As a number of FP commentators have pointed out, history isn’t likely to be made at the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit currently underway in Tehran. But even if the conference is short on Earth-shaking pronouncements, it has produced one of the first examples of how Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy will conduct himself on the world stage.
Morsy broke from decades of Egyptian foreign policy by attending the summit in the first place, becoming Egypt’s first head of state to visit Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. His decision provoked no shortage of condemnation in the United States — Thomas Friedman, writing in the New York Times, said Morsy "should be ashamed of himself" for stretching out a hand to the regime that crushed the 2009 Green Movement.
But Morsy’s attendance at the Tehran summit seems to be the limit of his outreach to the Iranians. His speech at the summit offered Egypt’s full-throated support for Syria’s opposition, declaring "[o]ur solidarity with the struggle of the Syrian people against an oppressive regime that has lost its legitimacy." The Syrian delegation, unsurprisingly, staged a walkout.
Tehran, the most important international backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, couldn’t have been happy with Morsy’s sentiment. So far, all Iran’s leaders have received from him is some symbolic signs of a possible rapprochement — while Egypt’s new president has at the same time explicitly aligned himself against their primary Arab ally.
Morsy seems to want to have it both ways: At times, he has tried to regain some of Egypt’s lost diplomatic influence by positioning himself as a mediator in the Middle East’s disputes. Most prominently, he championed a regional initiative to resolve the Syria crisis that included Iran in the discussions. Such a proposal didn’t set well with Egypt’s traditional allies: Eliminating Iranian influence in Damascus is a major factor in Saudi Arabia and Qatar’s support for the Syrian rebels. Giving Tehran a seat at the table misses the point entirely.
But you can’t play peacemaker if you’re also going to take sides. Morsy clearly feels the need to support a popular, predominantly Sunni revolution — particularly one where the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood plays a prominent role. However, the nature of that support remains to be seen — and it’s hard to see how his "regional initiative" gets off the ground after antagonizing the Iranians on their home turf.
Even Morsy’s religious rhetoric at the NAM summit was, at times, muddled. The Egyptian president went out of his way to praise "the holy family of the Prophet," whom Shiites believe were the natural successors to Mohammed. But he also name-dropped the four caliphs who ruled the Islamic world after the Prophet’s death: Abu Bakr, Omar, Uthman, and Ali. The fourth caliph, Ali, is venerated by Shiites — but the first three are viewed as usurpers who persecuted the true followers of Mohammed’s teachings.
What, then, is Morsy trying to say — not only about his faith, but Egypt’s place in the world? It may still be years before we find out.