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Would New Leader Change Egypt's Foreign Policy?

  • Elizabeth Arrott

CAIRO - The upcoming runoff presidential election in Egypt has raised fears of a radical shift in foreign policy, should Islamist candidate Mohamed Morsi win. But, some see few changes on the immediate horizon.

A possible win by the Muslim Brotherhood's Morsi has some wondering if Egypt could soon see a realignment of its foreign policy.

A spokesman for the Islamist candidate, Walid el Haddad, says a Morsi administration would strive to move beyond the U.S.-centered agenda of the past, but keep those decades-long ties strong.

"As we have a very good relation with America as one of the leaders of the world, so we have to have a good relation also with the Asian countries. We will have a good relation with African countries, as the European countries," he said.

The key, el Haddad says, is balance. Fifteen turbulent months after the old government fell, radical change is something the Morsi campaign is trying to play down. Even on controversial issues such as Israel, the candidate vows to keep the peace.

"We are respecting any treaties," he said. "This is one of our Islamic references: to respect any treaties. But also we are requesting the other side to respect [it]."

Morsi's opponent, Ahmed Shafiq, the last prime minister of the old government, also stresses staying the course in foreign relations.

Political observers note that, throughout the campaign, no one called for the treaty to be broken, even those who verbally attacked Israel.

"It can be done for domestic issues, for, you know, raising the popularity of a weak presidential candidate. But it is rhetoric that means nothing," said Said Sadek of the American University in Cairo.

Sadek says Egypt's need to keep friends was seen when Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador following a violent protest at its Cairo embassy.

"Immediately, what did they do? The Islamist-controlled parliament sent a big delegation, [saying] 'please come back. We don't want trouble.' They actually, I believe them, they don’t want. Nobody wants any major trouble in foreign policy," he said.

Another factor at play is Egypt's influential military, which was dragged into three wars during the last century. Political analyst Hisham Kassem says, since then, it has pledged not to be the victim of political ambitions.

"So the war decision will remain theirs," said Kassem. "Add to that anything in foreign policy that will lead to war, which means basically Israel, the Nile basin and Iran. You cannot make foreign policy isolated from the military in the next coming 10 years on issues like that."

There is also what appears to be an overriding need for the candidate who wins to keep his eye on problems at home.

"We have a lot of issues internally actually," said Morsi spokesman el Haddad. "We have the economic problem, the security disturbance."

Morsi, he says, will focuss on domestic issues, first. Changing foreign policy, he adds, is just not a top priority. At least for now.