Ahmadinejad in Egypt: Not the Start of a Beautiful Friendship

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi knows that an overly close relationship with Iran could hurt him.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The Muslim Brotherhood's homepage on Wednesday played up the phone conversation between U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and his Egyptian counterpart, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. Neither the timing of the call nor the editorial decision to quote Sissi's promise to act decisively to keep Sinai from becoming a threat to Israel were accidental. The talk, in which Panetta promised continued American military cooperation with Cairo, including aid for military procurement, came as the Iranian president was trying to win the hearts of the Brotherhood and of ordinary Egyptians. During his visit to the country, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad even promised to defend Egypt and Saudi Arabia against any attack.

The broad American wink was more than enough to signal to Morsi what Washington thought about Ahmadinejad's visit. The Egyptian president took care to make it known even back in August, when he came to Tehran for the 16th Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement, that the new Egyptian regime's relations with Iran would be no less chilly than its predecessor's had been for the previous 30 years. It was actually Morsi's political rivals, including the former Arab League head Amr Moussa, who before the presidential election called for warmer relations with Tehran as a demonstration of "national steadfastness" in the face of U.S. and Israeli pressure.

Egypt's resistance to a closer relationship with Iran is not only a reaction to American pressure or to threatening noises from the direction of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, both of which have given Cairo massive financial aid, amounting to around $7 billion. Morsi's Egypt, like that of his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, sees itself as a leader of the Arab world. Iran is seen as an enemy of Saudi Arabia, as aggravating the Shi'ite rebellion in Bahrain, as having forced its patronage on Iraq and above all, as conducting a controversial policy vis-a-vis the Syrian rebellion. Egypt cannot and does not want to embrace "the Arabs' enemies."

Iran also riled Egypt and other Muslim countries by deciding to execute human rights and anti-regime activists in Ahvaz. The city is the capital of Khuzestan Province, in southwestern Iran, where Arabs - a small minority in Iran as a whole - are in the majority, and which is home to the largest Sunni minority population in the country. A few weeks ago Egyptian religious leaders, including members of the Muslim Brotherhood, appealed to Iran to stop the execution of Sunnis and to extend equal rights to the country's Arab minority. Iran rejected the appeals, which it said constituted interference in its domestic affairs.

This affair was thrown in Ahmadinejad's face on Tuesday, when in a meeting with the head of Al-Azhar, Grand Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the head of the most important Sunni institution in the world, demanded not only equal rights for Iran's Sunni Arab minority but also for an end to "the spread of Shiism in Sunni lands." The efforts by Ahmadinejad and Tayeb to characterize their meeting as a friendly one were fruitless. The gap between the parties' positions, Ahmadinejad's premature departure from the after-meeting joint press conference on the grounds that Tayeb failed to stick to their agreed script, and above all the fear of Shi'i hands in Sunni pockets, were expressed in ways that went beyond the visible displeasure on the faces of Al-Azhar's leaders. The Muslim Brotherhood website on Wednesday chose to describe Morsi's meetings with figures such as the sultan of Brunei and the presidents of Turkey, Chad and Mauritania before turning its attention to the visit with Ahmadinejad.

Morsi, who is dealing with massive political pressures at home, cannot afford to allow incautious foreign policy to further jeopardize the Muslim Brotherhood's chance of success in the upcoming parliamentary election. The rekindling of Egypt-Iran relations could easily change from a foreign-policy issue into a sledgehammer to be used against Morsi by his detractors among the liberals, the Salafi movements and even from within Brotherhood ranks.

Such a policy reversal could also spur the army leadership, which until now has maintained public silence, to conclude that the shift compromises Egyptian national security. If the leaks that have been reported in Egypt in the past few days are correct, and the defense minister asked Morsi to fix his country's political crisis and avoid dragging the army into policing and security duties, then it can be assumed that the president is not about to let Iran, of all countries, serve as the pretext for a rift between him and the army.

Ahmadinejad's visit may have earned the sobriquet "historic," but history was not genuinely made here.

Egyptian President Morsi, right, embraces Iranian President Ahmadinejad in Cairo. Credit: AP

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