The first visit of an Iranian president to Egypt, in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and the 2011 Egyptian Revolution against Hosni Mubarak, was expected to be a big deal. It wasn’t.
Oh, it marked a change. The Mubarak regime despised the Khomeinist government of Iran. Egypt’s staff generals helped Iraq fight Iran in the 1980s and I was told by an Egyptian foreign ministry source that the Iraqi military response to the 1988 Fao campaign was planned in Cairo. Egypt provided a security umbrella against Iran for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. Mubarak insulted Shiites. There was no mutual diplomatic representation. The government obsessed about the few hundred or few thousand Egyptian converts from the country’s mainstream Sunni branch of Islam to Shiism. But this situation, as between Mubarak’s Egypt and Iran, was peculiar and not similar to that of Turkey or even Saudi Arabia (which despite being a Wahhabi state, hosted Ahmadinejad in Riyad for talks years ago).
But Ahmadinejad in Egypt did not make that big a splash, as Dr. Hisham al-Hamami argues in al-Misriyyun. In part, he points out, the country is riven with internal political divisions and most Egyptians don’t have the time of day for foreign affairs. In part, secular-minded and leftist Egyptians are worried about the rise of political Islam, what with having a Muslim Brotherhood government, and Ahmadinejad represented for them the worst excesses of that kind of politics. In part, Iran’s Syria policy made the Iranian president a skunk at the party in a revolutionary Arab state and among youth who largely sympathize with the Syrian rebels.
For its part, Iran is seeking to break out of the diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions imposed on it by the US, Israel and their allies in Europe. Egypt needs investment, but Iran will be hampered in that regard by the dramatic fall in value of the Iranian riyal.
Even the youth, more liberal wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, led by Essam Elerian, was uncomfortable in being lumped in with Ahmadinejad by the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman. The USG Open Source Center summarized his response from the Arabic web page of the Freedom and Justice Party (the Muslim Brotherhood’s civil wing):
” [FJP site:] Report by Mustafa Riyad dated 9 February: The report quotes the Vice President of the Freedom and Justice Party, Dr [Essam Elerian], as saying that the Egyptian revolution will not import the model of China or India and “we are not Afghanistan or Pakistan and we will not imitate Iran in any way.” In remarks which he published on his Facebook page, [Elerian] disagreed with the comparison made by US journalist and columnist Thomas Friedman. He said that the regime of autocracy has chained the hands of the Egyptians, and political power in Egypt was militarized. He pointed out that the situation is now different because the government will not turn into a whip used against the people.”
Many Egyptian youth sympathized with the 2009 Green Movement in Iran, which Ahmadinejad brutally crushed.
Ahmadinejad visited Egypt at a time when Iran is backing the secular, socialist, authoritarian Baath regime of Syria against its own revolution. To most Egyptians, Bashar al-Assad looks entirely too much like a Mubarak, and the Baath Party reminds them unpleasantly of the ‘National Democratic Party’ in Egypt that monopolized power and wealth for its cronies. So Ahmadinejad did not look like a populist in Egypt, but like a Kissinger-style Realist, willing to sacrifice the Syrian masses to Iran’s hegemonic geopolitical interests in the region.
Gone are the heady days of summer, 2006, when Iran backed Lebanon’s party-militia, Hizbullah, against a massive Israeli attack, and helped it avoid any crushing defeat at Israeli hands. Even staunchly Sunni shopkeepers put pictures of Ahmadinejad up behind their counters.
The unleashing of Sunni political Islam in Egypt and the rise of the Salafi, Wahhabi-like hard liners, if anything has increased the hysteria about a few Egyptian converts to Shiism, and complicated Ahmadinejad’s reception. Even mainstream Sunnis and Arab nationalists in Egypt expressed discomfort with Shiite Iran’s press for influence in the Arab world.
Reaching out to Iran for the purposes of mild diplomatic exchanges is a way for the government of President Muhammad Morsi to differentiate itself from the preceding Mubarak regime. It is a small rebellion against the United States, for which Egypt is still a client state, marking a little space of independence. But it doesn’t amount to much, and isn’t distinctive from what other American allies and clients in the region are already doing. It is also getting push back from the Arab oil states of the Gulf, who are worried that Egypt is going soft on Iran’s regional ambitions.
In the end, Ahmadinejad in Cairo was a disappointment not because of the Sunni-Shiite divide but because his government is out of step with the aspirations of contemporary Arab youth. They are in the majority left of center, he is an exponent of the Religious Right. He is a supporter of the hated dictator Bashar al-Assad, they are sympathetic to the rebel cause in that country. His government is authoritarian, they want more freedoms. His government is a theocracy, they want democracy. Even a Muslim religious politician like Essam Elerian doesn’t want to be tarred by the brush of Iran. Ahmadinejad in Cairo was not hip or cool. He was so 1979, representing a movement contemporaneous with the Bee Gees’ “Too Much Heaven.”