Cairo: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in Egypt on Tuesday on the first visit by an Iranian president since the 1979 revolution, underlining a thaw in relations since Egyptians elected an Islamist head of state.
President Mohammad Mursi, the Muslim Brotherhood politician elected in June, kissed Ahmadinejad as he disembarked from his plane at Cairo airport. The leaders walked down a red carpet, Ahmadinejad smiling as he shook hands with waiting dignitaries.
Visiting Cairo to attend an Islamic summit that begins on Wednesday, the president of the Shiite Islamist republic is due to meet later on Tuesday with the grand sheikh of Al Azhar, one of the oldest seats of learning in the Sunni world.
While prospects may be bright for breaking the ice in ties, but Cairo risks alienating allies in the region and beyond in rushing to fully reconcile with Tehran, according to analysts.
“Resumption of full diplomatic ties between the two countries is unlikely, given the delicate balance Mursi has to maintain at home, the region and with the West,” said Wahid Abdul Majuid, an Egyptian political expert.
Mubarak’s overthrow in a popular uprising in 2011 apparently raised Tehran’s hopes for a breakthrough in ties with Cairo — a hope which is still elusive seven months after Islamist President Mursi took office as Egypt’s first elected civilian and president.
“Any decision by Mursi to improve relations with Iran will send a wrong message to the US and Israel,” Abdul Majeed told Gulf News. Mursi, facing mounting domestic problems, cannot afford to lose Washington’s economic and political support, he said.
In November, Mursi earned public US praise after he brokered a truce to end a war between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas movement, in control of the Gaza Strip. While having made no contact with Tel Aviv since taking office in June, Mursi has repeatedly said he is committed to the peace treaty with Israel.
“Mursi also has to heed the reaction of the Salafists to any step on his part to expand cooperation with Iran or upgrade ties with it,” said Abdul Majeed, referring to the ultra-conservative Islamists who with Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood have emerged as a powerful bloc in post-Mubarak Egypt.
The Salafists are wary of Shiite Iran, claiming that Tehran plans to spread Shiism, a creed of Islam, in predominately Sunni Muslim Egypt. Shiism is recognised by Al Azhar as Islam’s fifth school of thought.
There are no official figures as to how many Shiites are in Egypt. However, they are estimated at more than two million, including around 800,000 Iraqis who fled to Egypt in the wake of the US-led invasion of their country.
“There is also strong opposition inside the Brotherhood to the idea of re-establishing full relations with Iran,” he added. “Those opponents have their own ideological and political reasons for keeping Iran at bay.”
Syria poses a key obstacle to normalising Cairo’s ties with Tehran. Iran, a major ally of Damascus, has advocated Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s clampdown on the opposition.
Mursi has on several occasions lashed out at Al Assad and demanded that he step down.
In his address to the NAM summit in Tehran, Mursi said supporting the Syrians against the “oppressive regime is a moral obligation”. Confirming opposition to military intervention in Syria, Mursi proposed creating a committee comprising Egypt, Iran and its regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Turkey to formulate a peaceful solution to the Syrian conflict. His proposal has apparently gone nowhere.
Even if Iran abandoned Al Assad, Egypt is unlikely to rush into an alliance with Tehran in view of the domestic and international complexities facing Mursi.
“Muslims are one nation. This is a principle we should uphold,” said Mahdi Akef, the former supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood. “However, it is impermissible to deal with Iran unless it stops its support for the mass murderer Bashar [Al Assad] who continues to kill his people,” he told Gulf News.
Akef dismissed as nonsense Iran’s portrayal of the anti-Mubarak revolt as an extension of its Islamic revolution. “Egypt’s revolution is a purely Egyptian revolution, which had no link to any foreign country including Iran.”
Eager to align itself with Egypt, Iran seeks to puncture isolationism imposed on it by the West and to counter-balance Turkish-Saudi clout, say observers.
“With Egypt’s economy being in a tailspin, the ruling Islamists are thinking carefully about key sources of foreign investments from the US, the Gulf countries and the West-led financing institutions such as the International Monetary Fund,” said Abu Al Fadl Al Senawi, a political analyst. “All these parties will not feel comfortable with the resumption of the Egyptian-Iranian relations,” he wrote in the Egyptian state-run quarterly Al Siyassa Al Dawlia.
Meanwhile, Salehi, the Iranian foreign minister, was quoted as proposing renaming the avenue of Khaled Islambouli to be the Street of Martyrs in honour of the protesters killed in the uprising against Mubarak.
The issue was at the centre of tensions between Mubarak’s Egypt and Iran.
However, it is unlikely to be raised during talks between Mursi and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Cairo this week. “I think they have got more important issues to discuss,” a diplomatic source told Gulf News. “Syria will of course top their agenda,” added the source.
Egypt’s foreign minister on Monday dampened expectations for a breakthrough in ties with Iran. “Upgrading the level of ties with Iran is left for developments of the future,” he said. “President Ahmadinejad comes to Cairo to attend the Organization of Islamic Conference of which Iran is a member,” he added.
— With inputs from Reuters