Analysis: Egyptian leader looks abroad to win influence at home

CAIRO Fri Jul 20, 2012 3:08pm EDT

Egypt's president Mohamed Mursi attends a meeting with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal at the presidential palace in Cairo July 19, 2012. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

Egypt's president Mohamed Mursi attends a meeting with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal at the presidential palace in Cairo July 19, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

CAIRO (Reuters) - An early diplomatic offensive by Mohamed Mursi, Egypt's new Islamist president, makes it harder for an army-led establishment to portray him on the international stage as a threat to foreign powers.

At home though, it may do little to curb the influence of the generals and help Mursi assert himself as head of state.

Egypt's long-standing allies Saudi Arabia and the United States are unwilling to challenge the army's role as self-appointed protector of Egypt, which it uses to justify continued control over national security and a future constitution.

Mursi has the first real popular mandate in Egypt's history yet the army has kept the power to veto any law he passes after dissolving a parliament dominated by his allies in the Muslim Brotherhood, citing a court ruling.

In an apparent swipe at the Brotherhood during a visit to Egypt by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Egypt's top general, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, said the army would not allow a "specific group" to dominate Egypt.

Clinton urged a swift move to accountable government after meeting the new president and said the U.S. supported the army's return to a "purely national security role". Images of her chatting with Mursi were relayed widely on television.

But Clinton's visit also included meetings with women's representatives and Christian groups who fear their rights could be eroded if Islamists take full control via the ballot box.

She held a meeting with Tantawi that was more low-key than her earlier encounter with Mursi, but the order of ceremonies may say more about official protocol than any real change in the pecking order.

For now, Mursi may still be too weak, and the Brotherhood too untested, for Washington to bring decisive pressure to bear on the generals on his behalf.

"Mursi is trying to use foreign support, to the extent it is available, for a transition to a more democratic polity to enhance his powers and those of the Brotherhood," said Kamran Bokhari, vice president for the Middle East and South Asia at Stratfor.

But he said the military leadership remained a partner of choice for the outside world, "partly because of longstanding relations and partly because of U.S. uncertainty over the Brotherhood coming to power".

SAUDI OVERTURES

Mursi seemed to be doing his best to have it otherwise on a visit last week to U.S. ally and regional power Saudi Arabia, whose monarchy looked on with unease last year as popular uprisings spread through the region.

While sharing similar ideology to the conservative Saudi monarchy, the Brotherhood has a popular appeal that some perceive as a threat to the authority of the Saudi government.

Mursi, surely anxious to keep vital Saudi financial aid flowing into Egypt's depleted state coffers after he took office, did his best to mend the Brotherhood's strained ties with the oil-rich kingdom.

"Saudi Arabia is the home to the Two Holy Mosques and the sponsor of the moderate Sunni Islamic project and Egypt is the protector of this project. Between the sponsor and the protector there are bonds of family and marriage," he said in comments carried by Egypt's state news agency MENA.

A lavish reception put on for Mursi suggested the Saudis were also trying to lay past tensions to rest.

Egypt's army-backed government has, if anything, shown more willingness than the Brotherhood to modify a Mubarak-era foreign policy that fostered warm ties with Riyadh and Washington.

In late December, police carried out raids on U.S.-funded non-governmental organizations working to promote democracy, sparking Egypt's worst row with Washington in years.

The case dragged on for weeks until American and other foreign NGO workers charged with illegal funding of local rights groups were allowed to leave the country. Their trial continues.

LEVERAGE

After Mubarak's overthrow, the government also signaled an interest in renewing ties with Saudi Arabia's regional adversary Iran that were severed more than 30 years ago.

Mursi, in contrast, said last month he would sue an Iranian news agency after it quoted him as saying he was interested in restoring relations with Tehran. Mursi aides said the interview was a fabrication.

The NGO case and the brief overtures to Iran show the military, which receives $1.3 billion a year in U.S. aid, feels it has leverage enough not to be cajoled by foreign governments.

The army's trump card is its claim over national security, of which Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel is the bedrock.

Mursi is pledging to respect Egypt's international accords but the Brotherhood has a history of hostile rhetoric towards Egypt's Jewish neighbor that makes it easy for opponents to portray the movement's ascent to power as a risk to peace.

On the eve of Mursi's victory, the army decreed that the president could not declare war without its approval.

"We already know Clinton has authorized the military to be the primary agent of security," said Laleh Khalili, senior politics lecturer at the University of London.

"And given the increasing international isolation of Israel, I very much doubt that the U.S. administration would want to endanger the Camp David deal ... at this moment."

The United States has engaged with the Brotherhood since Mubarak's overthrow, receiving delegations from the movement in Washington and giving it a warm welcome at policy forums.

U.S. President Barack Obama invited Mursi this month to meet him at the United Nations in New York in September.

For now, Mursi must form a viable government and engage with a bureaucracy still full of figures from Mubarak's three decades in power who harbor an ingrained suspicion of the Brotherhood.

"If the U.S. presses ahead with supporting real democracy in Egypt, the message will be clear for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces," said Hassan Nafaa, a political analyst. "But I'm not sure that this will be of any help to Mursi."

(Additional reporting by Tamim Elyan; Editing by Alison Williams)

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