Momentous journey

Print edition : March 08, 2013

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (centre) at the Sayyida Zeinab mosque in Cairo on February 5. Photo: KHALED DESOUKI/AFP

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas with Ahmadinejad on the sidelines of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation summit in Cairo on February 6. Photo: ABBAS MOMANI/AFP

Ahmadinejad with Grand Sheik Ahmed El-Tayeb, the head of Al Azhar, the seat of Islamic learning, in Cairo. Photo: Amr Nabil/AP

Egyptian and Syrian Sunni protesters in Cairo shouting slogans against Ahmadinejad. Photo: Khalil Hamra/AP

Presidents Mohamed Morsy and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad upon the latter's arrival in Cairo on February 5. Photo: AFP

The fact that an Iranian President was in Cairo after 34 acrimonious years imparts a sense of history and drama to Ahmadinejad’s visit.

IN tune with the region’s profound transformation, Egypt and Iran, estranged for 34 years, have decided to court each other openly. A fresh urgency to bond with Iran was demonstrated by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy, himself the product of a revolution that brought down an encrusted three-decade-old autocracy: he broke protocol to receive at Cairo airport Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad’s arrival for a summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) was full of symbolism as he became the first Iranian President to touch down on Egyptian soil after the 1979 Islamic revolution.

This was not the first occasion when the two heads of state had met. Iran received the Egyptian President in Tehran last year during the course of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit, an occasion when Iran exploded the myth that it had become globally isolated. Nevertheless, the second meeting between the two in a space of less than six months has conveyed the unambiguous impression that the two countries want to rebuild their broken relationship fast. The presence in Cairo of an Iranian President after 34 acrimonious years also imparted a sense of history and drama to the occasion.

The visit began on a positive note. The Iranian President arrived armed with a message that the time had come to heal the rift between Sunnis and Shias, the two major sects of Islam. Some observers in Egypt are of the view that the current Egyptian government is keen to elevate the status of Al Azhar, the 1,000-year-old seat of Islamic learning, to that of an authoritative voice of Sunnis, along the lines of the ecumenical status of the Vatican. Just as the primacy of Iran’s leadership is accepted by many Shias.

Ahmadinejad also saw the visit in clear geopolitical light: Egypt and Iran together could become game-changers in resolving the region’s painful and enduring crises in Syria and Palestine. In an interview with the Lebanese satellite channel Al Mayadeen ahead of his arrival, Ahmadinejad slammed the Sunni-Shia rift as the result of a “colonial plot”. He also asserted that Iran and Egypt should work together to “liberate Palestine entirely”.

Speaking to the media before departing for Cairo, Ahmadinejad said that Iran and Egypt, two countries with “distinguished standing” at the international level, should arrive at a consensus on regional issues in view of the “fundamental changes” sweeping across West Asia. Mojtaba Amani, head of Iran’s interest section in Egypt, pitched in by saying that Tehran was willing to hold consultations with Cairo for a political settlement of the Syrian crisis.

“Syria is a common topic of discussions between Tehran and Cairo; no date has been fixed for a trilateral or quadrilateral meeting on Syria, but Iran is committed to continuing consultations with Cairo based on President Morsy’s initiative for resolving the Syrian crisis,” said Amani, as quoted by Iran’s Fars News Agency.

Egypt had earlier initiated the formation of a regional contact group on Syria, which included Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, to find a political solution to the Syrian crisis.

Sections of the Iranian media elevated the relevance of Ahmadinejad’s visit to Cairo. Not only did he represent Iran; Ahmadinejad was at the OIC in his capacity as the current chairman of NAM, a grouping of more than hundred countries.

Balancing act

Despite the richness of symbolism in according Ahmadinejad a warm welcome, the demands of realpolitik seemed to have forced the Egyptian leadership to perform an extraordinary balancing act. As it reached out to Iran, Egypt’s leadership, as the country is dependent on foreign aid, also began to send the right signals of continuity to Tehran’s foes in the oil-rich Gulf.

Not for a moment did Ahmadinejad’s hosts forget the larger context of the presidential visit—a raging cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia that has involved several countries, including Syria and Bahrain, and inflamed the sectarian divide in the region.

Unsurprisingly, Kamel Amr, the Foreign Minister of aid-dependent Egypt, sought to reassure the wealthy royals of the Gulf about the benign intentions of the visit, soon after Ahmadinejad’s plane touched down in Cairo. “The security of the Gulf states is the security of Egypt,” said Amr, as reported by Egypt’s official MENA news agency.

The rift between Iran and the Gulf heavyweights was also reflected in the remarks by Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayeb, the head of Al Azhar—the iconic institution that the Iranian President visited soon after his arrival. During talks with Ahmadinejad, Sheikh El-Tayeb urged Iran not to interfere in the Gulf Arab states, including Bahrain.

The remarks by the Grand Imam were somewhat ironic as Bahraini activists have faced brutal repression after forces drawn from the Gulf countries, led by Saudi Arabia, suppressed a pro-democracy revolt in the country with a majority Shia population. Sheikh El-Tayeb also rejected the extension of Shia influence in countries with a majority Sunni population.

Speaking in the presence of Ahmadinejad, senior Al-Azhar cleric Hassan al-Shafie alluded to the fundamental reason for the Sunni-Shia rift—the perception among Shias that after his death, the Prophet Muhammad’s companions denied their leader, Imam Ali Ibn Abi Taleb, succession to the Caliphate. He accused “some Shias” for speaking poorly about the Prophet’s companions.

Some of the strongest voices of opposition to Ahmadinejad’s visit came from the Salafist groups, influenced by the puritan Wahhabi doctrine, which is widely followed in Saudi Arabia.

The Egyptian group Salafist Call issued a statement slamming the spread of “Shia influence on Sunni Egypt”. “He [Ahmadinejad] must not forget that one of Egypt’s global commitments and [part of] President Morsy’s presidential programme is to protect all Sunni nations from political, cultural or military penetration,” it observed.

The group also took on the Iranian leader for Tehran’s support to the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. It stressed that Ahmadinejad must be “confronted with his responsibility regarding the killing of women and children in Syria through his backing of the regime of Bashar al-Assad”. The group echoed the general refrain about ensuring the stability of the Gulf by warning Ahmadinejad not to forget that “the security of the Gulf is one of the main pillars of Egyptian national security”.

The group went on to demand that Ahmadinejad must not be allowed to visit any places or mosques in Egypt that, in its view, are supposedly affiliated with the Shia doctrine.

Nevertheless, Ahmadinejad visited the tomb of Sayyida Zeinab, the daughter of Imam Ali Ibn Abi Taleb, the central figure of Shia Islam and the cousin of the Prophet Muhammad.

Last November, the Salafists had managed to bar a number of Shias from entering the Al-Hussein mosque in Cairo to observe the Shia holiday of Ashura commemorating the killing of Imam Hussein, the Prophet’s grandson. Contrary to the Egyptian clergy’s focus on the demarcation of sectarian boundaries, the Iranian side highlighted the visit as a fresh opening for a major geopolitical accomplishment. “From a historical standpoint, in case Iran and Egypt stay together, both will emerge winners and that would benefit not only the two nations, but also the entire region,” said Ahmadinejad, as reported by Iran’s English language Press TV.

The visiting President went further to say that the time for a strategic partnership between Iran and Egypt had arrived. “We must all understand that the only option is to set up this alliance because it is in the interests of the Egyptian and Iranian peoples and other nations of the region,” the MENA news agency quoted him as telling Egyptian journalists.

During the visit, Ahmadinejad took the big step of reaching out to the Egyptian people by proposing visa-free travel into Iran. Iran’s Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, announced the decision that Egyptian tourists and businessmen would no longer require visas to enter Iran. “Every day we are taking steps forward,” he said, pointing to the turnaround in the relations following the Egyptian revolution. Aware of Egypt’s critical economic dependence on the Gulf countries and the political compromises that it enforces, the Iranian President offered Egypt a “big credit line” to help revive its distressed economy. Iran’s Minister of Economy and Commerce, who was part of the visiting delegation, stressed that the annual $100-million trade between the two countries was peanuts compared to the economic potential of the two regional heavyweights. He added that Egypt could use the credit line to buy goods and services from Iran.

The Syrian conflict

The Iranian President also called for joint efforts by Tehran and Cairo to resolve the festering crisis in Syria. He substantiated his advocacy by holding talks with his Egyptian counterpart and the Turkish President, Abdullah Gul, on the sidelines of the OIC summit. Iran’s Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) has reported that Foreign Ministers of the three countries will now hold a series of meetings to convey the essence of their deliberations to the authorities in Syria so that bloodshed in the beleaguered country can be brought to an end.

The trilateral meeting in Cairo was the result of an initiative taken by Egypt during a previous OIC meeting in August last, where President Morsy had called for the formation of a contact group on Syria comprising Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran.

However, the depth of the cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia appeared to have dissuaded Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz, Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Prime Minister who was present in Cairo, from discussing with Tehran ways to resolve the Syrian conflict.

According to reports by Iran’s Press TV, Iran has proposed a six-point plan, which has a strong humanitarian component. It calls for sending humanitarian supplies after the fighting stops, followed by the lifting of economic sanctions against Syria and the return of refugees to their homes.

As he engaged with layers of Egypt’s political and religious elite, Ahmadinejad also attempted to shed some of the historical baggage that had accumulated and overburdened the relationship during the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak. Egypt’s decision to first give asylum and then a state funeral to the Shah Reza Pahlavi had for decades invoked revolutionary Iran’s fury. On their part the Egyptians were piqued by Iran’s decision to name a street in Tehran after the assassin of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. The signing of the 1979 peace treaty by Egypt with Israel has also been an enduring cause of animosity between the two countries.

By according a high-profile welcome to Ahmadinejad, the embattled Egyptian President has taken a big gamble. His ability to engage purposefully with the Gulf countries—the destination of a stream of revenue-earning Egyptian workers—and the United States, while maintaining his country’s closer relationship with Iran, will now be on test.

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