Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1135, 14 - 20 February
Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Issue 1135, 14 - 20 February

Ahram Weekly

Conference diplomacy?

Ahmadinejad’s visit to Egypt may herald a possible thaw in relations, though there are signs that indicate otherwise, writes Doaa El-Bey

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Al-Ahram Weekly

In the wake of the first visit by an Iranian president to Egypt in more than 30 years, political commentators seemed to differ over whether this was now the right time for Egypt to restore full diplomatic relations with Iran.
Some argued that the historical antagonisms between Sunni and Shia Muslims would make it impossible for Iran, which is working to spread Shia doctrine throughout the Middle East, to find common ground with Egypt’s ruling Sunni Muslim Brotherhood.
Others saw no obstacles to restoring full relations with Tehran at a time when Egypt has full diplomatic relations with Israel, with which it has even less in common.
Restoring full diplomatic ties with Tehran would be difficult, said one Egyptian diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The Muslim Brotherhood is too busy fixing domestic problems to turn to Iran at present. Besides, Tehran’s staunch support for the Syrian regime that is brutally killing its own people does not contribute to improving the picture,” he said.
Gamal Salama, a political science professor at Suez University, said that although he had called for the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Iran in the past, this was not possible at present because it was not just a problem of bilateral relations.
Egypt’s relations with Iran were complicated as they were linked to its relations with the Gulf states, the US and Israel, Salama said. Although all the Gulf states had relations with Iran, they were used to a certain approach to Iran from the Egyptian government, epitomised in former president Hosni Mubarak’s hostility to Iran.
Israel and the US would not easily accept a change in the rules of the game, Salama said. “For both states, any rapprochement with Iran is a red line because it is likely to change the shape of relations in the whole region,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly in a telephone interview.
Salama also described some of the positive signs during Ahmadinejad’s visit as mere “conference diplomacy”.
The main purpose of Ahmadinejad’s three-day visit to Egypt was to attend an Islamic summit meeting in Cairo. However, he also met with politicians and other influential figures and visited Al-Azhar in the hope of giving a boost to his country’s relations with Cairo.
Positive statements before and during the visit on Iran’s part opened the door to speculations about an imminent breakthrough in relations.
Iran’s foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, told Iran’s state-run Islamic Republic News Agency before the visit that Egypt was a very important country in the region and that his country believed it to be one of the heavyweights in the Middle East. He also expressed a willingness to further strengthen ties with Cairo.
For his part, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi talked of charting a new path and adopting different policies from those of Mubarak towards Iran. He gave Ahmadinejad a red-carpet welcome at Cairo Airport, and their meeting was described by the press as warm.
The two leaders reportedly talked about ways to improve the relationship between their two countries, and Iran’s president offered to help Egypt’s failing economy by supplying a “major credit line”, a move that was regarded by some as another sign of improving relations between the two countries.
Ahmadinejad did not elaborate on how he would supply this credit line at a time when the Iranian economy is suffering from the effects of Western sanctions over Iran’s nuclear programme. Egypt’s government had no immediate reaction to make to Ahmadinejad’s offer.
In the meantime, there were several negative signs presenting obstacles to fully restored relations. Ahmadinejad visited Egypt at a time when Iran is backing the authoritarian Syrian regime that is violently crushing a popular revolution.
The regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, the diplomat said, was not in line with the revolutionary spirit in Egypt or the region. “He reminds people of Mubarak’s regime, against which the revolution was launched. People will not be happy about establishing full relations with a regime that supports the Syrian regime,” he said.
The post-revolutionary rise of the Salafist current in Egypt has also increased antagonistic feelings towards Shiism and complicated calls for better relations with Iran. “If he improves relations with Iran, Morsi will open the door to internal opposition by the Salafist front, and he is reluctant to invite more opposition to his policies,” Salama said.
Ahmadinejad was also openly criticised during his visit to Al-Azhar Mosque and University in Cairo, Egypt’s seat of Sunni scholarship. Ahmadinejad was publicly scolded at a news conference held at Al-Azhar for interfering in the Arab countries, including Egypt and Bahrain, and of discriminating against Sunnis in Iran.
An Al-Azhar spokesman also talked during the press conference about what he called the “obstacles to unity” between the two countries, though Salama toned down the importance of this, saying it was a sign that Al-Azhar was trying to appease the Salafist current rather than taking a strong stand against Tehran.
Other small incidents showed that Ahmadinejad had not been entirely welcomed, especially on a popular level. At the beginning of his visit, he had to flee an ancient mosque in downtown Cairo after a Syrian protester took off his shoes and threw them at him, a sign of protest against Iranian support for the Syrian regime.
However, Egypt and Iran have repeatedly expressed a wish to boost relations since Morsi took power last June, with the president promising a foreign policy direction that would be more independent than Mubarak’s and would reassert Egypt’s historical leadership role.
Extending a hand to Iran could be seen as part of that new policy, and the first breakthrough came when Nabil Al-Arabi, the first post-revolution foreign minister, said Cairo was ready to “open a new page” with Iran.
The first major step towards repairing the relationship came in August last year, when Morsi visited Tehran during a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in what was seen as an effort towards easing Iran’s international isolation.
However, during the meeting Morsi embarrassed his hosts by delivering a stinging condemnation of Al-Assad’s policies in Syria. Morsi again met with Ahmadinejad during the Islamic Economic Summit in Mecca last year. There have been expectations that more steps would be taken towards restoring full relations, but nothing has happened since then.
Another attempt to develop closer ties with Iran came when the country was included in a regional effort with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt to solve the Syrian crisis. But this so-called “quartet initiative” proved short lived, as could have been expected since Turkey and Saudi Arabia both quit over tensions with Iran.
Cairo and Tehran severed relations after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel in the same year. The relationship was further damaged when the then Egyptian president, Anwar Al-Sadat, granted asylum to the deposed Iranian shah, Mohamed-Reza Pahlavi, who was given a state funeral in Cairo in 1980.
When Sadat was assassinated the following year, Iran named a street after his killer, Khaled Islambouli.
Perhaps more time is needed to restore full diplomatic relations. However, the first step towards that end is to further develop economic and commercial ties, as well as tourism and air traffic between the two countries, from which both countries have much to gain.

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