Analysis: A Persian in Cairo

Despite their presidential summit, gaps between Egypt and Iran remain un-bridged.

Ahmadinejad with Morsi in Cairo 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Egyptian Presidency/Handout)
Ahmadinejad with Morsi in Cairo 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Egyptian Presidency/Handout)
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 itself.
It didn’t.
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 political fortunes.
What the visit did underscore is Israel’s loneliness in what has become an almost fully Islamist Middle East.
Despite that 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.
The visit 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 assassin.
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 ties.
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 lands.
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 Sunnis.
THEOLOGICAL GAPS between Tehran and Cairo would possibly have been bridged more easily had they been able to offer each other political goods.
They aren’t.
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 Egypt.
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 Palestinian problem.
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.
It 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.
Like this 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.