The visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Egypt is the first of its kind since the two countries severed their diplomatic ties in 1979. Relations soured even more after the Shah of Iran was buried in Egypt and after a street in Tehran was named after late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s assassin Khaled el-Islambolli, who was later glorified in an Iranian documentary. Although Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi had said, when he was head of the Freedom and Justice Party, that he would not receive the Iranian chargé d'affaires in Cairo as long as the Iranian regime supported the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, he extended an invitation to him through Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi. The minister had visited Egypt in January to attend the Islamic Summit.
On January 23, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi announced that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would visit Egypt on February 6-7 in response to an invitation extended to him by Mursi in order to attend the Organization of the Islamic Conference summit held in Cairo, Fars News Agency reported. The agency quoted Salehi as saying Iran is doing its best to establish strong ties with Egypt, especially as the two countries move forward.
Egyptians expressed a lot of reservations about the visit not only because of the Iranian regime’s foreign policy, but also owing to growing fears of an establishment modeled after the velayat-e faqih system. Fears are augmented as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood give themselves increasing power, such was obvious in the new constitution. Times magazine also published a story on January 20 about a meeting held between Qassem Suleimani, head of al-Quds Brigade in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and Essam Haddad, the presidential advisor for foreign affairs. The latter, however, denied the meeting and the magazine did not retract.
Several revolutionary figures in Egypt responded to Iranian attempts at bridging the gap between the two countries which started with statements issued by Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei in praise of the January 25 revolution. Praise was echoed by their Syrian ally Bashar al-Assad before the his regime was threatened by the wave of revolt that swept the region. The uprising in Syria gave rise to a discourse that saw the Arab revolutions as the road to a new Sykes Picot agreement. In this context interaction between Egypt and Iran started to become more intensive and Egyptian popular delegations to Iran reached 18 between April and November 2011.
With the post-revolution economic crisis that hit Egypt and the controversy over the International Monetary Fund loan, the Egyptian ruling clique was not in favor of upsetting anti-Iranian Western powers or Egyptian factions concerned about Shiite infiltration, yet at the same time did not want to lose Iran’s support. But what could Iran, a country already suffering under the yoke of international sanctions and swept with protests against the deteriorating living standards and the collapse of the local currency, offer to a country like Egypt?
On February 4, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad expressed his optimism about the visit. “The political geography of the region will undergo a major change if Egypt and Iran take a common stance on the Palestinian cause,” he was quoted as saying by Fars News Agency. The president stressed the importance of Egyptian-Iranian relations for the two countries as well as for the entire region. According to the Egyptian Middle East News Agency, Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi held a meeting with his Iranian counterpart at the airport in which they discussed the latest developments in the region and the means of resolving the Syrian crisis while avoiding military intervention. They also discussed enhancing ties between the two countries.
This wave of optimism started fading when al-Azhar’s grand imam called upon Iran to stop interfering in the affairs of Gulf countries. In this statement, al-Azhar’s grand imam called upon the Iranian president to respect the sovereignty of Bahrain and other countries, to treat Sunni minorities in Iran as first class citizens, and to issue a religious edict that prohibits insulting the prophet’s wife Aisha and his companions. The shock reached its peak when a Syrian man tried to assault Ahmadinejad on his way out of the al-Hussein Mosque in Old Cairo. Riot police had to interfere after dozens of Islamists rallied to protest the visit because of the Iranian president’s support for the Syrian regime.
Several similarities can be detected between the rhetoric of the Egyptian president and that of his Iranian counterpart even though the latter enjoys fewer powers compared to those of the country’s supreme leader. There are also organizational similarities between the two regimes, which were made clear with the recent emergence of semi-militias modeled after the Basij. In addition, a system of governance similar to that of velayat-e faqih is also being established in Egypt with the increasing growth of a religious authority that is supported by the constitution.
Even though the Turkish model seemed like the most likely to be applied in Egypt following the revolution, the Iranian model now seems more plausible with the dominance of Islamist factions, the marginalization of the army and the exclusion of civilian powers and minorities in drafting the new constitution. The developments in Egypt are also seen as similar to those that took place in Iran in 1979 when the revolution was rendered Islamic even though it was started by civilian factions. The two countries are also following the same tactics as far as crushing opposition is concerned and the assassination of Tunisian opposition figure Choukri Belaid stirred speculations about a possible scenario in Egypt, one similar to that which took place in Iran after the revolution.
At the external level, Egyptians are concerned about Iran’s role in supporting the Syrian regime, which is contradictory to the general sentiment in Egypt. Egyptians are also confused about their president’s ambivalence towards the Syrian revolution, for while he repeatedly declared solidarity with the Syrian people, he now seems to prefer adopting the Russian and Iranian approach of reaching a political resolution that avoids military intervention. The Egyptian regime is also not clear about Iranian intervention in the domestic affairs of other countries in the region like Lebanon and Iraq.
The tension between Iran and Gulf countries, whether in relation to the nuclear issue or the occupied Emirati islands, widens the gap between Iran and the Egyptian people who have strong ties with the Gulf, especially on the religious level.
The Salafi al-Nour Party was the most critical of Ahmadinejad’s visit among Islamist factions. The party’s statement pointed out the role Iran is playing in supporting Shiite militias in Iraq and Lebanon and in destabilizing the Gulf region and warned of the dangers of Shiite infiltration. The statement also stressed the necessity of stopping the injustices inflicted upon Sunnis in Syria and Iran.
On the other hand, the main opposition bloc, the National Salvation Front, did not issue any statements against the visit despite fears among civilian powers about the establishment of an Iranian model in Egypt. The front was also absent from the scene during the last aggression on Gaza and throughout the Syrian revolution in addition to its inability to coordinate with its counterparts in other post-revolution countries like Tunisia and Libya.
Ahmadinejad’s visit could have offered the front and all civilian powers an excellent opportunity to lash out at the totalitarian nature of the velayat-e faqih system and theocratic regimes and to establish a comparison between their members and those of the Iranian opposition as well as between minorities in Egypt and their counterparts in Iran.
This visit should encourage the front to reconsider its position and the same applies to all civilian powers and civil society organizations. All of those are in bad need of self-criticism in order to exert more effort on the ground instead of focusing on abstract stances.