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With Problems Egypt, Will Morsi Play Role In Region


The election of Egypt's first Islamist president could alter alliances across the Mideast. Diplomats and analysts are trying to figure out how Egypt's relations with Iran, Israel and other countries may change now that a member of the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood will be leading the country.

From Cairo, NPR's Peter Kenyon has our story.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: As world leaders offered congratulations to Mohammed Morsi, the Obama administration was quick to seek assurances that Egypt would continue to honor its international obligations - in particular, the peace treaty with Israel.

Morsi himself has been circumspect about his foreign policy, saying only that he will strive for a balanced approach. But here's how a senior advisor, Gehad El-Haddad, responded when a BBC interviewer him asked him if Morsi views Israel as an enemy.

GEHAD EL-HADDAD: Yes, Israel is an enemy of human rights. It is an enemy of peace and an enemy of stability. All of these are interests of the Egyptian nation and the Egyptian people within their region.

KENYON: But Haddad stopped short of calling Israel an enemy of Egypt, and Morsi has promised to respect existing treaties. Haddad did repeat Morsi's demand that the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip be lifted. But again, he was cautious, saying only that Egypt would lobby the international community to do more to end Palestinian suffering.

Haddad also spoke about Iran, flatly denying reports alleging that Morsi had told an Iranian news outlet that he wanted closer ties with Tehran.

EL-HADDAD: This was an entire hearsay story. It was made up by one of the Egyptian newswires, unfortunately. Since the second round of elections, Dr. Morsi, President Morsi has not made a single interview with any press agency.

KENYON: Publisher and analyst Hisham Kassem told Al Jazeera's English-language channel that fears that Egypt might suddenly embrace Tehran are overblown for two reasons. First, the Egyptian military retains power over major foreign policy moves. And second, the Muslim Brotherhood doesn't support Tehran's regional ambitions any more than the military does.

HISHAM KASSEM: If we start getting too close to Iran, we're going to antagonize the Gulf and the Trans-Atlantic at once. And again, it's not in our best interest that Iran acquires a nuclear weapon at any cost.

KENYON: Persian Gulf analyst Mustafa al-Ani, at the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center, says if Egypt wants to normalize diplomatic ties with Iran that's one thing. But any move to ally itself with Tehran will cost Egypt something it can't afford to lose - the financial backing of wealthy Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia.

Another source of anxiety surrounding Egypt's new president is the rising profile of the Muslim Brotherhood around the region. The Brotherhood-influenced Hamas runs the Gaza Strip, and the Syrian Muslim Brothers are a powerful component of the rebellion against the regime in Damascus. The Brothers are a noticeable presence in Kuwait, and are causing serious concern among the rulers of Jordan, the other Arab state to have a peace treaty with Israel.

Veteran Egyptian analyst Abdel Monem Saeed says it's ironic that Jordan's King Abdullah, who a decade ago warned of an Iranian-led Shiite crescent of power forming in the Middle East, is now worried about the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood. Saeed believes what Jordan is really concerned about is an Arab Spring uprising against a monarchy that refuses to enact political reforms.

DR. ABDEL MONEM SAEED: That did not happen in Jordan. And King Abdullah, he has an anxiety about the Muslim Brothers in cooperation. Because the model we got is actually revolutions are made by youth, by discontent, and then the Muslim Brothers come with their organizational, financial abilities to the fore.

KENYON: But Saeed and other analysts agree that if there is to be a rise of the Brothers, Egypt won't have much of a role in it anytime soon. Mohammed Morsi will be far too busy struggling to cope with a deeply entrenched military and a devastated economy.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.