This week, Egyptian Prime Minister Mohamed Morsi has visited Brazil for the first time. In doing so, he has completed state visits to all of the so-called BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. This is a striking contrast to his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, who prioritised his relationship with the USA. In 2005, he even declined an invitation to attend the first ever Arab – South America summit, organised by the then Brazilian premier, Lula De Silva.
What is the meaning of Morsi’s focus on the BRICS countries? In March, he told Indian newspaper, The Hindu, that he wanted Egypt to join this group. The average GDP of the BRICS countries in 2011 was $2.78 trillion dollars, while Egypt’s was just $230 billion. With the country’s economy languishing, the prospect of E-BRICS looks unlikely for some time yet. But Morsi’s visits abroad demonstrate a shift in foreign policy priorities.
“It is about the initiation of a true reformulation of Egyptian foreign policy making; it is a message to all concerned, not excluding Washington, that Cairo is keeping its options wide open and that it is no longer willing to succumb to the traditional framework of its foreign policy from pre-25 January revolution days,” an Egyptian diplomat told Ahram Online.
This is backed up by some articles published by the Egyptian Foreign Policy Forum, a state sponsored think-tank. In its article “Egypt and Russia”, the administration says that it wants to achieve “balance, independence, and political influence in foreign relations”, and to break free of “the shackles of subordination and occupation”. It explains that “this can be realised through the development of relations with different countries across the globe, including Russia”, saying that “the varied and balanced foreign relations approach to different circles and blocks needs to be maintained to reflect the new independent will of Egyptian foreign policy and serve Egypt’s national interests.”
For years now, commentators in the west have been anxiously discussing what the emergence of new global economic powers will mean for the balance of international relations. Developing nations now have options of where they turn to for help. A case in point is China’s approach to Africa. Rather than the western model of aid hand-outs, the country is investing in businesses and infrastructure, unhampered by the old superpowers’ reluctance to deal with African leaders with shaky human rights records. Similarly, Egypt’s trip to Brazil is focused not on asking for aid, but on drumming up direct investment. Morsi was accompanied by a group of top Egyptian businessmen, and Hassan Malek, his top business advisor.
Ahead of his first trip to the US, for a meeting of the UN General Assembly in September 2012, Morsi told the New York Times that “successive American administrations essentially purchased with American taxpayer money the dislike, if not the hatred, of the peoples of the region”, backing dictatorial governments over popular opposition and supporting Israel over Palestine. Interestingly, he has yet to undertake a state visit to Washington (though, undoubtedly, that will happen in due course).
But for all this rhetoric, and the building of new bridges with different economic powers, Egypt continues to be reliant on aid from the US. In March, US Secretary of State John Kerry announced that America would go ahead with $250 million assistance for Egypt. Of that, $190 million is an injection for the economy, while $60 million is to create a fund to support small businesses. The money was granted on condition that Morsi seek an agreement with the International Monetary Fund about economic reforms. Talks have dragged on for over a year. The IMF wants Egypt to raise taxes and cut energy subsidies in return for a $4.8 billion loan package.
It’s also worth remembering that, quite apart from this direct injection of cash to the floundering economy, America provides a huge amount of military aid to Egypt – to the tune of around $1.3 billion annually. As the situation stands, Morsi’s regime would struggle to keep going if it cut all ties with the US. Continued unrest in the country means that the army is a crucial bulwark of power.
However, this reliance on US aid could eventually change, if relationships with other countries are built up and if Egypt learns from the BRICS countries it is courting. Brazil, the site of the latest visit, transformed from a state of near-bankruptcy into one of the world’s leading economic powers. In practice, little has been changed yet in terms of where the money to Egypt is flowing in from, but Morsi’s shift in focus of his foreign policy could eventually have a significant impact on this.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.