A few months before Egypt’s presidential election in June, one of the country’s leading businessmen quipped that it would take a crazy man to want to lead the Arab world’s most populous country.
It made sense to be cynical at that time. No one knew where Egypt was heading or what a military hungry for power had in mind for the future. It was not even clear what the job description of the president would be.
Less than three months into that job, however, Mohammed Mursi is defying the sceptics.
He was dismissed as a weak candidate, a second choice fielded by his Islamist organisation, the ambitious Muslim Brotherhood. But he has declared himself boss, pushing aside senior generals and lifting Egyptian spirits with the promise of a more assertive foreign policy role.
The real test of his presidency will be in fixing Egypt’s faltering economy ‑ a long-term and exceedingly difficult project. But in the meantime he has created a feelgood factor with more political ‑ if still only symbolic ‑ gestures on the international stage.
He was cheered at home for travelling to a summit in Tehran, an ally of the Syrian regime, which he used to blast Bashar Al Assad. Also praised was his much-publicised trip to China which took place a few weeks before his trip to the US, the more usual destination of an Egyptian president.
It is true that Egypt’s revolution last year was about domestic oppression, not Hosni Mubarak’s foreign policy. But popular disenchantment was exacerbated by the sense of a loss of prestige for a nation that had been, traditionally, the leader of the Arab world.
In Mubarak’s last decade, Cairo was seen as overly subservient to the US. Worse, his government appeared satisfied with this state of affairs, arguing that Egypt should have a selective rather than dominant role in Middle East politics.
Is Mursi now charting a radically different course for Egypt? Possibly. For now, the new president is trying to please all ‑ raising the country’s profile and signalling more balance in Cairo’s foreign dealings but without appearing to jeopardise the most crucial relationships, not least that with the US.
The Muslim Brotherhood is no fan of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel and has repeatedly said it wanted it “reviewed”. But as with other controversial policies advocated by the group, the Islamists conveniently say there is no rush for a change of policy, a patience that works well for Mursi.
Every move by the Egyptian president has been carefully calibrated to avoid controversy. It makes sense for Egypt to position itself as a possible interlocutor with Tehran at a time of rising tensions between Shia Iran and the Sunni powers of the Gulf. But before he set foot in Iran, a visit that only lasted a few hours and was designed to pass the rotating presidency of the Non-Aligned Movement, Mursi had already visited Saudi Arabia, whose financial support for the Egyptian economy is critical.
And though he picked Beijing over Washington for his first high-profile trip, he had hosted the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, in Cairo. This past weekend, moreover, Mursi met with a large US business delegation, earning encouraging words from Thomas Nides, a US deputy secretary of state, who declared himself impressed with the president and his “wholesome” vision for Egypt.
It is unlikely that Egypt’s new leader knows exactly today where he wants to take Egypt ‑ and to what extent he can afford any dramatic change of direction. Fighting Egypt’s domestic battles will have to remain his priority in any case. But a rather clever balancing act in his first few months has given him some breathing space.
Ezzedine Fishere, a former Egyptian diplomat, says that so far Mursi has provided signals, not actions. “Those are signals of a more active role and a slightly different role from what we’re used to seeing. They could be signals only or they could be followed by actions,” he says.
Will, for example, Egypt seriously push for a solution to Syria through the Mursi-suggested quartet (made up of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey)? How will Egypt’s relations with China evolve after the visit?
“Talk, positions, visits, that’s the easy part,” says Fishere. “Where is the policy? We don’t know yet.”