Does Morsi’s Trip to Tehran Mean Better Egypt-Iran Relations?

Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi and Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani greet Jordan’s King Abdullah at the opening ceremony of the Organization of Islamic Conference summit in Mecca Aug. 14, 2012. (photo by REUTERS/Hassan Ali)

By:Bahaa Tawil posted on Tuesday, Aug 28, 2012

Days before his victory in the presidential election was announced, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi was asked about the future of Egypt’s relationship with Iran once he became president. Morsi responded that he “welcomes a good relationship with Iran.” However, for Morsi, this “good” relationship is dependent on the following condition: “That a good relationship would not be at the expense of Egypt’s ties with the Gulf or compromise the nation’s security.”
After 33 years of a political boycott and minimum diplomatic ties, Morsi will fly in his presidential jet to Tehran on Aug. 30 and become the first Egyptian president to visit Iran since President Anwar Sadat’s last visit in 1979.
However, Morsi is not visiting Iran to meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Rather, it is a quick and brief visit to attend the 16th summit of the Non-Aligned Countries hosted by Tehran where Morsi will preside over the session as the president of Egypt.
Tehran tried to take advantage of Morsi’s visit to bridge ties with Cairo, by inviting him to visit its nuclear facilities in Bushehr, Natanz and Isfahan, where uranium enrichment activities take place. However, Morsi refused this offer and decided to keep his visit limited to taking part in the opening ceremony of the summit without having to stay overnight in Tehran.
Egypt was quick to announce Morsi’s agenda and details regarding his visit to Iran. The visit will not last more than five hours, which is the required time for Morsi and the Egyptian delegation to go from the Imam Khomeini International Airport to the summit location, where Morsi will deliver a speech on behalf of Egypt, which has been chairing the summit since 2009. Following his speech, Morsi will return to Cairo, without holding any meetings with Ahmadinejad regarding the summit or ties between the two countries.
However, Morsi’s stance did not reassure his allies and has irritated many Egyptians. Ahmed Khalil, member of the Salafist al-Nour Party — the Muslim Brotherhood top ally — said that “the strengthening of times between Egypt and Iran may lead to unprecedented anger on the part of Salafists toward the Brotherhood.” Khalil told reporters that it is unacceptable for Egypt to normalize its relations with Tehran, which supports the Assad regime “that is exterminating the Sunni people of Syria.”
Khalil added that “there is a significant concern that Iran exploits normal relations with Egypt to spread Shiism,” noting that the only advantage of the Mubarak regime was the fact that he did not form close ties with Tehran.
Salafist anger toward Morsi’s visit has reached the point that Sheikh Ali Galeb, Imam of al-Daawa al-Salafia (the call for returning to the basics of Islam), sharply attacked Morsi and the Brotherhood during his Friday sermon in Mersa Matruh province, a stronghold of the Salafist movement. He said that Morsi’s visit to Tehran “represents the betrayal of Syrians experiencing bloodshed,” and called on Morsi to immediately cancel his visit to Iran. Galeb added that “when Morsi became president of Egypt, he said that Saudi Arabia and Egypt are the guardians of the Sunnis,” adding: “Is this how you protect them?”
The Brotherhood responded to the angry Salafist leader, attempting to justify Morsi’s visit to Tehran. The Muslim Brotherhood’s official spokesman, Mahmoud Ghozlan, clarified that the purpose of the visit is to pressure Tehran to halt its support to the Syrian regime. He said ties between Cairo and Tehran are dependent on the following:

“Iran must not spread Shiism in Sunni countries and must also guarantee the national security of the Gulf, which is a part of Egypt’s security.”

Away from the Islamic leadership, optimism is spread among many observers and analysts, who are hoping that Morsi’s visit to Tehran will thaw the ice between the two countries. Egyptian writer Emad El-Din Hussein hopes that Morsi’s visit will lay genuine foundations for Iranian-Egyptian relations, based on mutual interests, without resulting in “a campaign to destroy normal relations in Egypt.” Hussein added that these relations should be in the interest of both countries’ economies and lead to the end of Iran’s occupation of UAE Islands, as well as stopping Iran’s interference in the internal affairs of Gulf countries.
However, this optimism collides with the realistic vision of Emad Gad, an expert with the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. The Los Angeles Times quoted Gad as saying that he does not believe that Morsi’s visit will contribute to improve relations between Cairo and Tehran, stressing that “Morsi is currently unable to challenge the United States and Gulf countries, since they are his strategic allies and he is in need of their support and assistance. They will not be happy or satisfied with improved Iranian-Egyptian relations.”

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