Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1141, 28 March - 3 April 2013
Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Issue 1141, 28 March - 3 April 2013

Ahram Weekly

Morsi’s first Arab summit

President Mohamed Morsi is leading the Egyptian delegation to the Arab summit meeting in Doha this week, where his ambitions are likely to range more widely than just the Qatari capital, writes Dina Ezzat

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Al-Ahram Weekly

When President Mohamed Morsi heads back home to Cairo this week from a visit to the Qatari capital Doha, where he arrived on Monday evening to take part in the annual Arab summit, he is unlikely to have made a breakthrough in ending the apprehension that has clouded Egypt’s relations with key Arab states, especially those that it desperately needs to come to its economic rescue, among them Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

According to some presidential aides, a key objective of Morsi’s mission in Doha is to ease tensions with Arab countries that have been eyeing Morsi’s presidency, or rather the ascent of the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Egypt, with apprehension.

When the president left Cairo on Monday against a backdrop of growing political furore and fears of escalating political confrontation, there were few officials who could be found expressing optimism over the prospect of bilateral meetings with the heads of the Saudi or UAE delegations at the summit meeting.

“I think the focus is on the summit and its agenda rather than on bilateral meetings that even if convened will not be extended or elaborate,” one official said, adding that though the president would “for sure” like “to break the ice”, the mission would not be an easy one given the “deep apprehension” that both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have expressed regarding the arrival of Morsi in power.

Both Arab countries have been unhappy with the performance of Morsi and his team since the president took office last summer, and shortly before the Doha summit Morsi had to personally assure the Saudi monarch in a phone call qualified by some as “rather cold” on the Saudi side that the wealth of Saudi investors in Egypt was protected and that there was no intention on the Egyptian side to freeze Saudi assets.

The phone call came fewer than 24 hours following a decision issued by the prosecutor-general in Egypt to freeze the assets of several Egyptian and Arab investors, including key Saudi businessmen, for their alleged involvement in the flawed sale of a bank under the rule of ousted former president Hosni Mubarak.

Then, fewer than 24 hours after the telephone call, officially announced as an opportunity to discuss regional developments, a Cairo court suspended the prosecutor’s actions due to a lack of evidence of any involvement by the businessmen concerned.

However, according to leading Arab and Egyptian businessmen the damage had already been done, and Saudi investors are reportedly already reconsidering plans to invest in Egypt.

The matter came to a head only a few days after Riyadh decided to reconsider, at least on a temporary basis, a plan to grant Egypt a rapid loan to help the country fix its foreign currency deficit in order to facilitate the already complicated negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for a loan of around $6 billion that Egypt has been trying to negotiate in several tranches.

The complications in the relations with Saudi Arabia came at the same time as an already confused relationship with the United Arab Emirates, which has been playing host to some key refugees from the former Mubarak regime, including Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak’s last prime minister, who ran against Morsi in the second round of last year’s presidential elections.

Egypt’s complicated relations with the UAE are likely to be more difficult to fix given the arrest of Egyptian citizens by the UAE authorities a few months ago on charges of trying to establish a Muslim Brotherhood network in the UAE in violation of national laws.

“Mediation to fix this matter, including that exerted by Qatar [probably Egypt’s closest ally since Muslim Brotherhood rule began] and the US, has not been successful,” said one informed government source.

While in Doha, Morsi will be trying to promote the image of a president of a regime that aims strictly to refrain from any intervention in the internal affairs of other Arab countries. However, it is very much an open question, Egyptian diplomats admit, whether this message will be heeded or not.

Indeed, the statement made by Morsi in the Arab summit, whereby he coupled his assertion of Egypt’s commitment to non-interference in internal affairs of other countries with a show of anger about suggested potential intervention by some Arab states in Egyptian affairs, indicates that tension rather than reconciliation seems to be in the air of Egyptian relations with at least some of its Arab friends.

“We don’t interfere in the affairs of anyone but we also don’t accept anyone to interfere in our affairs; it is not acceptable to have any finger meddling in Egypt; this is prohibited,” Morsi told the Arab summit.

Meanwhile, Morsi joined other Arab leaders in addressing the two priority items on the agenda of the Arab summit: negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and the crisis in Syria.

“It might not look like it, but the Palestinian issue remains a key subject for Cairo, especially now that there are concerns that the chances of the two-state solution being realised are fast eroding as [illegal] Israeli settlements are eating up whatever is left of the Palestinian territories on the West Bank,” one peace process diplomatic source said.

Egypt, the same source said, was keen to make the best out of the new US willingness to play a role in the peace process that was expressed by US President Barack Obama during his recent visit to the Middle East.

Obama will not become directly engaged in the way that former US president Bill Clinton did in the peace process in the late 1990s, Arab peace process diplomats said. However, “he will give things a good try, and he will try to get things to move forward,” one diplomat said.

According to Morsi’s aides, Egypt is willing to support this try, even in the knowledge that it may not work. “Of course, we are not blind to the lack of political will on the part of [Israeli prime minister Binyamin] Netanyahu to find a fair settlement to the Palestinian issue, but this might be the last chance for the two-state solution,” the same aide said.

In his statement before the summit Morsi made no direct reference to either Obama’s efforts or to the Arab peace initiative. He, however, spoke exactly of the elements of the initiative and the new US diplomatic scheme: a fair peaceful settlement.

Morsi, who during his pre-presidency days spoke at length about the whole of historic Palestinian territories and the right of resistance, skipped the past jargon and confined himself to an en passant reference to the “steadfastness of the resisting Palestinian people”.

On Syria, Morsi, the same officials said, would prescribe a mixture of supporting the Syrian opposition, not excluding military and technical assistance, and of promoting the initiative of the opposition’s leader to pursue a negotiated settlement.

In Cairo’s view, a negotiated settlement may be the best way of avoiding civil war in Syria. “If you force a military settlement, and I am not sure that this could be done without going from the current very bloody scene to an even worse scene of bloodshed, you will end up with winners and losers, and in a country like Syria that has many ethnic ingredients this is precisely what could start a protracted civil war,” one government source said.

Effectively, Morsi’s statement before the Arab summit made an unmasked warning of a possible civil feud that could endanger Syrian territorial unity if the crisis is forced into a settlement. A negotiated settlement to the liking of all Syrians was prescribed by Morsi to the summit.

Morsi is likely to be able to garner considerable support for the Egyptian approach to both the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the Syrian crisis, though possible more on the former than the latter.

Overall, Egyptian diplomats say that Morsi’s participation as the head of an Arab delegation to an Arab Summit meeting for the first time is a big event, even though the president has already participated in several other summits and has hosted a summit meeting of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference in Egypt.

The family photograph of Arab leaders in which Morsi is going to take the place of ousted former president Mubarak will also include new faces from other Arab Spring countries, including Libya and Tunisia. However, there will also be quite a few old faces, especially those from the monarchies of the Arab Gulf, and there will be some provisional faces, including those of the leadership of the Syrian opposition.

These will be present as the representatives of the Syrian people, though the increasingly isolated Syrian president, Bashar Al-Assad, is not in any case sending a delegation to the Summit.

“The family photograph used to see no changes, except with God’s intervention [through the death of one or other Arab leader], but now there is little guarantee that those who appear in this year’s photograph will still be in office next year,” commented one Arab League official.

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