political affairs but in economic cooperation. Much was achieved in this direction during the visit. In earlier days, too, several steps to develop economic cooperation were envisaged and jointly pushed forward, but the results were meagre: neither was able to bring much to the table beyond goodwill and aspirations. That is no longer the case today, and Morsi’s visit should stimulate much mutually beneficial activity in economic and technical cooperation.

One specific issue brought up by Morsi was that of BRICS, the group of substantial emerging economies in which India has a leading role. Egypt would like to be part of it, which is a reminder that it has broad horizons and does not see itself only as a regional entity with limited global interests. Whether the time is ripe for BRICS to expand is not clear and China is reportedly of the view that at this stage it should concentrate on consolidating itself. Whatever the outcome, it is encouraging that Egypt is developing a stronger voice in its own region and now aspires to a greater role internationally. This should encourage much stronger cooperation with India and a revival of the traditional close cooperation between the two countries.

The writer is India’s former Foreign Secretary


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