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Egypt's President To Recalibrate Foreign Policy


Well, the new president of Egypt is traveling overseas, and Mohammed Morsi appears to be setting a new course for his country in international affairs - or at least, trying to. He's reaching out to adversaries and allies, and trying to bring back his country's diplomatic importance. NPR's Leila Fadel has the story.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Today, Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi - of the Muslim Brotherhood - is in China. He plans to address the bloody civil war in Syria. China, along with Russia and Iran, are among the last international allies of the Syrian regime. Morsi also aims to drum up foreign investments, to jump-start Egypt's foundering economy. The China trip, as well as a historic one to Iran Thursday - the first one in more than three decades - is what the president's spokesman, Yasser Ali, calls Egypt's new and more robust approach to foreign policy.

YASSER ALI: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: We plan to open Egypt up to the rest of the world, he says.

Years of Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian rule eroded Egypt's status as a vibrant cultural touchstone and political hub. Samer Shehata, an Egypt expert at Georgetown, says Egypt lacked an independent foreign policy and instead, was widely viewed as a regional proxy of its biggest financial backer, the United States.

SAMER SHEHATA: Mr. Mubarak's foreign policy was viewed as being made in Tel Aviv and Washington, D.C., and not in Cairo. Morsi is trying to address that by putting forward a foreign policy that champions Egypt's national interests first.

FADEL: Morsi's spokesman says he's scheduled to visit Iran for just a few hours, for a meeting of non-aligned nations. But even if it is just a pit stop, the move is a significant shift from the anti-Iran policies of the Mubarak government. Morsi has also proposed creating a regional group to include Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt; to help end Syria's civil war. His spokesman says without Iran, the Syrian regime's biggest backer, there can't be a solution.

ALI: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: But the spokesman says that Morsi does not intend to normalize relations with Iran - an alarming prospect to Washington; its staunchest Arab ally reaching out to its archenemy. Michael Wahid Hanna, an Egypt expert at the Century Foundation, says Morsi's trip to Iran shouldn't be overblown.

MICHAEL WAHID HANNA: Egypt is, clearly, at a moment where it is trying to reinvigorate what had been stagnant and moribund, for a good portion of the Mubarak regime. That being said, I don't think we should read too much into how far Egyptian foreign policy will shift in the very near term.

FADEL: But Morsi's ambitions for regional leadership are constrained by the pressing issues he faces at home. Most importantly, an economy in crisis, says Shehata, the Egypt expert.

SHEHATA: It desperately needs cash and loans and investments. And he needs them, specifically, from Riyadh and from Doha; and from Washington, D.C., and other Western capitals. And that will serve as a limiting factor, as to how independent Egypt's foreign policy can be.

FADEL: Unemployment is rising, and tourism and foreign investments have dried up. Over the weekend, a jobless man set himself on fire outside the presidential palace - a disturbing reminder of the desperate young man in Tunisia who set himself on fire and started a regional uprising, one that eventually swept this president to power.

Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo.


INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.