Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsy is heading for China and Iran — a path-breaking visit that is unlikely to please the United States, which has gone overboard to cultivate relationship with the new leadership in Cairo.
Mr. Morsy will land in Beijing on Monday, before heading for Tehran to attend the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) there. This will be the first visit by an Egyptian President to Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
The importance of the visit has not been lost on the Iranians.
“Since long time ago, Egypt and Iran as two big Muslim countries have had close ties and played key roles in the Islamic civilisation,” observed Ali Larijani, the Speaker of Majlis, Iran’s Parliament.
Iran-Egypt relationship had greatly soured during the regime of the former President, Hosni Mubarak — evident from the absence of embassies in their respective capitals.
Analysts point out that the region’s geopolitical map may fundamentally realign if the Egyptian President’s visit to Tehran leads to a robust re-engagement between the two heavyweights. Prior to Mr. Mubarak’s exit, Iran, Syria and Lebanese Hizbollah had been facing-off with a pro-West alliance of Egypt and the Gulf monarchies led by Saudi Arabia. The sharp antagonistic divisions among the Arab and Muslim countries of the region had also well suited Israel, which, since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, has not been threatened by a united front of regional countries.
Behind the scenes
There has been considerable behind-the-scenes preparation for Mr. Morsy’s visit. Last week, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mr. Morsy confabulated effusively in Makkah on the sidelines of the emergency summit of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC).
While still in Makkah, Mr. Morsy broke ranks with host Saudi Arabia and Qatar by proposing a “contact group” on Syria, formed by a coalition of Tehran, Cairo, Ankara and Riyadh. Iran immediately welcomed the Egyptian proposal, with Iranian foreign policy spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast praising the initiative as the means “to review and follow up on [regional] issues so that peace would be established in the region as soon as possible and tensions would ease”.
A senior official from the Muslim Brotherhood said on condition of anonymity that the new Egyptian leadership was seeking a deeper engagement with the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) grouping, and Mr. Morsy’s visit to Beijing at the invitation of his counterpart, Hu Jintao, was a step in that direction. The Syrian situation as well as the Palestinian question is likely to feature prominently during Mr. Morsy’s stay. Commercial exchanges as well as opening the floodgates for Chinese investments in post-Mubarak Egypt would be another possible focal area of discussions.
Observers point out that the two visits follow a feverish effort by the Obama administration to woo the Muslim Brothers. Within the space of one month since Mr. Morsy was elected President, three top Obama administration officials have called on the new Egyptian President in Cairo.
These include Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, whose visit was followed by a trip to Cairo by his boss, Hillary Clinton. Also in the queue shortly afterwards was Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, who was well positioned to engage Egypt’s civilian as well as military leadership. However, Mr. Morsy surprised all when he purged the Mubarak era military top brass, headed by Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, the Defence Minister.