Morsi's foreign policy: disbelief and frustration in first year

Many Egyptians are looking back with a mixture of disbelief and frustration at Mohammed Morsi's foreign policy in his first year in office as the nation's first freely elected president.

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CAIRO // Many Egyptians are looking back with a mixture of disbelief and frustration at Mohammed Morsi's foreign policy in his first year in office as the nation's first freely elected president.

Mr Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood have in just under a year ruined the close ties Egypt had built over several decades with traditional backers and investors in the Arabian Gulf region, costing the country billions of dollars in much-needed aid and investment.

Initially, the administration forged close ties with Iran, a longtime rival of Gulf Arab nations wary of the intentions and ambitions of Tehran's ruling clergy and its support of Bashar Al Assad, the Syrian president.

Mr Morsi soon upset Iran with calls for the removal of Mr Al Assad, its strong ally, and, more recently, by breaking off relations with the regime of Mr Al Assad and implicitly endorsing the travel of Egyptians to Syria to fight alongside rebels.

Relations with the United States, Egypt's main foreign backer for nearly 40 years, began on a positive note but have recently been somewhat fraught over Cairo's poor human-rights record and the president's failure to unite his deeply polarised nation.

The European Union, whose members include some of Egypt's largest donors and trade partners, such as Germany, France and Italy, is now among Cairo's harshest foreign critics, with the president's perceived authoritarianism and failure to restructure the economy blamed for blocking billions of dollars in aid.

Mr Morsi and his chief foreign policy adviser, Essam El Hadad, dismiss criticism of their handling of foreign relations, speaking of a new Egypt that makes its own policies free of outside influence.

"Our foreign policy is based on three main rules: balance, equality and achieving mutual objectives," Mr Morsi told Cairo's Al Ahram newspaper in a four-page interview published on June 7.

During his 29 years in power, Mr Morsi's deposed predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, focused on the Arabian Gulf, the West and Israel, while ignoring Africa, Asia and Latin America. The speed with which Mr Morsi has lost these friends and made new enemies has raised questions about his foreign policy.

Egypt's relations with the UAE are a case in point. Authorities in the Emirates said this month they were putting on trial 30 Emirati and Egyptian suspects over an alleged coup plot linked to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.

Mr Morsi has remained silent on the trial and his foreign ministry said it was monitoring the case. However, Essam El Erian, the deputy head of the Muslim Brotherhood's political arm - the Freedom and Justice party - made disparaging remarks about the Emirates during a televised hearing of a parliamentary committee. The comments outraged Egyptians and reinforced the perception of an administration whose foreign policy pronouncements are neither disciplined nor diplomatic.

Mr Morsi met politicians at the presidential palace in early June to discuss the impact on Egypt's share of Nile River water once Ethiopia completed construction of a massive dam on the Blue Nile. Unaware that the meeting was being broadcast live, some politicians, mostly from Islamic parties, suggested sabotaging the dam, aiding Ethiopian rebels or starting rumours to scare the Ethiopian government.

Ethiopia, for decades a quiet rival of Egypt on the African stage, summoned the Egyptian ambassador to demand an explanation.

Mr Morsi's own lack of experience on the world stage brings him criticism and sometimes ridicule.

Last January, at a news conference with Angela Merkel after a meeting in which the German leader gave him a dressing down for his human-rights record and views on Jews, Mr Morsi impatiently looked at his watch the moment he reached the podium, seemingly indicating his disdain for the rebuke. Ms Merkel glared at him across the stage, a look that spoke volumes of the tension between the two.

Mr Morsi at the time was besieged by the media and foreign leaders over a 2010 public address in which he described Jews as the "descendants of apes and pigs". He maintained that they were taken out of context.

Last year, he was caught on camera fiddling with his private parts as he sat next to Julia Gillard, Australia's former prime minister. The video quickly went viral on YouTube, offering rich material for critics.

On substance, too, Mr Morsi's foreign policy has provoked concern.

While failing to secure support from traditional donors, including a pending US$4.8 billion (Dh17.6bn) loan from the International Monetary Fund, Mr Morsi has spearheaded the country's growing dependence on Qatar's largesse to stay economically afloat. Doha has offered at least $5bn in loans and grants to Cairo over the past year - a source of consternation not just to his critics at home but also abroad.

Mr Morsi told Al Ahram he wanted to maintain close ties with Washington and made light of the fact that he has yet to be invited to the White House nearly year after taking office.

"It is a question of arranging it [the visit], nothing more," the Egyptian leader said.

Mr Morsi's standing in Washington rose significantly in November, when he successfully mediated a truce between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian chapter of Egypt's Brotherhood. However, relations with the US were dealt a blow in early June when an Egyptian court sentenced 43 non-profit organisation workers, including 16 Americans, to sentences as long as five years for what the judge said was their use of illegal funds to foment unrest in Egypt.

None of the 43 were jailed, with all the foreign defendants outside the country and most of the Egyptians receiving suspended sentences. But the verdict raised a diplomatic storm, with influential US legislators implicitly threatening to cut off aid.

The proposed 2014 budget from the US president, Barack Obama, has honoured aid commitments to US allies in the Middle East, including $1.5bn in military aid and economic support to Egypt.

The Morsi administration has also continued to be publicly upbeat on relations with Washington.

"At an official level, relations are continuing at a good and positive rate," said Mr El Hadad, Mr Morsi's foreign policy adviser. "But I have the feeling that there are some who are seeking to poison this relationship with false information and incorrect news and faulty assessments." He did not elaborate.