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Egypt and Iran—odd bedfellows?

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 Nervana MahmoudBy Nervana Mahmoud

The extraordinary and well-organised funeral procession of the deposed Iranian Shah in 1980 marked the first state funeral to be held in Old Cairo in modern Egypt’s history.

The Egyptian president Anwar Sadat had done his best to give the Shah a dignified burial. Sadat had chosen the beautiful Rifa’i Mosque, where the Shah could be buried next to his ex-brother-in-law, the late Egyptian King, Farouk.

Sadat’s decision to receive the ill Shah had not been a political move; it had been prompted (rightly or wrongly) by his sense of religious duty. He had felt the need to highlight a different side of Islam that promotes compassion and mercy—the two qualities Muslims recite in their prayers five times a day. These qualities stood in sharp contrast to the revenge and vengeance Iran had pledged in the 1979 revolution.

But not everyone in Egypt shared Sadat’s vision; many Islamists who despised Sadat for his peace treaty with Israel and his warm relationship with the US did not view the Shah’s funeral through the prism of compassion.

For them, the Iranian Islamic Revolution was an inspiring event, a template with which they could work to fulfill their dream of an Islamic state, a dream that, at the time, overrode the sectarian divide between the Shi’a Iranian regime and the Sunni Egyptian Islamists. The two Islamist factions shared a deep sense of disgust toward Sadat, and viewed him as a traitor who had sold his soul to the “Zionists”.

Today, 33 years later, the current president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, has received the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The leaders hugged and kissed at the airport and expressed a desire to open a new chapter in the relationship between the two countries.

The intriguing and complex history of relations between Egypt and Iran, together with the latest visit of Ahmadinejad, highlights the mixed, confused moral code of the various political Islamist parties in the Middle East. President Morsi, who only a few months ago laid a wreath at his late predecessor Anwar Sadat’s tomb on the anniversary of the 1973 war, had conveniently ignored Sadat.

His party, the Muslim Brotherhood, which lectures Egyptians daily about “state prestige”, did not see any compromise to this illusive prestige by inviting the head of the Iranian state, which still views Sadat negatively, to Egypt.

President Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, conveniently ignored how Ahmadinejad had been elected after a rigged election, and his record of oppression is far worse than that of his predecessor, the Shah. To add to the hypocrisy, many Islamists expressed dissatisfaction at the mistreatment of the Sunni minority in Iran, conveniently ignoring how they oppress the Shi’a in Egypt.

Setting aside the absurd, dysfunctional moral compass (on the foreign policy front, both sides arrogantly thought they could con the other side for political gain), Ahmadinejad assumed that flowery words would be enough to win the hearts and minds of Egyptians, while Morsi wrongly assumed he was restoring balance and gaining respect.

But how can Morsi restore balance by ignoring Iran’s support for the Assad regime that butchers our brothers in Syria? Did Morsi really believe that he can change the Iranian mindset?  And how will Ahmadinejad’s visit impact the already tense relationship between Egypt and the UAE, bearing in mind the dispute between Iran and the UAE over the occupied Gulf Islands?

In my opinion, the only positive outcome of Ahmadinejad’s visit is the removal of the visa restriction between the two countries, a move that the Iranian leadership may later regret.

Egyptian youth may soon experience what I did after touring the Islamic Republic and its exotic cities, where the scent of spices and jasmine was mixed with the defiant attitude of its people who endure their government-enforced coercion without allowing themselves to be brainwashed by its regressive views.

The youth who poured into Tahrir Square on January 2011 would love to meet the Iranian youth who bravely defied the regime in the 2009 ‘Green Revolution’. Both can learn a lot from each other, as they share the same aspirations of true freedom and democracy, where Sunni, Shi’a, and other groups would live together under a moral code that truly honours dignity, pluralism, and equality.

Both Egypt and Iran are at a critical juncture in their history. Despite different narratives, both have endured tragic revolutions and illusive springs. The Middle East will never enjoy a true awakening, unless the youth of both countries fulfill these aspirations. Only then will Egypt and Iran be able to reset their relationship and draw an end to their complex, hostile past.


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