Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 October 2012
Issue No. 1117
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Cairo-Tehran: a love/hate relationship

Egyptian-Iranian relations have been slowly developing, but this in itself may not guarantee normalisation, writes Dina Ezzat

Click to view caption
In Tehran last month, Mursi, left, and Ahmadinejad; The historic wedding of princess Fawzeya, the sister of Egypt's last monarch king Farouk, and Mohamed Reza Phlavi, to her left, who was shah in waiting in 1939

In Cairo last week, a senior security officer issued an Egyptian entry visa to an Iranian for three weeks in order to allow him to marry the Egyptian woman who had accepted his proposal of marriage.

However, the officer's agreement to issue the visa, according to official sources who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly, is only the first of three other agreements that have to be issued by three other security bodies before the visa is actually issued, most likely in two weeks, by the Egyptian interest sections in Tehran.

This would allow the visit to take place and the marriage to be officially registered in Egypt in a civil ceremony that could be supplemented with another religious ceremony at Al-Azhar, the only body in the predominantly, or almost exclusively, Sunni Muslim country of Egypt that acknowledges the Shia sect of Islam that is followed by the vast majority of Iranians, including the future groom.

"We do not really encourage mixed Egyptian-Iranian marriages, especially in view of the long-severed relations between the two countries, and also in view of our mutual apprehension -- that is, the apprehension we share with the Iranians," said an official who spoke to the Weekly on condition of anonymity.

The official does not know how many Egyptian-Iranian marriages there have been. "Not so many," he said. Some of the married couples live in Egypt, while others live overseas and some live in Iran.

The most famous of all Egyptian-Iranian marriages was the one that brought together princess, later empress, Fawzeya, the sister of Egypt's last monarch king Farouk, and the future shah of Iran.

At the hands of no less a person than the grand sheikh of Al-Azhar, Mustafa Al-Maraghi, the marriage took place in 1939 when Mohamed Reza Pahlavi was still the shah in waiting. It was designed, according to books by Karim Thabet and Samir Farag, to affirm the regional influence of Egypt under the rule of Farouk.

However, what was generally believed to be a happy marriage was ended a few years later on Farouk's volition, who wanted an event to help cover up a divorce he was going through with his first wife queen Farida.

According to Thabet and Farag's accounts, Farouk was well aware that the divorce, promoted against the will of Fawzeya and the shah, would have a negative effect on the relations between the two countries, but he decided that having his sister's divorce from the shah announced along with his own divorce from queen Farida "was more important than Egypt's relations with Iran".

The decree of the shah that announced the divorce from Fawzeya avoided severing bilateral relations between the two countries, something the ambassadors of Egypt and Iran at the time had anticipated.

"This divorce will not undermine relations between Egypt and Iran, which will continue to flourish," read the decree.

MEMORIES OF EGYPT: "This square has been called Imam Hussein Square since the [Iranian] revolution, but before that it was called Fawzeya Square, after the beautiful Egyptian princess who married the shah," said Ali, a Tehran taxi driver.

During the good old days, according to the testimony of this 56-year-old taxi driver, the square had been part of a middle-class residential neighbourhood. After the revolution in 1979, the neighbourhood turned into one for the less-privileged classes.

For Ali, the fact that the shah kept the square in the name of his first wife was proof of his love for her and his appreciation of Egypt. "We Iranians love Egypt. We would love to go to see the Pyramids and go to Alexandria, and also of course visit the mosques of Imam Hussein and Sayeda Zeinab in Cairo," Ali said.

This taxi driver was convinced that sooner or later the visit of Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi to Iran last August as head of the Egyptian delegation to the Non-Aligned Movement summit hosted in Tehran would allow for the resumption of good relations.

After all, he argued, this was the first time that an Egyptian president had visited Iran "since the days of [former president Anwar] El-Sadat, who used to come here quite frequently. He was friends with the shah," Ali said.

Relations between Egypt and Iran were severed by Tehran over 30 years ago when Egypt under the presidency of Sadat offered asylum to the ousted shah of Iran, who had been refused permission to stay in almost every country in the wake of the Islamic Revolution in Iran.

The shah was removed on 11 February 1979, 32 years to the day before the 25 January Revolution that removed former president Hosni Mubarak, Sadat's successor, whose three decades in office were marked by an unmasked sense of hostility towards Iran, despite occasional acts of cooperation. In the early 1990s, for example, Egypt and Iran made a joint call to rid the Middle East of arms of mass destruction.

"During the years of president Mubarak, there were several attempts to resume relations. We offered our good intentions, but the president of Egypt was not ready, mainly due to his commitments within the parameters of American foreign policy that aimed to isolate Iran," said one Iranian diplomat who asked for his name to be withheld.

Also speaking on condition of anonymity, an Egyptian diplomat who has worked on Egyptian-Iranian relations confirmed that the Iranians had made several gestures towards Egypt during the Mubarak years, and "they seemed keen to resume diplomatic relations, even if this would not necessarily yield any very active engagement and would be confined to symbolic matters only."

In 2004, Mohamed Abtahi, a vice for reformist Iranian president Mohamed Khatami, announced that a meeting between the leaders of Iran and Egypt in Geneva would open the door for the resumption of full diplomatic relations between the two countries.

The announcement, according to the same Iranian diplomat, was made with the endorsement of the then Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Maher.

A meeting between Mubarak and Khatami did take place, and though it was cordial no announcement on bilateral relations was made. "Omar Suleiman intervened with Mubarak at the last minute, and we all know that Mubarak always gave priority to the words of his security advisors," the diplomat said.

Suleiman, then chief of General Intelligence and effectively Mubarak's right-hand man, was opposed to the resumption of relations between the two countries.

RELATIONS UNRESUMED: Suleiman's concerns were many. The number one concern, according to an aide who still serves in the intelligence service, was that Egypt was a predominantly Sunni country with a limited and generally not well-treated Shia minority, and the resumption of relations between Egypt and Iran could increase the demands of these Shia citizens for equal rights.

Worse from the intelligence perspective was the fact that the resumption of Egyptian-Iranian relations could help increase the number of Egyptian Shias, who had already been subject to limited increases due to the then anticipated migration of Iraqi Shias and Sunnis fleeing from their conflict-struck country.

"This was a very valid concern, because as expected many Iraqis came to seek refuge in Egypt, especially from 2005 to 2008. We were issuing visas to Sunnis, but given the mixed nature of many Iraqi marriages there are now many Iraqi Shias in Egypt as well," said the same intelligence source.

According to the source, the expansion of the number of Shias in Egypt could lead to an increase in the Iranian influence in Egypt, which would be "a red line, a real red line".

"Look at the Iranian influence in Iraq [a Shia majority country] and Lebanon [a country with a considerable Shia population]. They are battlefields for Iranian interests. Does anyone want Egypt to become like that," he asked.

It was none other than the Egyptian intelligence service that decided in the spring of 2011, only a few days after the then foreign minister Nabil Al-Arabi announced Egypt's intention to consider the resumption of relations with Iran, that it was decided to arrest and deport an Iranian diplomat who had been accused of espionage.

At the time, some informed sources suggested that the move, approved by the transitional ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), was the outcome of an agreement among several Arab Gulf countries to drop plans to resume relations with Iran by these countries, Sunni-ruled despite the strong presence of Shia minorities in some and majorities in others.

According to statements by President Mursi, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, a country that has a 20 per cent Shia population, were allies in defending Sunni Islam in the region.

During a first-ever televised presidential debate last May between the then top presidential runners Amr Moussa and Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, the two candidates stated that should they be elected resuming Egypt's relations with Iran would be a priority.

Abul-Fotouh, then lobbying for the support of the largely Saudi-sponsored Egyptian Salafis, carefully added that good relations between Egypt and Iran would not allow for the expansion of Shias in Egypt.

A HISTORICAL LEGACY: For two centuries, from 969 to 1171 CE, Egypt was a Sunni-turned-Shia country under the rule of the Fatimids, a clan that had originated in Tunisia and expanded across North Africa before reaching Egypt. Fatimid rule was only ended in Egypt by Salaheddin Al-Ayoubi (Saladin), who forcefully took Egypt back to the Sunni path in the late 12th century.

However, there is still a Fatimid legacy in Egypt today, especially in relation to religious festivities. The Ramadan lantern and the feast cookies, sugar dolls and horses for the celebration of the birth of the Prophet Mohamed are all the cultural legacy of the Fatimids.

Some gems of Islamic Cairo were also built by the Fatimid rulers. The Al-Azhar Mosque was built only a year after the establishment of Fatimid rule in Cairo, with an eye on facilitating access among Egyptians to Shia Islam.

Today, Al-Azhar largely teaches Sunni theology and allows only a tiny part of its offerings to Shia Islam. "This makes the role of Al-Azhar crucial to decades of sensitivities between Sunnis and Shias," commented Abdallah Al-Kemmi, secretary-general of the Sunni-Shia Rapprochement Centre (SSRC) in Cairo.

The SSRC was established in the mid-1940s by Shia and Sunni clergymen from Egypt, Iran, Iraq and Lebanon with the direct participation of Al-Azhar. Al-Kemmi is proud of a photograph showing his father Mohamed Al-Kemmi with Hassan Al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, the organisation to which President Mursi belongs, and the grand sheikh of Al-Azhar at the time.

"That was the spirit of those days, and it is this spirit of communication that we need to regain today through cultural as well as religious dialogue," Al-Kemmi said.

According to Al-Kemmi, what Sunnis and Shias have in common goes way beyond what they disagree about, both in the religious and cultural senses. "I cannot deny that there is a wall there, but it is a wall that could be demolished or at least reduced significantly if both sides decided to work on the matter in good faith," he said.

The normalisation of relations between Iran and Egypt, according to Al-Kemmi, possible "when both countries decide it fit and suitable for their respective interests", could help reduce the apprehension that exists between Sunnis and Shias in the Middle East.

"However, this is not the only factor." According to Al-Kemmi, other priorities include mutual acceptance and accommodation. For example, the fuss that some Shias make over their desire to build Shia-designed mosques (Husseiniyat) in Egypt, when they know that the Egyptian government is at least uncomfortable with this, is "uncalled for", Al-Kemmi said and could be remedied.

"There is not that much of a difference between a Sunni mosque and a Shia mosque, and people could pray in any mosque," he argued.

However, the issues go beyond the call to build mosques in the Shia style. For Ismail, a 31-year-old Egyptian Shia, "the very fact that I was born Shia is an issue in Egypt. I am constantly looked at with suspicion for reasons I don't know by people who qualify me as Shia and not just as Muslim," he said.

Ismail is not a particularly practising Muslim, but he says that in Egypt people think that he carries what he qualifies as "the stigma of being a Shia".

A FUTURE RAPPROCHEMENT? The link between Shias in the Arab world and Iran is not as firm as some Arab rulers, apparently including Mursi and his predecessor Mubarak, tend to believe.

Ali, a 55-year-old Iraqi Shia refugee in Egypt, says that he fought in his country's war against Iran under the rule of ousted former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in the 1980s.

"I was a soldier in the army, so I had no choice. But when I went to war, I was not thinking I was fighting fellow Shias. I just thought Iraq was in a war with Iran," Ali said.

In the 6 October district of Cairo where he now lives, Ali has no Egyptian Shia friends. "I don't know of any Egyptian Shias, and to be honest I don't want to know because it could cause me a great deal of problems," he said.

According to Ismail, a Shia citizen in Egypt could be subject to the security's "queries and impositions. I guess it is easier to be a Copt," he said. "Being a Shia, you are always suspected of going to the Iranian embassy for financial assistance. I have personally never been there. Who wants anything to do with Iran, a country with more restrictions than we have here in Egypt," he asked.

For Negar, an Iranian woman in her mid-40s living in Egypt, Iran's "problem" with Egypt is not that Egypt is a Sunni country and Iran is a Shia country, but that Iran is a country ruled by clergymen whereas Egypt is not.

"Let's hope that with the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt you won't turn into another Iran. If you do, you will lose everything like we have lost everything," Negar said.

Negar is concerned that sooner or later Egypt and other Arab countries ruled by political Islam will turn into rigid conservative countries like Iran. "This would be very sad, because it would mean that our rulers would be more rigid. This has nothing to do with who is Sunni and who is Shia, but it has everything to do with who is run by clergymen and who is not," she added.

President Mursi has repeatedly said that he has no intention of walking the Iranian path, and what Egypt and Iran have in common are issues related to regional stability and common interests.

In Tehran last month and in subsequent press statements, Mursi was critical of Iran's support for the Syrian regime, which is controlled by minority Alawite, a Shia offshoot, interests around Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and that has been repressing Sunni-led pro-democracy demonstrations in the country since early 2011.

However, Mursi also suggested that Iran serve as a member of a four-member group of Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey in order to try to mediate an end to the crisis in Syria.

The meetings started at the level of high officials and were later upgraded to ministerial level in Cairo in September and then in New York on the fringes of the UN General Assembly meeting last week.

Yet, Egypt has still been reluctant to accept an Iranian offer of what would otherwise be much-needed investment in the country. The decline was prompted by an Egyptian decision to avoid going too far in soliciting rapprochement with Iran at the expense of US discomfort.

"Washington was never really comfortable with the visit of President Mursi to Iran, even if the firm language that the president adopted in Iran on Syria was reassuring for the Americans," said an Egyptian diplomat who asked for his name to be withheld.

He added that the intelligence services had been in agreement with the Foreign Ministry, though the intelligence people say it was the other way round, on declining any quick Iranian investment in Egypt.

Eventually, however, sources on both sides say, Iranian investment in Egypt is likely to take place. The Iranian diplomat who spoke to the Weekly said that Iran would keep an extended hand out to Egypt. "Ours is a hand extended in friendship in the interests of our two great nations," he said.

According to recent paper by researcher Raniyah Makram, Iran has an interest in soliciting a rapprochement with Egypt, especially with an eye on resisting US plans to isolate Tehran.

To serve this objective, Makram argues, Iran is ready to go beyond the logic of Shia-Sunni competition. "The Iranians bypassed this boundary when they decided to establish strong ties with the Palestinian Sunni resistance movement Hamas," she wrote, adding that Iran has always been keen to keep a minimum of friendly commercial and cultural ties with Egypt and is now expected to work on increasing these relations.

Diplomats on both sides say that they do not expect the limited $100 million of annual trade between the two countries to suddenly increase this year. Next year, however, they add, an increase is possible.

In press statements made by Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi on the eve of Mursi's visit to Tehran last month, the Iranian diplomat said that it would only take a few formalities to restore full diplomatic relations between Egypt and Iran.

A similar statement is likely to be made by Ambassador Khaled Emara who arrived in Tehran last week to head the interests section of Egypt following the end of the mission of Ambassador Alaaeddin Youssef.

Such statements are not exactly unprecedented in the history of Egyptian-Iranian relations, since even during the worst days of hostilities officials on both sides were keen to affirm that they did not look at one another as enemies.

"Two great nations with two great civilisations" is the phrase that officials on both sides refer to as they argue for an inevitable resumption of diplomatic ties between the two countries.

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