Mursi beyond Tehran
In the Iranian capital and in Cairo, Dina Ezzat
deciphers President Mursi's Iran visit, its intentions and possible outcomes
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Mursi (r)attended the NAM summit with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and Iranian chief of Expediency Council, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in Tehran
"It is still early to talk about specifics regarding Egyptian-Iranian relations," said Yasser Ali, the Egyptian presidential spokesman.
Ali was speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly as President Mohamed Mursi was exiting the meeting room at the Tehran Conference Hall where he had conferred with his Iranian counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for around 40 minutes, following the participation of both in the opening session of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit in Tehran Thursday, whereby Mursi transferred the rotated presidency of the summit from Egypt to Iran.
According to Ali's statement to the Weekly and that of Ambassador Alaa Youssef, the head of Egypt's Interest Section in Iran, and of Ambassador Moatez Ahmadine, Egypt's permanent representative to the UN headquarters in New York, the venue of the NAM Secretariat, Mursi's brief visit to Tehran on his way back from Beijing was by and large multilateral with not much bilateral input.
"Of course, there were good exchanges of courteous statements and an emphasis by President Ahmadinejad on the respect that Iran has for Egypt and its great people, and its great [25 January] revolution. Of course Egyptian President Mursi, in turn, expressed respect for Iran and its history and its role, but we cannot say that bilateral relations were really discussed," commented an Iranian official who took part in the Mursi-Ahmadinejad encounter.
He added that eventually the time would come for that, because ultimately "what the two nations, these two great nations, have in common is much bigger than their differences."
The visit of Mursi to Tehran, which started late morning and ended early afternoon, is the first such high-level visit by an Egyptian official to Tehran after it severed its relations with Egypt in 1979 at a time of the establishment of the Islamic Republic, when refuge was offered by then Egyptian president Anwar El-Sadat to Iran's ousted Shah, and against the backdrop of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.
Since that time, relations between Cairo and Tehran went from cold to hostile. Differences between the two countries grew with the time from mere political differences over the management of the Arab-Israeli struggle to differences over the Islamist rule of Iran versus relatively secular rule in Egypt, and of Sunni versus Shia leadership in the Middle East, especially during the years of war between Iran and Iraq, then under the leadership of president Saddam Hussein, in the late 1980s.
The visit of Mursi to Tehran this week, as head of the Egyptian delegation to the NAM summit, was hoped by many to signal the end of these differences and to initiate a new rapprochement that could eventually lead to the normalisation of relations -- something that was attempted by former foreign minister Amr Moussa under the rule of Hosni Mubarak in the late 1990s, but that he did not successfully pull off, according to Egyptian diplomats, due to Mubarak's hesitation and US influence over his foreign policy choices.
None of the aspired to change happened, according to almost identical accounts offered by Egyptian and Iranian officials, during Mursi's brief visit to Tehran. Rather the contrary could well be true, some officials say.
Mursi received huge media attention upon his arrival to Imam Khomeini International Airport and upon his departure from the Tehran Conference Hall. It is also true that Mursi referred to his Iranian counterpart as "my dear brother" during the opening of the summit. Following the visit of Mursi, the Iranian president also told the Iranian official press that, "Egyptians and Iranians have so much in common."
However, beyond this symbolism there is very little to be said in terms of substance on a positive outcome of Mursi's visit to Tehran from a bilateral perspective.
Mursi was not at all sensitive, in the assessment of Iranian individuals who spoke to the Weekly in Tehran, over Shia reluctance to the mention of some of the Prophet Mohamed's associates in his ultra-Islamic greeting at the beginning of what was otherwise a political speech in the opening of the NAM summit.
"May God's peace and prayers be upon the Prophet Mohamed and his sahabah (close associates) Abu Bakr, Omar, Othman and Ali and that of the Holy Family of the Prophet," Mursi said at the onset of his speech.
While the mention of the last, Ali and the Holy Family of the Prophet, falls squarely within the bounds of predominantly Shia Iran appreciation, the reference to the first three is all but a taboo according to the Shia sect.
According to one of Mursi's aides, the reference in its totality was designed to indicate the need to go beyond the barriers of division in Muslim history between those that Shias appreciate and those appreciated by Sunnis, the predominant Muslim sect in Egypt.
This might have been the intention, but Mursi's interlocutors were certainly offended. According to one Iranian official who asked not to be named, this introductory paragraph in the speech of Mursi acted as a reminder of statements that the Egyptian president had earlier made in Saudi Arabia where he spoke in an untypical fashion for an Egyptian head of state on Egyptian-Saudi determination to defend the Sunni sect.
According to an Egyptian diplomat who accompanied Mursi during the visit to Saudi Arabia in early July, that Sunni emphasis "came out of nowhere" and it was not introduced or advised by diplomatic aides to the president, nor had it ever been part of Egyptian political jargon.
"I remember back in 2004 when [ousted president] Mubarak made a reference in a TV interview to the attempt of Iranian Shias to get in alliance with the Shia majority in Iraq, the [Egyptian] Foreign Ministry strongly advised against this line. Egypt does not identify itself as a Sunni state but as a leading Arab Muslim state," the diplomat said.
The ultra-Muslim stance and specific Sunni identification that Mursi seemed to be proposing in his speech before NAM was not just offending to the Iranians. It was also perceived as unfortunate back home in Egypt.
"This is a really disturbing remark," suggested Amin Iskandar, a Nasserist politician and member of the Arab Affairs Committee in the dissolved People's Assembly.
"The introduction of Mursi's speech is not becoming of that of the president of Egypt. Why talk about Sunni versus Shia matters in the onset of a political speech before an international organisation? What was the purpose? Was Mursi trying to reposition Egypt as an Islamist state now?" asked Iskandar.
He added: "Egypt had never been trapped in the Sunni-Shia polarisation game and it should not be doing so today, and not ever, because that goes against its regional leadership interests and consequently against its national security interests."
For his part, prominent political scientist and commentator Amr El-Shobaki, who generally held a positive view of Mursi's trip to Iran, argued that the Sunni versus Shia component in the speech before NAM was uncalled for and unfortunate.
"Egypt is not a radical Sunni state; Egypt is a state of a very moderate Sunni majority that has an affinity to the Holy Family and has as such a very unique nature to its Sunni Islam. Egypt through Al-Azhar University has always played a leading role in bridging the gap between Sunnis and Shias and it should not be abandoning this crucial mission, which is not only religious but indeed cultural and strategic," El-Shobaki added.
If some were offended by the Sunni aspect in Mursi's speech, others were perturbed by what they qualified as the "Muslim Brotherhood policy line" they said Mursi put across in the speech.
"When the Egyptian president spoke against Damascus he was, I am afraid, reflecting his perspective as a leading Muslim Brotherhood figure and not as that of the president of what is supposed to be a leading Arab state," commented Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallim, who headed the delegation of his country to the NAM summit.
In his speech, Mursi crossed borders he had personally embraced with regards to the Egyptian position on the Syrian file. Mursi used to speak of the need for the legitimate demands of the Syrian people for democratisation to be observed and for bloodshed to come to an end. In Tehran, the Egyptian president surprised his hosts, the closest regional allies to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, with an unprecedented attack on the Syrian regime for its actions during 18-month plus protests-turned-armed confrontations.
Mursi qualified the Al-Assad regime as an "oppressive regime" and insisted that it had "lost legitimacy". Indeed, the president equated the Syrian people under Al-Assad with the Palestinian people under Israeli occupation.
"This was the talk of a member of the Muslim Brotherhood," restated Al-Muallim.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria are particularly active within the ranks of an otherwise diversified Syrian opposition that emerged in March 2011 demonstrations to end the rule of the Alawite minority, a Shia offshoot, that has headed Syria from the 1970s until today.
Iskandar too was critical of what he qualified as Muslim Brotherhood influence over the position that Mursi expressed with regards to Syria. "We are all appreciative of the legitimate and overdue demand of the Syrians for democracy. There are no two ways about it. However, it is impossible for anyone to equate the regime of Al-Assad, despite the horrid bloodshed in Syria, with the Israeli occupation of Palestine," Iskandar said.
According to Iskandar, "had Mursi been really concerned about the call for freedom and democracy he should have also made a reference to the call for democracy in Bahrain," where the Shia majority has for over a year been protesting against persecution at the hands of Sunni minority rule.
"For Mursi, it is not a matter of defending freedom but rather a matter of defending the Muslim Brotherhood perspective and associations," Iskandar suggested. He added that this line is compatible with the foreign policy agenda of Qatar, "that has an increasing influence over Egyptian foreign policy," adding that "Qatar is a regional proxy for the US."
During his visit to Tehran, President Mursi had a brief encounter with the emir of Qatar who had just visited Egypt mid-August. "The Qataris are opposed to the regime of Al-Assad, but not to the persecution of Shia in Bahrain, and Mursi spoke about Syria under the pretext of defending freedoms but completely dropped Bahrain," Iskandar criticised.
Indeed, the Iranian interpreter who was translating Mursi's speech into Persian was said, according to Iranian journalists, to have played around with his translation. In converting Mursi's speech into Persian, the Iranian interpreter pinned the attack made by the Egyptian president on the Bahraini rather than the Syrian regime.
Nonetheless, many Egyptian politicians and commentators had a positive reaction to Mursi's statements on Syria. "It was an overdue support," El-Shobaki said.
According to El-Shobaki, it is reductionist to suggest that the Egyptian position expressed by Mursi in Tehran is an outcome of Qatari influence over Egyptian foreign policy. "This is absolutely exaggerated," he said. El-Shobaki made reference to the criticism that the majority of Egyptian political quarters expressed against what they qualified as Mursi's "hesitant and flat positions on Syria".
"In Tehran, the president should have acknowledged the Bahraini call for democracy, but his failure to do so does not mean that he should have also overlooked a very bloody situation in Syria, especially that the support for the Syrian revolution is widely sensed not just in Egyptian political circles but indeed in the Egyptian street," El-Shobaki suggested.
According to Amr Ramadan, deputy assistant foreign minister, Mursi had already called for a political end to the crisis in Syria. During his participation in the extraordinary summit of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) held two weeks ago in Mecca, at the invitation of the Saudi monarch, Mursi called for the launch of a working group of the OIC to help find resolution to the situation in Syria.
In Tehran, on Thursday, and Friday when the summit closed, Ramadan added, Egypt was supportive of a resolution that the NAM meeting adopted to welcome the mission of the new UN-Arab League envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi.
"What we opposed was an Iranian proposal to start a NAM working group on Syria, and our rationale there was simple: there are already several mechanisms and what is needed now is the coordination of efforts rather than the launch of a parallel mediation process," Ramadan suggested.
At the end of the day, both Ramadan and El-Shobaki agree that what Mursi did in essence with his remarks in Syria during the NAM summit was to substantiate Egypt's commitment to take a clear stance on the matter.
Indeed, in the analysis of El-Shobaki, the clear outcome of the Mursi visit to Tehran is the re-launching of Egyptian foreign policy.
Mursi in his speech also departed from the traditional reconciliatory line that Egypt had for the past 10 years embraced on the Palestinian cause. The president voiced direct and untypical criticism of Israel and highlighted previously overlooked matters, like the fate of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.
"This file is a crucial matter on the agenda of NAM. It had received much attention during the Egyptian presidency of the NAM summit and it is recommended as a priority issue in the transfer report that Egypt made during the handover of the presidency of the summit," Ramadan argued.
Moreover, the NAM summit made a commitment to support the diplomatic and political attempts to get Palestine permanent and full membership in the UN, in view of the failure of the so-called "peace process" to lead to a Palestinian state.
"Of course this mobilisation, in which Egypt is playing a key role, is not at all to the liking of the Israelis and they are endlessly complaining about it," the same diplomat suggested.
Egyptian diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity said that the mere participation of Mursi in a Tehran-hosted summit is in itself a clear message to Israel that Egypt is no longer hostage to what makes Israel comfortable or not.
"We were told clearly that the Israelis are feeling very apprehensive about this visit, even when they knew that it was not designed to re-launch diplomatic relations immediately," said one diplomat.
Alarm against Mursi's visit to Tehran was sounded also in Washington. "There was much pressure, but it was declined," the same diplomat added.
According to Ramadan, the decision of Egypt to participate at this high level was made in view of the reclaimed attention that Egypt is giving to its role in the Third World.
"In a sense, the decision was made irrespective of the venue of the summit. NAM might not be making as much commotion as it used to during the heydays when it was first launched with the support, and indeed initiative, of [late president Gamal] Abdel-Nasser in the 1950s, but ultimately it is a grouping that brings together about two thirds of UN member states," Ramadan said.
He added that the issues on the agenda of NAM, which range from international conflicts to disarmament and economic and environmental cooperation, fall squarely within the list of priorities of Egyptian foreign policy.
And the fact that Mursi went to Tehran, El-Shobaki argued, opens a new phase of Egyptian foreign policy by which Egypt would not restrict itself to communication with the countries it sees eye-to-eye with.
"The president went to Tehran in a positive sign of goodwill. But while there he did not shy away from expressing disagreements between Cairo and Tehran. This is the way things should be," El-Shobaki said.
The shaking and remaking of Egyptian foreign policy seems to be a priority for Mursi. The president, who repeatedly committed to observe the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel and who is as yet acting in line with the close alliance between Cairo and Washington, is venturing into a wider spectrum and a more diversified sphere of communication.
Ahead of his short and controversial visit to Tehran, Mursi had been in Beijing. For October, he is planning visits to Malaysia and Indonesia, whose vice president he met while in Tehran. He is also considering a trip to Brazil and Chile, which will possibly come in the wake of his visit to New York during the last week of this month to head the Egyptian delegation to the UN General Assembly.
The South America and Asian trips are in parallel with plans to visit European capitals that Egypt keeps in close relation with.
"If Egypt is aiming to reassume its leadership it needs to take clear positions on key matters and to widen its scope of foreign policy engagement. I think Mursi is attempting to do both," El-Shobaki concluded.