Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1144, 18 - 24 April 2013
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1144, 18 - 24 April 2013

Ahram Weekly

‘Spanner in the works’

The Salafis provided the excuse to suspend Egypt-Iran flights. Amira Howeidy examines the political significance of yet another U-turn

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Al-Ahram Weekly

“Shia are prostitutes.”

So read the freshly painted graffiti on the elegant gates of the Iranian charge d’affaires’ villa in Heliopolis, east Cairo, on Friday 5 April. The graffiti appeared after dozens of hardline Salafis organised a protest against the resumption of direct flights between Egypt and Iran on 30 March.

Two days after the small demonstration Egypt announced the cancellation of the charter flights until June. In statements Tourism Minister Hisham Zazou blamed the cancellation on the low volume of tourists then glossed the reason for the suspension by insisting the original flights had only ever been intended as a pilot project in the first place. A series of vague statements followed, all attributed to Zazou, the only official to address the sensitive issue of Egyptian-Iranian rapprochement though the matter is clearly subject to high level political decision-making, being rather more than a tourism agreement.

Tehran severed ties with Egypt following the Iranian revolution in 1979 and Egypt’s signing of a peace agreement with Israel. Last August President Mohamed Morsi made a historic visit to Tehran, the first by an Egyptian president for more than three decades. His counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, visited Cairo in February. The agreement to resume flights between both countries was originally signed in 2010 but only implemented this March.

Officials in the presidency and the Foreign Ministry were unavailable for comment. A senior official who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media, explained that pressure for the suspension of flights with Iran came from within the “security” authorities.

“Their mentality is an extension of the Mubarak era policy which demonised Iran as a national security threat. This has not changed,” he said. Although the scale of Salafi anger over the direct flight agreement wasn’t large, it was used as an “excuse” to halt an agreement security bodies “weren’t convinced with in the first place”.

The Iranian charge d’affairs Mujtabi Amany left Egypt for Tehran following the demonstration outside his residence and wasn’t available for comment. It’s unclear if his departure constitutes a diplomatic protest but in Tehran an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman voiced understanding of Egypt’s position.

“If we want Iran-Egypt ties to officially reach a favourable level… we should have patience,” said Ramin Mehmanparast. He described what is happening as a transition from low level ties levels that will require a “gradual” approach and consideration of Egypt’s domestic politics.

In the absence of a nuanced — or any — explanation from Egyptian officials on the status of Egyptian-Iranian relations or what the suspension of flights means, the Salafis took to the lead on the issue.

“Iran’s Persian project which wants to extend to the Mediterranean is known to all intelligence services in the region,” Salafist Nour Party’s foreign affairs spokesman Amr Mekki told the Weekly. “Iranians pose a national security threat to Egypt and given the country’s security volatility this is not the time to allow Iranian tourists to visit.”

Like many Salafi figures Mekki does not attempt to conceal a sectarian approach to the issue which is summed up in the wholesale rejection of the Shia sect, specifically Iran’s Shia whom they accuse of wanting to spread their faith in “Sunni Egypt”. The Sunni-Shia debate is centuries old but hasn’t previously been much of an issue for Egypt. Under the Mubarak regime Egypt’s Sunni card was waved within political alliances with Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other Gulf countries as convenience dictated, to justify their US-backed anti-Iran posturing.

With the rise of the Salafis in post-Mubarak Egypt the issue has assumed a sectarian dimension. Salafi sheikhs and spokesmen have publicly accused Shias of disguised apostasy and fomenting chaos.

“Look at what they did in Iraq and Syria,” says Mekki.

Salafis may have won 25 per cent of the seats in the now dissolved 2012 parliament, but they are hardly in a position to dictate policy on Iran, let alone turn it into a public opinion issue. Rather, it is the warped twists and turns of Egyptian politics that is allowing the Salafis to make policy running.

The Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) is assumed to be relying heavily on the Salafist voting bloc in the coming elections given its own falling popularity as recorded in opinion polls. The Brothers may want to adopt a pragmatic approach towards Iran and Shias but they have taken care not to defend the Egyptian-Iranian flight agreement or its political implications. They are also seeking to prevent the Salafis from occupying the high moral ground as defenders of Egypt’s “Sunnism” .

“Neither we nor the FJP were party to the agreement or its suspension,” Ahmed Aref, the group’s spokesman, told the Weekly. He added that the constitution “preserves” Egypt’s Muslim sect and Islamic Sharia and that Salafi fears should be discussed but the foreign affairs file is sensitive and “difficult”.

Asked if the Brotherhood had been lured into adopting a sectarian discourse on what is essentially a political issue, Aref conceded that his group had avoided public discussion of the issue in order to contain the debate. “This isn’t a matter to be discussed through media channels or telephone interviews,” he said.

The Muslim Brotherhood and the FJP are stuck between a rock and a hard place, says former presidential aide Mohamed Seif Al-Dawla. They are caught between their own electoral calculations and Egypt’s national interest. The Salafi sectarian discourse rages on, yet they remain the Brothers electoral partners. The Brotherhood faces a choice between winning elections, to which end it is necessary to placate the Salafis, or supporting a foreign policy that includes an alliance with Iran.

“Israel, not Iran, attacked Egypt in 1956 and 1967. Political and strategic cooperation with Tehran has long been identified as a policy that serves Egypt’s interest and national security,” he told the Weekly.

But against a backdrop of political polarisation even the most vociferous proponents of national independence and dragging Egypt out of America’s “backyard” remain silent. Like the Brotherhood they are focussed on electoral gains.

The Salafis are the spanner thrown in the works, says Seif Al-Dawla. Their demonisation of Iran as a greater threat to Egypt than Israel “only serves US and Zionist projects in the region”.

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