Forging better relations between Iran and Egypt is turning out to be harder than the Islamic Republic might have imagined after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak — the biggest upheaval of the Arab spring.
In general, Tehran has misrepresented the uprisings as an “Islamic awakening” — a partial and self-serving view even though in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere Islamist parties have played significant roles. Iran (which crushed the opposition Green movement protests in 2009) has also made an important exception for its long-standing ally Syria, backing President Bashar al-Assad against his enemies when key Gulf states have actively opposed him and other Arabs kept their distance. It has reserved its most enthusiastic support for Bahrain, where the Shia majority is demanding that the western-backed Sunni monarchy institute genuine democratic reforms.
Syria was the main item on the agenda last week when Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran’s foreign minister, visited Cairo. The event was trumpeted by Iranian media as the harbinger of a new era in relations, though there is little common ground on Assad and President Mohamed Morsi even called publicly for the Syrian leader to face war crimes charges.
There is a good deal of historical baggage in the way of a rapprochement between the two countries. During Mubarak’s 30 years in power Egypt was firmly in the US camp in the Middle East. Iran severed ties with Egypt when Anwar Sadat signed the 1978 Camp David accords with Israel and then offered asylum to the deposed shah. Egyptians have long bristled at the infamous Tehran mural which praises the “martyr” Khaled al-Islambouli, who led the 1981 assassination of Sadat.
Part of the change since the revolution is that many Egyptians, including those who dislike the peace treaty with Israel, support a more independent foreign policy that includes normal relations with Iran. Still, links with Tehran remain a sensitive issue.
Over the weekend the Egyptian government flatly denied press reports that Qasem Suleimani, commander of the elite al-Quds force of Iran’s revolutionary guard corps, had visited Cairo in December to advise on security issues. To many observers this sensational claim appeared intended to smear the president, who is on the defensive after opposition protests over the new constitution. It remains unclear whether the story was somehow linked to the dismissal of the interior minister, Ahmad Gamal al-Din. Suleimani also issued a denial.
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has certainly been too quick to blame outsiders for Morsi’s difficulties, but there is no doubt that he faces intense hostility both at home and abroad, especially from the United Arab Emirates, which has arrested 11 Egyptians on suspicion of national security offences.
Dahi Khalfan, Dubai’s outspoken police chief, has said that the threat from Iran and the Brotherhood was similar. “They both want to export the revolution,” he told al-Sharq al-Awsat. “What the Muslim Brothers are aiming for at the moment is to shred and denigrate the reputation of the Gulf rulers.” (The exception is tiny Qatar, which has just given $2.5bn in loans and grants to help Egypt shore up its faltering currency.)
In general though Egypt’s Arab friends are more worried about Tehran. Iran, according to the Saudi columnist Hamad al-Majid is “a virus spreading in a contaminated region. Gulf governments and their media “must build on President Mursi’s policy of spurning Iran’s advances, rather than doubting it,” he advised.
Indeed, while Salehi was seeing Morsi another Cairo event underlined the limits to Egyptian-Iranian détente. That was a conference of Iranians from Ahwaz, capital of Khuzestan province, about what organizers called “the Persian occupation of Arab land.” It had a strong sectarian tinge and enjoyed the backing of a key Morsi aide and al-Azhar, the voice of Egypt’s official Sunni religious establishment. Iran complained that it was the work of “radical Salafis” backed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s president, is due in Cairo next month for a summit of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. That will mirror the newly-elected Morsi’s participation in last summer’s Non-Aligned Conference in Tehran, where, to American and Israeli dismay, he signaled a more independent post-Mubarak foreign policy but then embarrassed his hosts by calling it an “ethical duty” to support the uprising in Syria.
Signs are, all in all, that it will be some time before these two important Middle Eastern powers manage to find a way of rubbing along despite the obvious tensions. Still, it will suit both sides to try to keep them from getting out of hand.
By The Guardian
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