The Brussels visit of Egypt’s first democratically elected president Mohammed Morsi is a striking reminder of the changes that have swept the Arab world in the last 18 months. Europe should not miss a historic opportunity to rebuild relations with the most important country in the region.
The inaugural European trip of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, should be an occasion for reflection. The relationship between Europe and Egypt is one complicated by colonial history, silence on and even complicity with many of the abuses conducted by Hosni Mubarak’s regime, unease at the rise of Islamists as a dominant political power, as well as many binding cultural, economic and political ties. Mr Morsi’s visit is thus an occasion to clear the air and reset the relationship.
The basis of that relationship should be a frank and open conversation between partners with a shared interest in Egypt's stability and prosperity. Europe should make clear that it believes decisions taken by an inclusive democracy based on broad consensus and respect for each citizen’s equal rights stand the best chance of enduring to produce the stability Egypt needs to rebuild its economy.
The message is particularly timely as tear gas clears in Tunis and the families of the US ambassador to Libya and three of his staff grieve following violent protests that began in Cairo after Egyptian hosts of a religious talk show on a Saudi-owned satellite channel took exception to an amateur YouTube clip that defamed Islam.
Morsi’s visit affords an opportunity to have a quiet, frank conversation about whether he and the Muslim Brotherhood intend to cede the far right to the Salafi Nour Party, potentially alienating an important part of the president’s electoral base, including within the Brotherhood, to govern from the centre and to be a “president for all Egyptians”, as he put it in a campaign speech, or whether he will try to maintain an alliance of religious parties. The question is above all relevant as critical constitutional questions are being settled. Constitutional articles are more enduring than campaign promises.
European foreign policymakers such as French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who had the luxury of being part of a newly elected government, have expressed regret at past European complacency towards Arab dictatorships. His country, France, was alongside Italy and the United Kingdom among those who had the closest ties with Mr Mubarak and were the least inclined to take positions against the excesses of his rule. Others have expressed similar contrition, and have spoken of a need for change and even atonement, and voiced the hope of helping a fledging transition to democracy.
The question is now, as the head of state of the Arab world’s most populous and most influential country visits, what will Europe do about it?
Mr Morsi is making this trip to signal - as he recently has to GCC countries and China, and will shortly do with the United States - that Egypt needs help to get its economy back on track. Pledges from the May 2011 Deauville summit remain unfulfilled, and Europe like many potential donors (or debt-relievers) and investors has remained cautious about proceeding while chaos prevailed under the military-led transition. But that situation is changing, even if Egyptians still have some way to go, as Mr Morsi’s recent assertion of his power and the forced retirement of military leaders has shown. He and his new government are sending the message, in every way they can, that Egypt is once again open for business.
With Egypt soon set to ink a deal with the IMF, which should commit it to greater fiscal prudence in exchange for budgetary support, international donors should move to disburse their own loans and aid packages. Of course, Europe going through its own economic pain - governments may not feel so generous as they did in early 2011. Yet there is money in the pipeline - the €6.9bn earmarked for the European Neighborhood Policy for 2011-13 is one source, another are the promising infrastructure programmes envisaged under the politically damaged, but essentially sound infrastructure programs of the Union for the Mediterranean.
In addition to funds, Egyptians are also looking for a vote of confidence - trade missions to encourage investment in their country, a thumbs-up as a tourist destination, and a roadmap for greater trade integration into the eurozone, Egypt’s first export destination. There is no better way to help stabilise post-revolution Egypt than helping the new government generate jobs and growth.
A second question Europe must deal with is that Mr Morsi is an Islamist. For much of Europe’s political class - which until recently frequently backed dictators precisely because they feared their alternatives would be religious - this is a source of concern. But it is more important to see Mr Morsi as a democratically elected leader - and a politician who has pledged to be a democrat in more than a strict, majoritarian way.
In the past, Europe often bowed to the Mubarak regime’s wishes and demoted human rights concerns in its relationship with Egypt. Mr Morsi may have been democratically elected, a fact that should be celebrated. But there is no reason to give him a free pass on those issues where Europe, and many Egyptians, have concerns - today or in the future.
Finally, Europeans should be aware that as the Middle East is changing, so is Egypt’s position within it. Mr Morsi, in his early foreign policy forays, has signaled his desire for good relationships with multiple actors, moving away from the single-minded focus on the US-Egypt relationship that existed under Hosni Mubarak. His most innovative initiative thus far in regional affairs - creatinga channel, alongside Turkey and Saudi Arabia, to engage Iran on the Syrian crisis - is worth heeding.
The new Egyptian president, in other words, is not merely visiting foreign capitals to ask for help to face his country's immediate problems. He is also reforging his country’s relationship with its traditional partners. Mr Morsi now presides over a fast-changing country in a region undergoing its biggest strategic transformation in decades. To hesitate now, to play a game of wait-and-see, to hedge one’s bets — to be satisfied, as Europe has all too often been towards a part of the world with which it has rich ties, with playing second fiddle - could very well be to miss a historic opportunity.
ECFR also published a major report on EU -North Africa relations including a series of policy recommendations. Click here to download ECFR's Power Audit of EU - North Africa relations