Egypt's New President Likely to Befriend Iran

Egypt's new president will seek closer ties with Iran, but only to balance American power.

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Egypt's new Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated president likely will implement a foreign policy that is more independent—and less in line with U.S. whims, experts say.

Mohammed Morsi was named the winner of the hotly contested presidential election Saturday. He vowed in a speech to be the leader of "all Egyptians," but recent restrictions placed on the presidency by the ruling military raise questions about Morsi's actual power.

The president-elect and the military are expected to both play a major role in the north African country's foreign and military policies. And while experts forecast some disagreements, they see a changed Cairo more willing to go its way on foreign policy issues, especially in its own backyard.

"Morsi has said he would like more strategic balance in region, and that means normalizing relations with Iran," says Jeffrey Martini, a Middle East specialist at the Rand Corp. "The read is all Egyptians ... no longer want to be a dependent of the U.S."

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Drawing closer to Tehran, a top enemy of Washington and Tel Aviv, however, does not mean Morsi will be flying to the Iranian capital any time soon to embrace the defiant Middle Eastern nation's leaders.

"He will reach out to Iran. But I don't see Egypt becoming a major ally of Iran," says Martini. "Morsi also will reach out to Turkey and others in the region. ... But, yes, he'll want Tehran as a counter-balance to Washington."

In Washington, lawmakers in both parties have expressed fear that with the Islamic group in power, a longtime U.S. ally in the world's toughest neighborhood could be lost.

Some U.S. lawmakers and officials worry the Brotherhood, which has had strained relations with Washington for decades, will turn Egypt into a fully Islamic state based on a strict version of sharia that is hostile to American and Western whims. Because Egypt is considered by many the heart of the Islamic world, the fear is other Middle Eastern and North African nations might follow suit.

They also fear a Brotherhood-led government would throw out peace treaties with Israel, or even goad the Jewish state into a war.

But Martini says had the military-backed candidate—former leftist prime minister Ahmed Shafiq—become president, "it would have been much worse for the U.S. ... because you'd be looking at a total return to Mubarak."

Shafiq was a close aid to longtime Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak, who was forced from office last year when Egyptian citizens revolted in a spate of public demonstrations.

There are still major questions about Morsi's staying power.

The Egyptian president-to-be faces challenges from high unemployment to a lagging agriculture sector to a flawed education system to a historically corrupt government that struggles to provide basic services.

"The odds are overwhelming that the current military and Muslim Brotherhood leadership will not be around in five years time unless there is a military coup," says Center for Strategic and International Studies analyst Anthony Cordesman. "Several political transitions likely will play out over the next decade until a regime experienced enough and capable enough comes in."

In the meantime, the Obama administration says it will work with all of Egypt's power players to craft the post-Mubarak path.

"We look forward to working together with President-elect Morsi and the government he forms, on the basis of mutual respect, to advance the many shared interests between Egypt and the United States," the White House said in a statement. "We believe that it is important for President-elect Morsi to take steps at this historic time to advance national unity by reaching out to all parties and constituencies in consultations about the formation of a new government."

The White House also sent a signal that it believes Cairo remains a major player in the Middle East.

"We believe it is essential for the Egyptian government to continue to fulfill Egypt's role as a pillar of regional peace, security and stability," the White House said. "And we will stand with the Egyptian people as they pursue their aspirations for democracy, dignity, and opportunity, and fulfill the promise of their revolution."