Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1135, 14 - 20 February
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1135, 14 - 20 February

Ahram Weekly

Paymaster politics

The reaction of Salafist parties to the Iranian president’s visit to Cairo has triggered questions about their foreign policy agenda, writes Omayma Abdel-Latif

Al-Ahram Weekly

Under the old regime a handful of factors defined Egypt’s foreign policy. They included the intimate relationship with the triangle of Tel Aviv, Washington and the Gulf states, hostility towards Iran and a freeze in Egypt’s African relations. It is no longer a secret that these sensitive files were administered by the mukhabarat, or intelligence apparatus, and a cabal of Mubarak’s closest aides.

Two years after Mubarak’s ouster his foreign policy is alive and kicking. Observers say little has changed under Islamist rule in terms of the foreign policy issues which constitute the core of Egypt’s national security.

There is an ironclad consensus among Islamists over the Camp David accord as well as the special relationship with both Washington and the Gulf states. Nothing has been said or done to question either the treaty or relations with Washington and the Gulf. Iran, however, is proving more complicated. Out of government the Muslim Brotherhood maintained strong ties with the Islamic republic and with Hizbullah, the Islamic resistance movement in Lebanon. In power there has been a change of tone though no real change of policy, says Mustafa Al-Labbad, an expert on Iran and Turkey.

“The Iranophobia which dominated under Mubarak continues to permeate the discourse of decision-makers today. It has been diluted a little but the same spirit remains,” says Al- Labbad.

The Salafis’ reaction to last week’s visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Cairo verged on the hysterical. Yet until Iran’s president set foot in Cairo foreign policy issues hardly figured in Islamists’ day-to-day rhetoric, and certainly not in Salafist circles. Petty domestic conflicts reigned supreme.

The visit has triggered a barrage of questions regarding Salafist parties’ foreign policy agendas. The Nour Party expressed reservations about the visit coming at a time which it claimed is characterised by growing “Shia infiltration of Egypt”. It issued a statement criticising Tehran’s role in the region, its support for armed Shia groups in Iraq and Lebanon and attempts to fan sedition in the Gulf. The Salafist Al-Binaa wal-Tanmiya (Construction and Development) Party echoed similar views, issuing a statement criticising Iranian support of the Syrian regime, its oppression of “Sunni” citizens and attempts to stir trouble in the Gulf.

Abdel-Moneim Al-Shahat, head of Al-Daawa Al-Salafiya (the Salafist Calling), the mother organisation of the Nour Party, cited five key issues that should inform any dialogue between Cairo and Tehran. They include an immediate halt to “massacres” committed against Sunnis in Syria and the Ahwaz region, the disbanding of Shia armed organisations “which plant the seeds of sedition in the region”, human rights issues facing Sunni citizens in countries where Iran has intervened, and the extraction of guarantees from Tehran that it will not spread Shiism in Egypt or export “Shia revolutions” to the Gulf.

Al-Gabha Al-Salafiya (the Salafist Front) made similar remarks. Its spokesperson Khaled Said said his party objected to Ahmadinejad’s visit because of Iranian support for regimes in Syria and Iraq which “oppress their Sunni citizens”. He reiterated claims about Iran’s intervention in the Gulf to “plant the seeds of discord and sedition”.

In a press statement the Nour’s deputy head, Galal Morra, said his party “will confront any Iranian attempts to infiltrate Egypt culturally, militarily or politically”, adding that “Gulf national security is part of Egypt’s national security.”

Most Salafist parties boycotted the reception held by the Iranian embassy to mark the Iranian revolution. Ahmed Badie, spokesperson of Al-Watan Party, insisted that Iran must respond to a list of demands before any rapprochement with Egypt. “This includes outlawing discrimination against Sunni and Arab citizens, a halt to support for the Al-Assad regime and an end to Iranian occupation of the Emirati islands.”

Salafist parties’ comments can be seen as a criticism of the Muslim Brotherhood and, by association, President Mohamed Morsi. Indeed, Morra took the battle against Iran a step further by attacking the president’s adviser Refaa Tahtawi for positive remarks about Iran made during a reception commemorating the Iranian revolution. Tahtawi, a former diplomat who served in Tehran under Mubarak, is a strong advocate of full diplomatic ties with Tehran. Tahtawi welcomed Ahmadinejad as the representative of a “brotherly Muslim nation which never aggressed against other nations”.

The Nour Party has been consistent in its policy towards Iran. Almost a year ago, in February 2012, it issued a statement demanding all ties with Iran be cut in protest against its support of the Syrian regime.

The Salafis’ reaction to the Iranian president’s visit was hardly based on a sober reading of a significant event. Rather, it was driven by sectarian venom, and by the Iranophobia that continues to inform Islamist discourse about Iran. The Islamists couched it in religious attire, obsessing over the “tide of Shiism’ overtaking Egypt.

“I do not know what information the sheikh of Al-Azhar has about the threat of the Shia-isation of Egypt. What I do know is that Egyptian Shia are too few to constitute an existential threat to a society which embraces the four schools of Sunni jurisprudence,” wrote Makram Mohamed Ahmed in Monday’s Al-Ahram.

The Salafis’ reaction, observers argue, was basically dictated by their funders in the Gulf. Demonising Iran is the default position of the Saudi-funded media. For a decade Saudi sheikhs have been harping on about the Shia threat, and Iran has long pipped Israel as public enemy number one in the Gulf.

This sectarian discourse is being fed to young members of the Nour Party. On Monday, a seminar was held in Minya under the title “Shiism and its threat to the nation”. The seminar was held in a youth camp the Nour had organised for its young cadres.

 Salafist parties are not a key force in shaping Egypt’s foreign policy decisions; they are, however, able to mobilise public opinion which could exercise pressure on the president and concerned state institutions. One observer argues that any progress on the Cairo-Tehran track is now hostage to the Salafis’ response.

Israel is another story for the Salafis. When the Nour made electoral gains in the parliamentary elections in December 2011 it was quick to explain its stand on the Camp David accord. On 24 December it issued a statement saying “the party will not seek to cancel the accord altogether but will work on amending some of its items.”

The party was defending itself against what it claimed was a smear campaign comprising accusations that it would variously lead Egypt into outside wars, or had broken ranks with the boycotting of normalisation with Israel. The party perceives any attempt to question its position on Camp David as a way to undermine it, an insinuation that its Islamic identity is an obstacle to building a modern state.

“We have repeatedly stressed that the Nour places defending Egypt’s Islamic identity among its top priorities,” said one high ranking member of the party. “In foreign policy this means reinforcing the sense of belonging to the Islamic world and showing concern for Islamic national issues, starting with the Palestinian question.”

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