It is an exaggeration to say that President Mohamed Morsi's proposed visits to China and Iran are a turning point, but we hope so. They could pave the way for a qualitative shift in Egypt's international relations and foreign policy, presenting an opportunity for a positive impact if the president succeeds in turning a routine courtesy visit to a working visit that serves the higher interests of all parties. Both visits are highly symbolic.
To-date, the new Egyptian president's foreign trips have been confined to the African summit in Addis Ababa and the Islamic summit in Jeddah (which followed a quick visit to Riyadh). He should be praised for not beginning his presidency with a pilgrimage to Washington. His participation in the Addis Ababa and Jeddah summits are a sign of his interest in African and Islamic issues. His visits to Beijing and Tehran, on the other hand, may be deemed to be signs of looking to the East and not just to the West, which was the main direction of Egyptian foreign policy for decades. Ousted President Mubarak limited his movements between the United States, France and Italy and, when necessary, Germany.
While not wishing to put too much emphasis on the Beijing and Tehran trips, both China and Iran maintain a special degree of importance.
China is the largest political and economic power which Washington fears and there deserves to be a real, open relationship with Egypt on the political and economic levels. If Egypt aspires to move away from its obeisance to the USA, which was the way of the former regime, then China will be a significant milestone on that path. At the same time, China's economic aspiration to expand its presence in Africa and edge its way into the Gulf makes it sensible to prove itself in Egypt, a gateway to the Arab world and Africa. Thus, the two countries have a common interest in cooperating with each other.
The visit to Iran is essentially to participate in the Non-Aligned Summit, but it also provides a good opportunity to melt the ice between the two countries. It is hoped that it will bridge the wide gap created not only by security and other concerns, but also exacerbated by US, Israeli and Gulf pressures; all led Egypt to become one of three countries (the others being the USA and Israel) which cut diplomatic ties with the Islamic Revolution and form an axis of hate towards Iran.
President Morsi is going to Tehran despite enormous pressure not to, and if he can rekindle good relations with Iran then it will be hugely significant. I know that Iran will welcome such a step, the first of many it is hoped. It is in everyone's best interests beyond the borders of the two countries; the potential benefits will affect the whole Arab world, even the Gulf.
I do not want to look further to the possible revival of the power triangle, which includes Egypt, Iran and Turkey, because I realise that the relationship between Cairo and Tehran is more complex than it appears at first glance. It's no secret that those who don't want that relationship to develop will not rest unless the clock is put back. They are being helped by the priority of the Egyptian revolution to focus on domestic issues and put foreign policy on the back-burner. Nevertheless, I would argue that president Morsi's visit, even if it is just a goodwill gesture, is a positive move to be welcomed and encouraged, despite the many obvious difficulties on the road ahead.
Fahmi Howeidi is an Egyptian writer. This article is a translation from the Arabic which first appeared on shorouknews.com, 22 August
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.