It has been 14 centuries since Persia last conquered Egypt and, judging by this
week’s news, one might have thought that history was about to repeat
Never mind that so much has happened in the
Middle East since those twilight years when Muhammad was already alive but Egypt
was still Christian, Persia was pagan and Jerusalem was briefly handed by the
Persians to the Jews. The public embraces this week between Presidents Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad and Mohamed Morsi represented no bilateral drama, certainly no
rapprochement between the antagonistic Shi’ite and Sunni powers, which could
hardly conceal the ones growing sense of siege and the others shrinking
What the visit did underscore is Israel’s loneliness
in what has become an almost fully Islamist Middle East.
medieval conquest and several other clashes earlier in history, Egyptian and
Persian civilizations rarely met. In recent history, however, the two emerged as
regional rivals three times: first in the 1950s, when the shah of Iran opposed
Nasserism, seeing in pan-Arab nationalism a strategic threat; then when Egypt
made peace with Israel and Islamist Iran defined Israel as an enemy; and lastly
when Tehran chose to back Bashar Assad in Syria’s civil war.
this week took place against this backdrop, but by no means did it ease that
rivalry. Egypt has not removed the shah’s body from his grave in Cairo, and
Tehran has not renamed the street that glorifies Anwar Sadat’s
Though Morsi made sure to appear respectful, arriving at the
airport for his guest’s red-carpet greeting, the visit came merely as part of
the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s summit. The two states did not
announce, and are not known to consider, a restoration of diplomatic
Down in the field ,Ahmadinejad was twice attacked publicly – once
when a worshipper in Cairo’s Al-Hussein Mosque threw a shoe at him, reportedly
screaming “You killed our brothers,” and before that when the imam of Al-Azhar,
Ahmad al-Tayyeb, warned Iran’s president not to spread Shi’ism in Sunni
The cleric who heads the most important Sunni university in the
world also used his meeting with Ahmadinejad to accuse Iran of meddling in the
internal affairs of Bahrain, the island opposite Iran where a Sunni minority is
ruling over a Shi’ite majority. Then, as Ahmadinejad emerged from the meeting,
another senior cleric, Hassan al-Shafie, told reporters, in the presence of a
visibly irritated Ahmadinejad, that the Imam had also rebuked in the meeting
Shi’ites who spoke scornfully of early Islamic figures who are dear to
THEOLOGICAL GAPS between Tehran and Cairo would possibly have
been bridged more easily had they been able to offer each other political
Ahmadinejad’s public offer to extend financial
aid to Egypt is rhetorical as, amid plunging oil sales and spiraling inflation,
Tehran is struggling to employ, house and feed its own population. It simply
lacks the cash. Egypt, for its part, while in dire need of aid, is in no
position to accept it from Iran even if the mullahs were in a position to
deliver, as that would provoke Washington, whose military aid and wheat
shipments to Egypt are reliable, sizable and indispensable.
On top of
that, the constant unrest in Cairo’s streets is narrowing Morsi’s political
maneuver space, as doubts mount concerning his ability to handle Egypt’s
daunting economic problems.
At the same time, Egypt cannot offer Tehran
what it needs most – an easing of the sanctions that are crippling Iran's
economy – for the prosaic reason that a nuclear Iran is a problem for Cairo,
too, and even more so for Saudi Arabia, whose aid is also crucial to
Still, Morsi’s public warmth to Ahmadinejad, while representing no
diplomatic U-turn, does reflect an urge to make Islamic assertiveness part of
Egyptian diplomacy, an attitude Morsi expressed by condemning this week France’s
role in the conflict in Mali.
The Islamic sphere lacks the resources
Egypt needs, besides being divided from within, as Morsi was reminded when
Tunisia’s Islamist President Moncef Marzouki canceled his own visit to Cairo
this week following the assassination of secularist politician Chokri Belaid.
Yet the Islamic sphere does represent a quest. That is where Morsi and his
circles feel most comfortable, and that is where their thoughts travel when they
think of utopia.
Ahmadinejad knows this, which is why he said that Egypt
and Iran have in common at least as much as the European Union’s members have
with each other. And since he knows that his role in the Syrian bloodbath is
anathema to Cairo, he tried to steer the discussion toward the lowest common
denominator: Israel. Egypt and Iran, he told Morsi, can jointly solve the
CHANCES ARE LOW that Cairo will join Tehran’s lead
in any diplomatic move in the region, even vis-à-vis the Palestinians. Cairo
even shuns Sunni Turkey’s lead. While there is no conflict between Egypt and Turkey, Morsi still sees in Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan a
non- Arab who, like Ahmadinejad, might be out to domineer his Arab neighbors.
That is why, like Mubarak before him, Morsi has yet to join Turkey’s free-trade
zone with Lebanon and Jordan.
Still, be the limits of harmony among
Egypt, Iran and Turkey what they may, their leaders do share between them an
anti-Israeli hostility that no other such threesome previously shared.
has been now 55 years since David Ben-Gurion conceived the Periphery Strategy,
whereby Israel cultivated a ring of non-Arab alliances. The keystones in that
strategy were Iran, Turkey and Ethiopia, all of which felt threatened by
Egyptian pan- Arabism under Nasser.
Until the fallout with Turkey, Israel
always had a close relationship with at least two of the Middle East’s three
major states. This week’s dynamics in the region, including a meeting between
Ahmadinejad and Abbas in Cairo and hostile Turkish statements following Israel’s
reported attack in Syria, left Jerusalem perplexed and lacking regional anchors,
at least momentarily.
Then again, the contrast between the past and the
present may be less stark than meets the eye.
Iran’s recognition of
Israel in 1960 made Cairo break up ties with Tehran, but Iran’s relations with
Israel never rose to full diplomatic ties. Egypt’s peace with Israel in 1979
made Khomeini break up diplomatic ties with Egypt, but the treaty was never
followed by the kind of elaborate economic ties Israel had with
pre-revolutionary Iran. And today’s economic ties with Turkey remain broad,
despite the diplomatic chill, while diplomatic ties with Egypt are so far
surviving the ongoing regional mayhem.
Back when he promoted the
Peripheral Strategy, Ben-Gurion met secretly with then-Turkish prime minister
Adnan Menderes and signed with him the deal that touched off the two countries’
quiet alliance. The deal lasted, but soon after that meeting Menders was deposed
and hanged following a coup that had nothing to do with Israel.
week’s hugs and kisses by Cairo’s red carpets, restless crowds, flying shoes and
bickering clerics, it was a reminder that in the Middle East nothing is
predictable except that next year’s sands, like last year’s, will shift.