(CNSNews.com) – Despite the Obama administration’s efforts to put a brave face on the situation, the U.S. relationship with Egypt looks increasingly troubled, as the Muslim Brotherhood government begins to flex its muscles at home and abroad.
After removing veteran defense minister Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi – and as he mulls “reforming” the judiciary amid concerns about eroding media freedom – President Mohamed Morsi in the coming days will turn his attention to foreign policy.
For the first time since his inauguration, Morsi will travel to destinations beyond the immediate region, but he won’t visit Washington – despite a invitation from President Obama, delivered personally by Deputy Secretary of State William Burns last month. Instead, he’ll head for Beijing and Tehran.
Iran and China are both viewed by the U.S. as major impediments to a transition to a post-Assad Syria – the former as Damascus’ closest ally, the latter as its protector along with Russia in the U.N. Security Council – and Morsi is attempting to carve out a leadership role for Egypt in the messy conflict.
At an Islamic summit in Mecca last week, the Egyptian president suggested a “contact group” be formed, including Iran as well as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to mediate an end to the Syrian crisis.
Iran embraced an idea that would give it a seat at the table, but Morsi’s proposal challenged the position shared by the U.S. and regional Sunni powers – led by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey – which view Iran as a big part of the problem, not the solution.
Morsi’s visit to Tehran, officially to attend a Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit, will be ground-breaking, the first by an Egyptian leader since the two countries severed ties more than three decades ago.
His acceptance of Iran’s invitation is a triumph for a regime that sought to insert itself into the Egyptian uprising from the outset, declaring it not a movement for democratic liberalization but an “Islamic awakening,” inspired by Iran’s own Islamic revolution. Iran’s leadership openly supported the Muslim Brotherhood candidate ahead of the presidential election.
Asked Monday whether the U.S. thought Morsi should be visiting Iran, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland answered only in general terms. “We frankly don’t think that Iran is deserving of these high-level presences that are going there,” she replied. “That said, these individual countries will make their own decisions at what level they choose to be represented.”
Asked whether Morsi had consulted with the U.S. on his proposal to draw Iran into a group designed to resolve the Syrian crisis, Nuland did not answer directly, but said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a visit last month had discussed the Syria situation with Morsi and other Egyptian leaders.
“We have a very close relationship with Egypt and we welcome their leadership to try to bring peace in Syria.”
‘Independence of decision’
Morsi seeks to pursue a foreign policy more independent than that of his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, who was viewed by many Egyptians as overly deferential to the U.S.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s election platform called for a reworked relationship with Washington based on “independence of decision” and an end to “subordination.” (Despite his pro forma resignation from the Islamist group after his election, Morsi essentially heads a Muslim Brotherhood administration.)
As he does so, the two issues in the region he is most likely to focus on are Syria and the Palestinian-Israeli situation.
In a brief notice about his Aug. 27 trip to China, posted on Morsi’s official Facebook page on Sunday, his spokesman listed three issues he would discuss with President Hu Jintao – Syria, the Palestinian question, and Chinese investment in Egypt.
As NAM summit host and chairman, Iran will ensure that Syria and the Palestinian issue also feature prominently during that gathering.
The longstanding Iran-Egypt enmity stemmed in large part from Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel in 1979 – the same year as Iran’s Islamic revolution – an agreement the Muslim Brotherhood opposed as vigorously as did Tehran. (Other causes of tension included Egypt’s support for Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war and the state burial Egypt gave the reviled ousted Shah in 1980.)
Morsi says Egypt will honor its international obligations, but he has also signaled a desire to review aspects of the treaty with Israel, including vexatious restrictions on troops in the Sinai peninsula.
That position aligns with much public sentiment in Egypt. A Pew Global Attitudes Project poll earlier this year found 61 percent of Egyptian respondents in favor of scrapping the treaty, up from 54 percent a year earlier.
Militant activity in Sinai – demilitarized under the peace agreement – including a deadly attack on Egyptian policemen this month has provided an opening to send in armed forces.
Israeli officials said Tuesday they have raised concerns, with both Egypt and the U.S., over the deployment of Egyptian tanks in the peninsula without prior consultation, a move they said violated the peace treaty.
The Israeli government has not publicly addressed the sensitive issue, but the Jerusalem Post quoted an unnamed official as saying, “There is no precedent for armored vehicles being deployed in Sinai, and certainly not without any coordination.”
Under the U.S.-brokered treaty Israel withdrew from Sinai, which it had captured during the 1967 Six Day War, and the territory was to be maintained as a demilitarized buffer between the two neighbors.
The U.S. has a key role in overseeing the treaty – and has given Egypt more than $60 billion in military aid tied to the agreement – but Nuland was leery when asked about the issue on Tuesday.
While declining to discuss “our private diplomacy with one country or the other,” she said the U.S. government has been “supportive” of Egypt’s security efforts in Sinai but also encouraged transparent and open communication lines between the parties.
“Our understanding of the Egyptian security posture is that they are enhancing their posture to deal with security threats in Sinai. That’s obviously of security interest with regard to Egypt, but also with regard to neighbors,” she said. “But as has been longstanding practice, there needs to be transparency, there needs to be confidence with neighbors.”