Al-Ahram Weekly Online   14 - 20 October 2010
Issue No. 1019
Sky High
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Business talks, politics follow

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For three decades Egypt and Iran have failed to ease tense relations. Now, they are close to succeeding, at least in the sky, reports Amirah Ibrahim .

Iran and Egypt, two countries which for long have been openly hostile to each other, made a surprise agreement to resume direct flights for the first time since 1979.

Ten days ago, an Egyptian airplane landed at Tehran airport for the first time after 30 years when all flights were suspended. On board the Egyptian aircraft, operated by Smart Aviation, was an Iranian delegation headed by Hameed Baqaai, a top aid of President Mahmoud Ahamdinejad.

Iran Aviation Authority Deputy Hameed Ghawabish joined the delegation in a mission aimed at resuming regular flights between Cairo and Tehran.

Iranian civil aviation and tourism officials were invited by Egyptian Aviation Minister Ahmad Shafiq who himself welcomed the delegation at Cairo International Airport. After two days of discussions, authorities of both countries signed a MOU to begin 28 weekly flights between the two countries but did not specify a start date.

"The deal paves the way to expand cooperation between private sectors in both countries particularly in the fields of our aviation industries, tourism and economic affairs," commented Baqaai. The MOU also enabled Egyptian and Iranian airlines to carry out required commercial arrangements such as code share agreements so that to boost air transport business between the two countries.

Direct flights between the two countries stopped in 1979, when Tehran severed ties because Egypt made peace with Israel and gave asylum to the Shah deposed in the Islamic Revolution.

Ever since, Iran has had an uneasy relationship with Egypt as well as many Arab nations, which now are concerned about Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

The head of the Egyptian Civil Aviation Authority Sameh Al-Hafni said that according to the recent agreement, weekly flights will be shared by Iranian and Egyptian airlines, each side operating 14 flights weekly. Al-Hafni told Al-Ahram Weekly that both parties have not yet officially assigned the airlines from each country that will operate the new service under the recent agreement.

Egyptian Mission, a private airline owned by Egyptian-Lebanese billionaire Rami Lakah, will carry travellers between the capitals of the two countries at the beginning. Lakah announced the deal two days before it was officially announced. He also explained that his company signed a contract with Iranian airline Kish Air to share operation on the new route for eight years.

Many observers see the deal as part of increased commercial dealings between the two countries, but so far, it has not translated into renewal of diplomatic relations between them.

Egypt has demanded that Iran take down a large mural in Tehran of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's assassin, Khaled El-Islambouli, and change the name of a street honouring him.

Iran's pro-government Fars news agency described the deal and a visit by an Iranian trade delegation to Cairo as "a prelude to the resumption of ties between the two countries". The Egyptian Foreign Ministry was cautious about the Iranian leaks, as spokesman Hossam Zaki insisted that the aviation accord would boost current economic relations between the two countries, 'but when it comes to politics, there are many conditions to be fulfilled.'

Questions rose over whether the Egyptian government had considered the reaction of Washington. It took the US State Department five days to react. On Thursday it made a statement calling up on Egypt not to engage in business with Iran. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in Washington that all nations intending to start trade ties with Iran should first ensure that the Islamic Republic fulfills its nuclear obligations. "We continue to urge all countries, including Egypt, not to pursue any new business deals until Iran complies with its international obligations," said Toner.

The accord coincided with the arrival of an Iranian delegation attending a World Health Organisation conference in Cairo, and appeared to be part of a $1.37 billion deal recently announced between Egyptian tycoon Rami Lakah and Iran's privately owned Kish Airlines, which now operates flights primarily between the Persian Gulf and Tehran.

The national carrier EgyptAir, which as a state owned carrier is usually assigned by aviation authorities as an official carrier, said it would study the feasibility of flights to Tehran before deciding whether to serve the new route or not.

"There could be a remarkable increase in tourism and commercial activities between Egypt and Iran. We will request information from concerned bodies to study and consider if the traffic needs regular flights, as we only operate as a regular carrier," explained Hussein Massoud, EgyptAir Chairman and CEO.

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