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Egypt turns quietly to Asia

Friday 8 March 2013

By Chris Zambelis

Egyptians recently marked the second anniversary of the fall of President Hosni Mubarak. Meanwhile, a bitter contest for the future character of Egyptian political life continues apace. The Egyptian political scene is rife with fault lines defined by Islamist, secular, liberal, and leftist currents and an emboldened population determined to have its voice heard.

Representing the Muslim Brotherhood - the broad-based Islamist movement that served as the locus of organized political opposition to the Mubarak regime - the Freedom and Justice (FJP) Party led by President Mohammed Morsi was catapulted to power as Egypt’s first democratically elected civilian government after over 60 years of military rule.

Due to its illegal status, the Muslim Brotherhood had to carefully navigate a restricted and circumscribed political sphere designed to contain and undermine its grassroots influence. Thrust into a position of leadership through its political wing the FJP, the onus is now on the Muslim Brotherhood to deliver on the multitude of demands of an aroused Egyptian public, supporters and critics alike.

No longer consigned to its oppositionist role, the Muslim Brotherhood’s call for social and economic justice, freedom, and dignity, encapsulated in its slogan "Islam is the solution," will need to translate into practical solutions and results.

Beneath the din and clamor of political clashes and violent street protests, Egypt has been quietly turning to Asia in the form of a flurry of diplomatic activity.

In addition to having far-reaching ramifications for Egyptian politics and society, the political ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood has also raised important questions regarding the evolution of Egyptian foreign policy. While Egypt remains preoccupied with its domestic affairs, it is important to contemplate the potential future course of Egyptian foreign policy under the Muslim Brotherhood-led government early in the post-Mubarak era.

The underlying domestic factors that compelled millions of Egyptians to take to the streets to demand the downfall of the Mubarak regime are widely acknowledged. For so many Egyptians, the Mubarak regime personified the systemic repression, brazen corruption, grinding poverty, indifference to rule of law, and contempt for human rights that had come to characterize their lives.

What has been too often lost in the disaggregation of the grievances felt by the Egyptian public toward their leadership is their widely shared resentment toward Egypt’s foreign policy posture. In the minds of many Egyptians, the disintegration of their domestic situation was amplified by the decline of Egyptian clout in international affairs.

Once regarded as the political and cultural epicenter of the Arab world and as an inspired leader among developing countries, Egypt has since seen its influence and credibility atrophy. Just as important, principal facets of Egyptian foreign policy, namely its strategic alliance with the United States and its relationship with Israel as embodied in the Camp David accords - positions that flout Egyptian public opinion - engendered a deep sense of acrimony among a disenfranchised population.

Once an advocate for pan-Arabism, sovereignty, and justice for the Palestinians, Egypt had come to be viewed as a compliant adjunct of American and Israeli strategic paradigms.

Rhetoric to steer a new path for Egypt in world affairs notwithstanding, a turbulent domestic situation coupled with an array of formidable obstacles in the international arena will continue to constrain Egypt’s room for maneuver in the foreseeable future.[1]

At the moment, securing foreign aid from the United States and other sources of foreign largesse, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), is a top priority in Cairo. Notable features of Egyptian foreign policy that crystallized during the Mubarak era, including its multifaceted bond with the United States and cooperation with Israel, especially in enabling Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land, will remain in place.

At the same time, there are signals that Egypt is gradually charting a new path in its regional and international relations that reflects greater nationalist and populist impulses. Egypt’s cautious but nonetheless significant diplomatic overtures to Iran[2] and Hizballah,[3] for example, both of which were treated as dangerous adversaries by the Mubarak regime, are cases in point.

Foreign policy in practice

In this context, it is worth examining the FJP’s foreign policy approach toward Asia. The FJP has committed itself to reinventing Egyptian foreign policy on many fronts. This includes expanding Egypt’s presence and role in Asia.[4]

When it comes to devising a new foreign policy toward Asia, however, addressing the deteriorating economic situation at home has emerged as a top priority. As a result, Egypt’s interface with Asia has, not surprisingly, revolved heavily around economic and trade matters, as opposed to geopolitical issues that affect the global balance of power.

Early indications show that Egypt will look to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the cornerstone of its approach toward engaging Asia. In this regard, China’s place in Egypt’s foreign policy calculus signals a continuation of the Mubarak regime’s methods in dealing with China.

Mubarak’s Egypt courted China on multiple levels. Much has been said about the rapid emergence of China as an influential actor in the Middle East. In addition to luring Chinese investment into the Egyptian economy by fashioning itself a gateway to the budding and untapped markets of the Middle East and Africa - Egypt, for example, represented China’s third-largest trading partner in Africa in 2011[5] - the Mubarak regime looked to China to diversify its foreign relations portfolio.

The Mubarak regime sought to capitalize on the historic legacy of Sino-Egyptian relations framed through their shared participation in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) by expanding diplomatic, economic, trade, military, and cultural contacts with Beijing. Even as it has firmly ensconced itself in a US-led alliance system, Mubarak’s Egypt recognized the benefits of developing closer ties with a rising China that was determined to raising its profile in a region rich in the energy and other natural resources it required to sustain its growing economy.

Beijing was also seeking to amass further diplomatic support for its "One-China" principle that defines Taiwan as a sovereign part of the PRC and gain access to new consumer markets for its exports. The central place Egypt occupies in US strategic thinking in the Middle East was also not lost on China.

Beijing deemed the opportunity to expand contacts with Mubarak’s Egypt, in essence, as a means in which to counter US authority within a country and within a region it deems vital to its strategic national interests. China’s inroads into Egypt and, for that matter, the wider Middle East, serve geopolitical ends; China seeks to check US advances in Asia, a region it believes to be part of its rightful sphere of influence.

The symbolism underlying Morsi’s decision to visit Beijing on his first official state visit outside of the Middle East is a testament to the importance of China to Egyptian foreign policy.[6] Fortunately for Egypt, Beijing will be more than amenable to forging expanded contacts and cooperation with Cairo on all levels.

Joined by a delegation of cabinet ministers and business leaders, Morsi’s August 2012 trip to Beijing included meetings with his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao and Chinese business leaders designed to broaden the parameters Sino-Egyptian relations.[7] After lauding the history of Sino-Egyptian relations and declaring their intention to revive the ancient Silk Road trade and communication routes that linked Egypt to China, both sides agreed to further expand the volume of bilateral trade between both countries.[8]

Recognizing that the current trade volume heavily favors China, both sides committed to work to improve Egypt’s share of the balance of trade. The volume of Sino-Egyptian trade reached $8.8 billion in 2011, a 26% increase from 2010.[9] Chinese exports to Egypt accounted for $7.2 billion of the aggregate trade volume while Egyptian exports to China represented $1.6 billion of total bilateral trade.[10]

The two sides also concluded numerous agreements governing future Chinese investment in the Egyptian economy and joint ventures between Egyptian and Chinese concerns representing a diverse array of sectors, including energy, textiles, infrastructure, and tourism, valued at just under $5 billion.[11] A series of pacts outlining future collaboration in fields such as research and development related to science and technology and expanding cultural ties were also signed.[12]

The result of the FJP’s first exchange with China yielded tangible benefits for all parties. China’s hosting of Morsi during this critical juncture in Egyptian politics, however, reveals a more subtle geopolitical element that is worthy of note.

The revolutionary tumult that continues to transform the Arab world has emboldened the constellation of Islamist movements led by the various national strands of the Muslim Brotherhood that previously operated in the underground to escape state repression. The empowerment of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt through its political arm the FJP, therefore, carries a symbolic weight that should not be discounted; the Muslim Brotherhood, after all, was founded in Egypt in 1928.

The FJP’s performance in governance is being watched closely around the region, particularly by like-minded Islamist political movements such as those in Tunisia represented by the al-Nahda (Renaissance) movement and elsewhere that are now operating in their respective governments or in otherwise freer and more democratic political spheres.

How the FJP calibrates its foreign policy toward Asia, therefore, can influence the actions and subsequent agendas of political parties and activists representing the Muslim Brotherhood around the region. This reality is not lost on China; Beijing is eager to curry favor with the embryonic Islamist-oriented governments and polities in Egypt and around the region as they consolidate their domestic positions and revisit previous positions toward the United States.

China’s presence in the greater Middle East does not elicit the negativity among local populations that is often reserved for the actions of the United States. The United States tends to be viewed as violently hostile to Arabs and Islam, overly consumed with ensuring Israel’s military dominion over a besieged Palestinian population that continues to toil under a brutal occupation, and imperialistic when it comes to siphoning off the region’s natural resources.

The longstanding US policy of supporting despotic regimes in the region to preserve its concept of stability, in the minds of many of the region’s residents, exemplified the true face of American intentions when it came to the Middle East. China, in contrast, tends to be seen in a far more benign, even friendly light. As a result, China is well positioned to expand its influence in post-Mubarak Egypt.

Egypt has also been busy engaging other major actors across Asia in the diplomatic, economic, trade, and cultural spheres. Much like the tone of its relationship with China, economic and trade issues have been a top priority for Egypt when in it comes to engaging Asia’s most influential countries.

Morsi is scheduled to visit India, an emerging global diplomatic and economic force in its own right and fellow partner in the NAM, in late March. India is Egypt’s seventh largest trade partner overall and the second largest destination for Egyptian exports, particularly oil. The volume of bilateral trade in 2011 increased to over $4.3 billion from $3.2 billion the previous year.[13]

Just as important, there is speculation that Morsi will seek Indian support for Egypt potentially joining the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) group of emerging economies.[14] For its part, India has a strong interest in strengthening its leverage in a rapidly changing Egypt that is looking increasingly eastward.

Egypt utilized the third annual Japan-Arab Economic Forum held in Tokyo in December 2012 as a springboard for enticing more Japanese investment in the Egyptian economy.[15] On the Japan leg of his Asian tour in March 2012, Egyptian foreign minister Muhammed Amer met with Japanese political and business leaders in an effort to attract additional Japanese investment in the Egyptian economy.[16]

During talks with Japan’s ambassador to Egypt, Norihiro Okuda, in November 2012, Egyptian Industry and Foreign Trade Minister Hatem Saleh expressed Cairo’s commitment to address the many concerns surrounding the difficulties confronting foreign investors as they try to navigate the Egyptian economy.[17]

Egypt and South Korea have concluded a number of economic agreements of note under the FJP. South Korean ambassador to Egypt, Young-so Kim, announced in December 2012 that South Korea plans to invest $583 million in Egypt. South Korean giant Samsung also confirmed in October 2012 that it would be establishing a factory in Egypt. Estimated to be valued at over $300 million, the factory represents the first of its kind for Samsung in the Middle East.[18]

Egypt has also reached out formally to Indonesia,[19] Malaysia,[20] Vietnam,[21] Thailand,[22] and the Philippines[23] since the fall of Mubarak to broaden the terms of existing relationships on a range of issues ranging from gauging the feasibility of concluding Free Trade Agreements (FTAs), increasing the depth of existing commercial and cultural contacts, and identifying ways in which to relieve Egypt’s sovereign debt burden.

On the multilateral level, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Egyptian Business Association (EBA) agreed to establish a joint working body to boost cooperation.[24]

Conclusion

It is crucial to appreciate the present domestic political predicament in which Egypt finds itself to correctly grasp the significance of its still evolving strategic concept of Asia. It would be wrong to define Egypt’s engagement of Asia since the fall of the Mubarak regime and the concomitant elevation of the FJP, to borrow from the current American foreign policy parlance, as a "pivot".

The FJP and the networks of competing factions vying for a voice in Egypt’s future, at this point, are concerned primarily with internal issues. Consequently, foreign policy under the FJP, aside from some notable cases, will largely resemble the old status quo. Even in the face of mounting pressure emanating from its loyalist base and the sizable segment of the population eager for a meaningful shift in the nature of its foreign relations with the United States, Israel, Palestine, and the rest of the Arab world, as well as on other major issues - regional and global - Egypt faces a litany of constraints that limit its behavior.

At the same time, it is improbable that a strong, stable, and democratic Egypt governed by leaders that are held accountable by their people would maintain a foreign policy inherited from the Mubarak era. Despite operating under severe limits, the FJP has already demonstrated its intentions to reevaluate Egypt’s place in the Middle East and the world. Similarly, the FJP’s opponents are also raising analogous issues with respect to Egypt’s place in foreign affairs. Whatever the outcome, Asia is sure to play an increasingly prominent role in Egypt’s strategic thinking in the years ahead.

Notes:

1. For insight into the foreign policy objectives outlined by the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), including specifics regarding Egypt’s consideration of Asia, see "Foreign Policy in Morsi’s Presidential Election Platform," Freedom and Justice Party May 21, 2012, http://www.ikhwanweb.com/article.ph....

2. Al-Jazeera [Doha], "Egypt’s Morsi to Make Historic Trip to Tehran," August 19, 2012, ; see also Jason Rezaian and Abigail Hauslohner, "Ahmadinejad Makes First Cairo Visit," Washington Post, February 5, 2013, (accessed February 2013).

3. Lauren Williams, "New Egypt Warms Up to Hezbollah," Daily Star [Beirut], December 29, 2012,

4. For insight into the foreign policy objectives outlined by the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), including specifics regarding Egypt’s consideration of Asia, see "Foreign Policy in Morsi’s Presidential Election Platform," Freedom and Justice Party, May 21, 2012.

5. Farah Halime, "Chinese Firms Brave Uncertainty in Egypt to Gain a Foothold in the Middle East," New York Times, August 29, 2012.

6. Chris Zambelis, "A New Egypt Looks to China for Balance and Leverage," China Brief (Jamestown Foundation), Vol. 12, Issue 18, September 21, 2012.

7. Xinhua, "Chinese, Egyptian Presidents Hold Talks on Ties," August 28, 2012.

8. Agence-France Presse, "Egypt’s New Leader Visits China Seeking Investment," August 28, 2012, ; also see Islam Serour, "Morsy’s Visit to China Yields Fruitful Outcome," Daily News Egypt [Cairo], August 28, 2012.

9. Xinhua, "Egypt Calls for More Chinese Investment," August 29, 2012, (accessed February 2013).

10. Abdel-Rahman Hussein, "Friends With Benefits," Egyptian Independent [Cairo], August 30, 2012.

11. Brian Spegele and Matt Bradley, "Egypt’s Morsi Firms China Ties," Wall Street Journal, August 29, 2012, ; see also "Following Morsi’s Visit, Chinese Investors See Promising Opportunities in ’Gate to Africa’ Egypt," Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), August 30, 2012.

12. Islam Serour, "Morsy’s Visit to China Yields Fruitful Outcome," Daily News Egypt [Cairo], August 28, 2012.

13. Al-Ahram Online [Cairo], "Indian Investment in Egypt Exceeds $2.5 Billion," November 20, 2012, ; also see Economic Times [Mumbai], "India-Egypt Bilateral Trade Rises by 33%," October 13, 2012.

14. Sachin Parashar, "Egypt President to Visit India Next Month," Times of India [Mumbai], February 7, 2013.

15. AllAfrica.com, "Egypt: Government Keen to Solve Japanese Firms Problems," November 20, 2012.

16. Egypt Independent [Cairo], "Foreign Minister in East Asia Tour to Boost Economy," March 20, 2012.

17. Egypt State Information Service [Cairo], "Egypt: Government Keen to Solve Japanese Firms Problems," November 20, 2012.

18. Egypt Independent [Cairo], "South Korea Eyes Multimillion Dollar Investments in Egypt," December 18, 2012, ; see also Ahram Online [Cairo], "Samsung to Build LE1.7bn Plant in Egypt," September 11, 2012.

19. Hend El-Behary, "Egypt to Sig Business Protocol with Indonesia," Daily News Egypt [Cairo], February 20, 2013.

20. Egypt State Information Service [Cairo], "Egypt: PM, Malaysian Trade Minister Discuss Free Trade Agreement," October 14, 2012, (accessed February 2013).

21. Nhan Dan Onlne [Hanoi], "Vietnam, Egypt Boost Bilateral Ties," September 4, 2012.

22. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Thailand, "Thailand and Egypt Strengthen Relations," October 21, 2012.

23. Magdy Zedan, "Cairo Chamber Participate in Philippines Conference," Amwal al-Ghad [Cairo] October 8, 2012.

24. Egyptian Businessman’s Association [Cairo], "New Business Association Will Help Expand Egyptian-ASEAN Economic Relations," March 21, 2012.

Chris Zambelis is an author and researcher with Helios Global, Inc, a risk management group based in the Washington, DC area. The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of Helios Global, Inc.

Reprinted with permission of the Middle East-Asia Project (MAP). Please click here to view the original article.

(Copyright 2013 Middle East-Asia Project).

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