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Morsy building Egypt's policy as he goes

By Nic Robertson, CNN
updated 8:46 PM EDT, Sun September 2, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President Mohamed Morsy is to a degree making his foreign policy as he goes
  • Stability is what was on his mind as he traveled to China this past week
  • He became the first Egyptian leader to visit - albeit briefly - Iran in three decades
  • He criticized Iranian President Ahmadinejad's support for Assad in Syria

(CNN) -- President Mohamed Morsy, by virtue of being in the post so briefly, is to a degree making his foreign policy as he goes. Beijing and Tehran have been his first big forays and he is already making waves.

It is not that he is acting at random or without design, he most assuredly is not, but he is waiting for his advisory teams to catch up with the pace of international diplomacy. According to an adviser he is still working out his priorities fine-tuning his strategy.

He is a new president growing into the role. As he has demonstrated recently by replacing his defense and security chiefs, who threatened to curtail his ambitions, he is not afraid to move with speed to get what he wants.

Morsy now has more power to throw around commanding, as he does, both legislative and executive levers of authority, but so too does he have the expectations of the nation weighing more heavily upon him. His decisions count, and with their outcome so will rise or fall the popularity of the Islamists he is deemed to represent.

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At the polls in June the nation was divided, split almost evenly between Morsy and his opponent. By many voters the decision was considered a choice between two evils, but since ousting the Mubarak-era military chiefs, the lackluster anti-Morsy protest August 24 indicates most appear to want him to get on with the task of stabilizing the country and creating jobs.

That's what he had in mind when he went to Beijing, according to advisers. Morsy sees the Chinese as a major source for business development in the future. Egypt's pitch is that better than any other African nation it can be the gateway for the world's rising power through which to exploit its myriad interests on the vast continent.

Improving Egypt's economy at a time when foreign reserves -- at $35 billion when Mubarak was ousted -- have shrunk to less than half that and official unemployment is more than 10% and is likely much more could not be more critical.

The country's newspapers were plastered with pictures of Morsy with Chinese leaders, holding talks, shaking hands, inspecting guards of honor. The headlines were all about his drive securing jobs. Success will no doubt build his base come the next elections.

The next leg of his journey -- to Iran -- was entirely different. An adviser told me Morsy was going out of diplomatic courtesy, handing over the rotating presidency of the non-aligned summit to Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Morsy would only be there four hours, he said. It turned out to be much more than a quiet passing of the non-aligned baton.

Just by going to Tehran Morsy set the diplomatic firmament alight as the first Egyptian leader in over three decades to visit Tehran. Then there was wonderment at what he might be planning.

Two weeks earlier at his foray to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, for the emergency summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, he is reported to have first floated his contact group idea for solving the Syrian crisis.

The few details that emerged indicated the contact group would be made up of four nations including fellow sunni states Saudi Arabia and Turkey, who like Egypt openly back the rebels in Syria, and shia Iran, the Syrian leader President Bashar al Assad's staunchest ally.

What Morsy revealed in Tehran was a message that would be as well received back home in Egypt as it was reviled in Iran.

His open criticism of Ahmadinejad's support for Assad was not to his host's taste and was such a smack down the Syrian delegation walked out in protest.

On the streets of Cairo, Alexandria and Egypt's other teeming cities Morsy's critics and supporters alike are united on one thing -- they are appalled by the carnage Assad is perpetrating on his own people. None can fathom his justification in using attack jets on his own people.

In this deeply religious nation whose majority share the same sunni faith as Syria's majority, who for the most part are the root of the rebellion, Morsy's upbraiding of Ahmadinejad will have been a poke in the Iranian's eye that many Egyptians welcome.

Perhaps most critical for Middle East experts will be the course Morsy charts with his neighbor Israel. He has promised to uphold his country's existing international agreements, but in the past month has sent the army's tanks unannounced into the Sinai. That, by long established understanding, could not be done without Israel's blessing and has raised eyebrows to say the least.

The pretext for chasing down jihadists who had killed 16 Egyptian servicemen in the Sinai may have blunted some of his northern neighbor's anger but it has created an uneasy feeling. Morsy is learning the weight of his decisions can carry wide-ranging implications and he must carefully calibrate his moves or risk unforeseen consequences.

But there may be more unilateral moves in the Sinai to come. As an adviser told me the country's national interest must come first. They must build security in that area, thwart jihadists, offer the tribes better services and jobs, even use the territory to create new industrial zones and alleviate pressure on overcrowded Cairo

Breaking with Mubarak's perceived subservience to Western interests, namely the stability of Israel over what so many Egyptians see as an unfair deal to the detriment of fellow Arabs may appeal to the populist in Morsy. But expect to see the pragmatist too, as his policies are honed to balance between what he has inherited and what he wants.

He has got the power. Popularity -- if he can achieve it -- is going to take longer. A smart foreign policy will help, but it will not be a short cut.

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