Egypt seen as shifting alliances
Cairo - The angry reaction of many Egyptians to seeing a picture of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on an advertising billboard is indicative of many Egyptians’ feelings towards the Islamic Republic, authorities said.
The advert for the Al Ghad Al Arabi channel portrayed Khamenei appearing to take a selfie with images from Gulf Arab countries in the background. Al Ghad said its ad symbolised Iranian ambitions in the Gulf region. Even though it did not show Khamenei in a good light, just seeing his magnified image on a billboard was enough to anger many Egyptians. Authorities removed the ad hours after it was put up out of concerns it incited public anger.
The move came amid calls for additional dialogue with Tehran following strains in ties with Egypt’s strongest financial backer, Saudi Arabia.
“A rapprochement is necessary between Cairo and Tehran, given their apparent agreement on several regional files,” said independent Iranian affairs specialist Mohamed Mustafa. “Iran has been trying to break the ice with Egypt for some time.”
Diplomatic relations between Cairo and Tehran halted in 1981 after Iran hailed as “heroes” the assassins of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. Sadat had angered Iranians by hosting shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was deposed in Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution.
In August 2012, Iran was the second country Islamist president Muhammad Morsi visited, the first trip to Tehran by an Egyptian president since 1979. Five months later, then Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Cairo.
This fledgling détente was put on hold after Gulf countries backed Morsi’s overthrow in July 2013. Talk has renewed in Cairo in recent weeks on the need for better relations with Tehran, especially after Cairo and Riyadh’s lack of political accord became apparent.
Observers said Cairo and Tehran agree on several issues, including the war in Syria.
“When it comes to some regional files Cairo is closer to Tehran and Moscow than to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states,” said Hassan Nafaa, a political science professor at Cairo University. “Nobody knows how this similarity in views will bring Cairo and Tehran closer together in the future but the sure thing is that it will drive Cairo and Riyadh apart.”
Saudi Arabia, which has given Egypt billions of dollars in economic aid in recent years, was angered by Egypt’s stance on Syria. Egypt wants the Syrian conflict to be settled peacefully but opposes some of the Islamist groups fighting the Syrian Army and does not object to Syrian President Bashar Assad staying in power. Saudi Arabia insists that Assad step down and backs some Islamist groups fighting him.
Cairo and Riyadh also are at odds on how to handle Yemen’s Houthi insurgency. Saudi media accused Cairo of not doing enough militarily to help in Riyadh’s anti-Houthi campaign.
In early October, signs of additional discord surfaced when Saudi oil giant Aramco refused to send Egypt 700,000 tonnes of oil. Cairo and Riyadh had agreed in April that Aramco would ship 700,000 tonnes of oil each month for five years to Egypt with Cairo paying for the shipments over 15 years.
Soon after the initial furore over the Aramco oil cut, a senior Syrian security official met with Egyptian intelligence to discuss coordination between the two countries, dealing a further blow to Egyptian-Saudi relations.
Iraq said it would provide Egypt with more oil to compensate for the Saudi oil cut and a few days later Tehran was reported to have insisted that Egyptian officials attend a meeting on the Syrian crisis in Switzerland.
The developments should not be taken as a sign that Cairo and Tehran will normalise relations soon, said Adel al-Safti, a former assistant Foreign minister.
“Egypt will never throw its foreign policy principles aside because of tensions with one country or another,” Safti said. “Despite tensions with Saudi Arabia, Egypt views Iran as a destabilising force in this region.”
Safti, a member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, which includes former diplomats advising the government on foreign policy, added that Egypt cannot risk its ties with Saudi Arabia by improving relations with Iran.
This view, some analysts say, is not pragmatic enough and will do nothing to advance either Egypt’s or Saudi Arabia’s interests.
Egyptian columnist Abdullah al-Senawi wrote recently that improved relations between Cairo and Tehran were necessary.
“These relations will serve the interests of both Egypt and Saudi Arabia,” Senawi wrote in the daily al Shorouk.