It takes two to tango
An entire generation of Egyptians does not recall that Egypt and Iran were ever on speaking terms; this generation grew up to see nothing but hostility between the two States.
Yet it was not always so. The royal houses of both countries had at their times enjoyed warm relations, and relations between the two countries saw their ups and downs during Egypt’s days as a republic starting 1953. But that was all way back before Iran became an Islamic Republic in 1979, a year that also saw dramatic changes in Egyptian Iranian relations. That year Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel, a country the Iranian Islamic revolutionary regime had declared its archenemey. And one year later, the deposed Shah of Iran was offered permanent asylum in Egypt by Egypt’s then President Anwar al-Sadat. The Shah, aged 60, died in Cairo in July 1980, was given a State funeral by Sadat, and buried at the Rifai mosque in Cairo. That appeared to seal the fate of Egyptian Iranian relations to outright hostility.
Two big countries
The first month of the year 2011, however, saw Revolution in Egypt. At the outset of this revolution, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei addressed a message to Egyptians that this was a revolution that should work to bring Islamic rule to the country—indeed, to the entire region. The message was sent in Arabic, a language Iranians arrognatly never use. But it took till Egypt got its first Islamist president, elected in June 2012, for relations between the two countries to see a relief, even though Egypt’s adminstration is Sunni while Iran’s is Shiite.
President Mursi visited Tehran last August to attend the Non-aligned Movements (NAM) conference, becoming the first Egyptian president to visit Iran in decades. On his recent Cairo visit Salehi handed Mursi an invitation from Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to visit Tehran for the second time, and told reporters that “Iran##s relations with Egypt improved after Egypt##s January 2011 uprising.”
In an interview he granted Watani last in November 2011, Mojtaba Amani, head of the Iranian Interests Office in Cairo, attributed the long-time poor relations between Iran and Egypt to what he described as the American control of Egypt’s political decision during the Mubarak time.
“Egypt and Iran are two big countries and their relations are very important because they have great influence in the region,” Amani said.
Earlier this month saw Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi visit Cairo. Salehi held meetings with Egypt’s President Mohamed Mursi and Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr, and paid visits to al-Azhar Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb and the Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church Pope Tawadros II.
The Salehi visit to Cairo comes amid rising tensions between Sunnis and Shiites across the Middle East. A focal point of those tensions, the conflict in Syria, was at the top of his agenda as he met with top Egyptian and Arab League officials.
Iran’s announced participation in the upcoming Islamic summit in Cairo in February, as well as President Mursi’s anticipated visit to Iran, all represent steps towards rebuilding Iran-Egypt relations.
Yet Iranian-Egyptian ties may face obstacles to real normalisation owing to their conflicting positions and interests.
The Egyptian government may desire normal relations with Iran, but it backs off because of Iran’s support of President Assad in Syria, and because of the Iranian State’s disagreement with the Gulf countries and the United States, two countries which, owing to political and economic interests, are of prime importance to Cairo.
Yet Salehi’s Cairo visit has given rise to countless questions. For one, his visit to Pope Tawadros II appeared out of the ordinary, given that Iran is home to no more than some 250,000 Christians, none among whom are Copts. The official line went that the visit was to offer good wishes to the Coptic Church for Christmas, and to congratulate Pope Tawadros for his enthronement which took place last November.
“Our door is open to everybody,” Papal secretary Father Angaelus told Watani. “Salehi’s visit was courteous, and the talks centred on human relations and respect of human rights. It was within the official protocol of the Iranian Foreign Minister’s Cairo visit.”
According to rights activist Emad Gad of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, Salehi’s visit came as an effort to present Iran in a conciliatory light. This involves fostering good relations with Sunna and minorities. The US-promoted image of Iran being an unflattering one, Salehi’s gesture was intended to show a tolerant, inclusive image instead, one that respects minorities. Given that US policy in the Middle East has given rise to Sunni regimes that stand up to the Shiites, Iran is after forming new allies in the region. Christians are a force to be reckoned with in the Middle East; Iran realises that and is showing its respect for them.
The Coptic lawyer and activist Kamal Zakher Moussa sees that Salehi’s visit to the Pope confirms that the Church carries weight in international relations, and that the number of Copts—which subsequent Egyptian governments have refused to make public—is substantial. “Iran sees that the US is supporting Sunni Islamists in the region, so it wished to send a message that it can exploit relations with non-Sunnis to create some sort of balance of power.”
But politician Sameh Fawzy begs to disagree. “The visit is apolitical,” Dr Fawzy insists. “It came within the official protocol of the Foreign Minster’s Cairo visit. The Coptic Church is an Egyptian national institution of considerable weight, and warranted a visit by Salehi just as the topmost Sunni Islamic institution of al-Azhar did.”
The seculars, as is self-evident, do not appear happy with the Iranian Egyptian rapprochement. Leading liberals warned on TV talk shows against modelling Egypt after the Iranian Islamic republic, the Islamic revolutionary guard, the Islamic judiciary, to the end of the story.
Compounding the fears is the Sunna Shia divide. Al-Azhar had a few weeks ago issued a statement in which it warned against allowing Iranian influence in Egypt, going so far as to say it could lead to dire consequences; the idea being that the spread of Shia beliefs in the predominantly Sunni Egypt might threaten its social stability. Watani took the question to Sheikh Ahmed Mahmoud Kreima, professor of sharia at al-Azhar University.
Dr Kreima, who incidentally is the founder and president of an NGO he named Goodwill among People, started by explaining that relations between peoples are essentially based on the principles of rights and obligations, and that no party should be allowed dominance or interference in the other’s affairs. It is the mix-up between politics and social norms, among which religion is a major element, that gives rise to problems. “In case of Egypt and Iran,” he said, “relations ought not to be subject to the difference in religious sects. With good intentions, both countries may emerge winners on the economic and political levels.
“But the fact is that each of the two countries is already allied to other States among which there are a deal of hostilities. So the Iran-Egypt relation is rendered a mere political wild card to be used whenever necessary. Especially where Egypt’s relations with the Gulf States are concerned, this wild card comes in handy and may be used to press for special purposes.”
“We have learned from past experience not to hold high hopes in the resumption of relations between Egypt and Iran,” Ahmed al-Nafees, founder of the Shiite Tahrir party, which is rejected by the regime, told Watani. “The matter is rather complicated; the relation between Egypt’s rulers and the US administration is all too obvious.”
Dr Nafees did not overrule the possibility that the current apparent rapprochement with Iran comes in retaliation to moves by Gulf States that Cairo sees as hostile.
As to the invitation extended to Pope Tawadros II to visit Iran, Dr Nafees explained that international politics ran along two lines: the opportunistic political relations, and the moral relations—and Iran exploits both. Relations with the Coptic Church, he said, lies within the latter. Iran has already extended hands to key the Syrian and Lebanese Churches, and now is the turn of the Coptic Church which holds huge appeal on account of its worldwide congregation and relations. But no similar invitation was extended to al-Azhar, Dr Nafees said, since it has no representation in Iran.
27 January 2013