x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Egypt's return to more muscular foreign policy

Mohammed Morsi's visit to Iran, after a trip to China, is above all a signal that Egypt wants to reclaim its stature in the Arab world.

The United States is not alone in a strategic tilt towards Asia; the Egyptians are tilting east, too. This reorientation is partly driven by internal politics and partly by external geopolitical realities. But its end result appears to be to turn Egypt back into what it was for so long in the Middle East: the indispensable Arab country.

Fresh from a visit to China, President Mohammed Morsi will today land in Iran, the first Egyptian leader to visit the Islamic Republic since it came into existence in 1979. Both visits are important symbolically and politically. For Egypt, reviving its economy is a priority and China - which has agreed to extend US$200 million (Dh734 million) in credit to Egypt's national bank - will be an important part of that recovery.

But it is the Iranian visit that is being watched with great interest regionally. At a time when Iran's influence on the region is apparent - both in the Syrian conflict and in the long-running dispute over its nuclear programme - Mr Morsi's visit is laden with symbolism. While the Egyptian leader plans to stay in Tehran for only a few hours, that he is visiting at all sends a powerful message.

Egypt remains the only large Arab country that can meet Iran on an equal footing. Iran has influence in Iraq and Syria; its relationship with Saudi Arabia is complicated by religious differences and its brooding presence across the Arabian Gulf. And while Egyptian leaders have domestic challenges to tackle - from unemployment and poverty to economic malaise - Cairo is less susceptible to Iranian threats than many of its neighbours.

Part of the reason for Mr Morsi's globe-trotting is internal Egyptian politics. Only two months into his presidency, Mr Morsi remains largely untested - he has made some bold moves, especially against the military establishment, but there are still question marks over his leadership. By meeting world leaders he is doubtless shoring up his personal standing at home, among Egyptians, the military and the ruling party.

Naturally, Iran has taken the opportunity of Mr Morsi's visit for some empty rhetoric, claiming the attendance of foreign leaders at the Non-Aligned Movement summit is proof of the West's failure to isolate Iran. But make no mistake: Iran is isolated, economically and politically. Rather, Egypt deserves credit for seeking to draw the regional pariah into the diplomatic fold, in spite of US objections.

And yet Mr Morsi's globetrotting is much bigger than Iran: a new Egypt is seeking to regain its place as one of the driving forces in the region. A new approach to foreign policy will be key to this reality.