Cairo tries to balance ties with Tehran and its foes

Hoping to bolster its credentials as a reinvented leader of the Arab world, Egypt has begun an extraordinary balancing act by reaching out to Iran, and simultaneously sending the signals of continuity to Tehran’s foes in the oil-rich Gulf.

Egypt’s Islamist President Mohamed Morsy on Tuesday rolled out the red carpet to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who became the first Iranian President to visit Cairo after the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The warm welcome notwithstanding, his Egyptian hosts did not forget the larger context of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s visit — a raging cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia that has engulfed several countries, including Syria and Bahrain, and has inflamed the sectarian divide in the region.

Unsurprisingly, Kamel Amr, Foreign Minister of aid dependent Egypt, sought to reassure the wealthy royals of the Gulf about the benign intentions of the visit soon after Mr. Ahmadinejad’s arrival. “The security of the Gulf states is the security of Egypt,” said Mr. Amr, as reported by Egypt’s official MENA news agency.

The rift between Iran and Gulf heavyweights was also reflected in remarks by Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayeb, head of Al-Azhar, the 1,000-year-old seat of religious learning. During talks with Mr. Ahmadinejad, Sheikh El-Tayeb urged Iran not to interfere in the Gulf Arab states, including Bahrain. The remarks by the Grand Imam were somewhat ironic as forces drawn from Gulf countries, led by Saudi Arabia, suppressed a pro-democracy revolt in Bahrain, which has a majority Shia population.

Sheikh El-Tayeb also rejected the extension of Shia influence in countries with a majority Sunni population.

Some of the strongest voices of opposition to Mr. Ahmadinejad’s visit came from the Salafist groups, influenced by the puritanical Wahhabi doctrine widespread in Saudi Arabia. Salafist Call, an Egyptian group, issued a statement slamming the spread of “Shia influence on Sunni Egypt”. “He [Mr. Ahmadinejad] must not forget that one of Egypt’s global commitments and [part of] President Morsy’s presidential programme is to protect all Sunni nations from political, cultural or military penetration,” it said.

The group also took on the Iranian leader on Tehran’s support for the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It stressed that Mr. Ahmadinejad must be “confronted with his responsibility regarding the killing of women and children in Syria through his backing of the regime of Bashar al-Assad”. The group echoed the general refrain about ensuring the stability of the Gulf by warning Mr. Ahmadinejad not to forget that “the security of the Gulf is one of the main pillars of Egyptian national security”.

Contrary to the focus in Egypt on the demarcation of sectarian boundaries, the Iranian side is highlighting the visit as an opening for a major geopolitical accomplishment. “From a historical standpoint, in case Iran and Egypt stay together, both will emerge winners and that would benefit not only the two nations, but also the entire region,” said Mr. Ahmadinejad, as reported by Iran’s English-language Press TV.

The Iranian President also advocated joint efforts by Tehran and Cairo to resolve the festering crisis in Syria.

As he engaged with layers of Egypt’s political and religious elite, Mr. Ahmadinejad also attempted to shed some of the historical baggage that burdened the relationship during the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak. Egypt’s decision to give asylum and then a state funeral to Shah Reza Pahlavi had for decades invoked revolutionary Iran’s fury.

The Egyptians were piqued by Iran’s decision to name a street in Tehran after the assassin of the former President Anwar Sadat. The signing of the 1979 peace treaty by Egypt with Israel has also been an enduring cause of animosity.

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