Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad offered Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi a strategic alliance and sought to restore diplomatic ties between the two nations at a meeting in Cairo Tuesday.
Ahmadinejad is the first Iranian leader to visit Egypt since the 1979 Islamist revolution in Iran. As Islamists took power in Iran, Egypt forged a bond with Israel, and the two nations stood on opposite sides of the fence.
Now that Morsi, an Islamist, is in power in Egypt, Iran’s hopes for renewed diplomacy have been kindled.
Though both presidents are Islamists, Ahmadinejad represents Shi’ite Muslims, and Morsi represents Sunni Muslims. Another dividing line that remains between the two nations is their respective stances on the conflict in Syria. Iran is allied with the ruling Bashar al-Assad regime, while Egypt is a strong supporter of the Syrian rebel uprising.
The United States also supports the Syrian uprising. The U.S. and other nations have recently imposed economic sanctions on Iran, pressuring it to give up its disputed nuclear program. Egypt remains cautious about taking a step too far toward Iran and too far away from U.S. support.
While Ahmadinejad received a warm reception from Morsi, his offer of a strategic alliance was met with lukewarm enthusiasm.
“We are gradually improving,” Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi told Reuters. “We have to be a little bit patient. I’m very hopeful about the expansion of the bilateral relationship.”
Salehi foresees a closer relationship between the two nations in terms of “trade and economics.”
Insult and Near Injury
At least five people were arrested in Egypt after protesting outside of a mosque in Cairo visited by Ahmadinejad. One man threw his shoe at Ahmadinejad—a grave insult in the Arab and Muslim world.
A video uploaded by the Turkish Anadolu news agency shows throngs of people around Ahmadinejad before the shoe flies at him, nearly hitting him in the head. Security men then quickly escort the Iranian leader to his car.
Anadolu reported that the bearded man, who was identified as a Syrian, was immediately detained. While he threw the shoe, he shouted, “You killed our brothers,” apparently referring to Ahmadinejad’s support of Syrian President Assad.
Four other people raised their shoes at Ahmadinejad, reported the Gulf News.
A similar insult to former U.S. President George W. Bush was highly publicized in 2008; Iraqi journalist Muntader al-Zaidi threw both his shoes at Bush during a conference in Baghdad, nearly hitting him.
Iranian state-run media downplayed Tuesday’s incident, with Iranian envoy to Egypt Mojtaba Amani quoted as saying that “no problem” took place while Ahmadinejad was in Cairo. He dismissed reports that the president was assaulted, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency.
Shi’ites versus Sunnis
The visit from Ahmadinejad, the president of a predominantly Shi’ite Muslim country, was condemned by more hard-line Sunni Muslims in Egypt.
Egyptian Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb scolded the Iranian president when they met for attempting to spread Shi’ism in Sunni nations, according to the Gulf News.
The Egyptian Salafist Call group was quoted by the Gulf News as saying, “The visit … may come at the expense of the supreme interests of Egypt and the Sunnis who make up the bulk of the Islamic nation.”
Some analysts have said that Ahmadinejad’s visit in Egypt, or the visit of any other Iranian leader for that matter, would have been unthinkable under the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak, who ruled Egypt for three decades.
The two nations have not restored diplomatic ties since Mubarak was overthrown in early 2011, only now taking the first substantial steps toward doing so. Ahmadinejad noted the lack of progress for normalizing diplomatic ties between both countries.
“No change happened in the last two years, but discussions between us developed and grew,” he was quoted by Reuters as saying. “His Excellency President Mohamed Morsi visited Iran and met us, as he met the Iranian foreign minister. And we previously contacted Egypt to know about what is happening with Syrian affairs.”
Egypt’s foreign reserves are now below the $15 billion needed to cover three months of imports. Iran has offered economic support, despite the sanctions it is currently experiencing, reported Egyptian publication Al-Ahram.
The United States also provides Egypt with $1.3 billion in aid each year, according to Al-Ahram.
Ahmadinejad said on Wednesday, according to Reuters, “We must all understand that the only option is to set up this alliance because it is in the interests of the Egyptian and Iranian peoples and other nations of the region.”
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