Reconfiguring Cairo-Tehran Relations?


By Shahrazad Far


With the internal domestic unrest in Egypt and the continuously escalating turmoil in Syria, Ahmadinejad’s historical visit to Cairo last Wednesday sparks speculations about conversion in the Cairo-Tehran relations. After decades of compliance to Washington, the peace treaty with Israel and consequentially deteriorating relations with post-Islamic revolution Iran, Egypt’s Muslim Brother president hails Ahmadinejad’s reciprocal visit to Cairo. Amidst volatile regional transformative dynamics, these two regional heavyweight countries embark on an attempt to restore relations, leaving Israel and its western allies irritated and alert.

Symbolic Transformation

Upon the success of the 2011 Egyptian revolution in ousting Mubarak, Iran appointed an ambassador to Egypt for the first time in decades. Morsi’s historical visit to Tehran last August, soon after assuming office prompted a momentous departure from the decades-long frosty relations between the two countries. The political developments have since been in a direction that paves the way for such a reciprocal visit. During the latest Gaza conflict, Morsi had unequivocally reversed Egypt’s policies towards Hamas in such a way that brought Egypt closer to Iran’s views of Hamas.

In the aftermath of the “Arab Spring”, the prospects were bound to look different for Egypt both internally and regionally. Nonetheless, that the Iran that named a street in Tehran after the Egyptian Islamist who carried out the assassination of Sadat in 1981 and the Egypt that then made peace with Israel can come to a turning point where an attempt to restore relations can be possible is revelation.

Nonetheless, the direction of the conversion of relations seems to be heading towards the anti-thesis of the relations between the Iran of the Shah and the Kingdom of Egypt in so far as their alliances with major western powers is concerned. Egypt who granted asylum to the ousted Iranian Shah in the aftermath of the Islamic revolution is now the Egypt that is led by the Muslim Brothers. The historical trajectory, which witnessed the diversion between the two countries, provides now the very conditions for fostering close ties on totally contrasting grounds. From this historical perspective, the relations seem to be exhibiting signs of a process of political metamorphism.

Indisputably, these diplomatic visits yield mutual benefits from the perspectives of both parties. With these diplomatic visits, Iran attempts to challenge its inflicted isolation while Morsi attempts to consolidate his power, signalling a change of the political compass in the post-Revolutionary Egypt. This is probably why Egypt favoured this public diplomatic advances instead of back-door talks.

These visits, hence, seem to reshuffle the cards, but how far can they bring about a substantial change in the rules of the game? Many indications imply that this Egypt-Iran combination in the region would not echo further than the symbolic transformation these visits present.

Stumbling Blocks

Tehran and Cairo may seem now to have more in common than ever before. But their politics in the region are far from being entirely compatible. Although analogous policies towards Hamas may bring them on the same table especially as Ahmadinejad has even expressed interest in visiting the Gaza during his visit to Cairo, their outlook on the Syrian crisis cannot be more different. Tehran can tranquilly retrieve the symbolic gains from the visit to Cairo to alleviate its international isolation. Morsi, on the other hand, approaches this diplomatic endeavour rather cautiously. This is why, although Tehran had appointed an ambassador to Cairo, Cairo has not reciprocated the move so far.  To do that, Cairo may still have to reassess its links with many key players in the region, including Israel, the USA and leading Sunni Gulf countries.

The main stumbling block on the way to any substantial conversion in the Egyptian-Iranian relations is the Syrian crisis. The two nations hold totally opposing positions on the Syrian crisis, which make it a rather sore point between them. Egypt remains firm its position demanding that Assad should step down, along with the vocal advocates of this position, namely Turkey and Saudi Arabia forming a camp within the quartet on Syria, and leaving Iran alone in its camp of supporting Assad’s regime. Hence, how the situation in Syria will evolve will surely have ramifications on the relations between Tehran and Cairo. This is why the warm ties the two countries seen to enjoy may not travel far.

Moreover, these diplomatic advancements happen against a background of inevitable regional Sunnite-Shiite polarization. Although Saudi Arabia has relations with Iran, the Iran-Turkey competition for leadership in the region is a key indicator of the ongoing Sunni-Shi’i rivalry in the region. Leading Sunni Gulf states, namely Saudi Arabia and Qatar remain steadfast antagonists to Iran’s regional policies and weary of its Shi’ite presence in the region. There is no good reason to assume that Sunnis and Shi’ites will suddenly be burying the hatchet.

The resonance of this sectarian tension in Egypt lingers as an obstacle of no less importance. There is an in-house antipathy towards Shi’ism in Sunnite Egypt. Unlike Muslim Brothers, the Salafists, who are affiliated with the hard-line Saudi Arabian Sunni Wahabism and who occupy a few seats in the Egyptian parliament, may not share Morsi’s views. And yet again, the move also invites criticisms among the other half of Egyptian populace who did not vote for Morsi in the presidential elections. Thus, the claims about alleged attacks against Ahmadinejad’s visit in Cairo[1] or hurling a shoe at him in protestation during his visit give a sense of how some feel about his visit[2].

More importantly, Egypt’s crumbling economy restricts the Egyptian government’s political moves. Any foreign policy shift will have to be supported by economic improvements. And in such conditions of fragility in the Egyptian domestic scene, limited prerogatives, if any, are left for Morsi. Egypt cannot fly above these restrictions in its foreign policy. Chief among these constraints is the aid Egypt receives from US and EU, who remain averse to Iran. Moreover, Egyptian economy remains dependent on aid from other Sunni Gulf countries that also remain hostile to Tehran. Thus, Egypt is inclined to political calculations that do not upset the regional Sunnite powers and their Western allies.

In a nutshell, these diplomatic moves do signal a foreign policy shift at face value. However, many factors stand in the way for these moves to yield any substantial outcome that change the rules of the game. The unfolding events in this politically volatile region will tell how and to which direction these bilateral relations will evolve.

[1] See: http://english.alarabiya.net/articles/2013/02/07/265030.html

[2] See: http://edition.cnn.com/2013/02/06/world/meast/egypt-ahmadinejad-shoe-attack