Paul Pillar

A Pragmatic President in Arabia

As outside observers try to make predictions about what Egypt's Islamists will do with their popularity and electoral successes, an additional data point arose this week with Mohamed Morsi's first foreign trip as president, to Saudi Arabia. In a way, it was remarkable that he traveled anywhere outside his country this soon after taking office, given that he is in the middle of a constitutional crisis in which he is at loggerheads with the judiciary and the military over whether parliament can meet, not to mention the huge uncertainties over his own office's powers.

The selection of a destination for a head of government's first overseas trip traditionally is taken as symbolic statement, of course, and on the surface it is unsurprising that the most populous Arab state and the most economically influential one would give priority to their relationship with each other. But there also is a long history of animosity between the two countries—leading the republican and monarchical poles of the Arab world—going back to Nasser's time and the waging by Egypt and Saudi Arabia of a proxy war in Yemen in the 1960s. The political upheaval in Egypt of the past year and a half has not helped the relationship. The Saudis were annoyed at the United States for supposedly throwing Hosni Mubarak under a bus, and anything even faintly revolutionary in their part of the world makes the rulers of a medieval family-based political structure nervous. The overlap of Islam and politics that characterizes both the Saudi regime and Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood represents more of a disjunction than a common thread between them. The Brotherhood—given the path it has taken and the electoral success it has enjoyed—is a living statement that a Saudi-style structure is not necessary and that a democratic system is compatible with respect for Islamic principles.

Morsi evidently said enough to put his hosts at ease and to keep his brief visit cordial. The trip suggested that what is more important to him than anything religious (although he did perform the Umrah, or minor pilgrimage) or ideological are pragmatic considerations, especially economic ones. Saudi investment and remittances from Egyptian workers in Saudi Arabia are important ingredients in trying to come anywhere close to meeting Egyptians' inflated economic expectations. There also is a wider foreign-policy dimension to the trip. Despite much talk lately about how an Egypt under Morsi rather than Mubarak will move toward better relations with Iran, the trip demonstrated that Iran is not Morsi's first choice of partners among competitors in the Persian Gulf. A further pragmatic consideration was no doubt involved here, too, with an awareness of how dyspeptic Washington would get over anyone improving relations with Tehran.

All in all, it is hard to see how anything about the trip would have been different if it had been made by an Egyptian leader not labeled an Islamist and not having “Muslim” in his party's name.

Image: Jonathan Rashad