Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi visited China in late August before his scheduled visit to the US in late September. China was Morsi's first official trip outside the Arab world since he took office in late June, so his visit was hailed by the Egyptian media as marking a moment of historic importance.
On his way back from China, Morsi also made a 4-hour visit to Iran, a country now under strict and tight santions set by the US, to hand over the presidency of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) from Egypt to Iran. Even though the visit hasn’t resulted in a restoration of bilaterial diplomatic relations between the two countries, which has been on hold since the Iranian Islamic Revolution in 1979, the visit itself was the very first by an Egyptian President in more than three decades. The handshaking between Morsi and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the announcement that the two countries regard each other as mutual “strategic cooperative partners” in the Middle East still means a lot for diplomatically isolated Iran. Not surprisingly, Morsi’s visit to Iran has been warmly welcomed by Tehran and was seen as important “diplomatic support” for Iran to counter the US-driven economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation.
The reason for taking such a “bold” diplomatic move was given by President Morsi himself. In an interview with Reuters before he started his trip to China, he said that "international relations between all states are open, and the basis for all relations is balance. We are not against anyone but we are for achieving our interests". Obviously, “balance” and “putting Egyptian interests first” are the two key words for understanding where Morsi and the new Egyptian government are heading for in the diplomatic front.
The primary “balance” is among countries in the Middle East. The very first country that Morsi went to visit after just 10 days as President was Saudi Arabia, an influential oil-rich regional big power that is heading the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and wrestling with Iran on the Syria Crisis. The visit not only pacified the Monarchy, but also successfully earned back a $1 billion loan and $500 million in aid assistance from Saudi. Then the visit to Iran, as an Egyptian scholar put it, “is a way to tell Gulf countries that Egypt is not going to simply abide by their wishes and accept an inferior position”. Indeed, President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood have long deep-rooted resentment and distrust towards Israel and its strongest ally, the US. Facing pressure from the US and Israel, Morsi has openly promised to comply with all the international treaties and agreements that Egypt has already signed (including the David Camp Agreement in 1978). A closer relationship with Iran will enable Morsi to demonstrate that Egypt's diplomatic approach and values are different from those of the old regime. Such a choice is not only equivalent to extending a helping hand to embattled Iran, but will also show that the new government aims to contribute to Middle East security and stability through policies different from its predecessor.
The secondary “balance” is between China and the US. Egypt has been long viewed by the US as a strategic ally in the Middle East. Shortly after Morsi's narrow victory in Egypt's presidential elections on June 24, US President Barack Obama sent a telegram to Morsi congratulating him on his win and extending an invitation for him to visit the US in September. Days after Morsi was sworn in, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid a brief visit to Egypt and had a talk with him. Along with her promises that the US will support Egypt's transition to democratic rule, Clinton also reiterated the US' offer of $1 billion in debt relief, and offered $250 million trade credit guarantees and a $60 million investment fund. However, Morsi still put his China visit first and attached great importance on relations with China.
Economically speaking, there is no doubt that Morsi needs China’s help to boost the Egyptian economy and its tourism industry, which had once provided employment to one eighth of the people in the country's labor force. That is also why Morsi lead a large delegation consisting of ministers and about 80 Egyptian entrepreneurs with him and spent time attending the Egypt-China Economic and Business Forum during his tight schedule. Actually, trade and investment between China and Egypt has ample room to develop. Even during Egypt's political upheaval in 2011, the value of the two countries' trade totalled $8.8 billion, an amount up 26.5 percent year-on-year. That same year, China invested $82.8 million directly into Egypt, a number up 60.4 percent year-on-year.
Strategically speaking, Egypt also needs China to reposition its role in the Middle East and on the world stage as well. By enhancing ties with China, Egypt can have more room for getting rid of over-reliance on the US and gradully developing a fully independent foreign policy. And China has also long seen Egypt as a strategic partner in the Arab world and Africa. In 1999, a strategic and cooperative relationship was established between the two countries. Strengthening the partnership that exists between the countries will not only promote cooperation in economic and trade, but also give China and its Middle East policy a strategic "pivot" in the Mediterranean region. Moreover, it will support China in its work to further strengthen the friendly ties it now enjoys with Arab and North African countries.
Egypt needs China, and vice-versa. The achievements of Morsi's visit not only are embodied in eight economic and trade cooperation memoranda that the two countries have signed, but also offer reassurance that the Sino-Egyptian partnership will continue to flourish.
After all, the balancing act of Morsi’s diplomacy serves Egypt’s national interests and suits its political values well. Constrained by its relatively weak and unstable domestic powerbase, this balancing act will be undertaken very cautiously. Under current circumstances, Egypt can’t turn away from the US at the cost of annual $ 1.5 billion US aid assistance. It will also keep some distance from Iran in order to avoiding aggravating the West. At the NAM Summit, when Morsi gave a particularly strong call for Syrian president Assad to be removed from power, it suggested that Morsi has inked his own style of Egyptian diplomacy.
HE Wenping is professor and director of the African Studies Section of the Institute of West Asian & African Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS).