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Iran-Egypt Relations: Obstacles and Solutions

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Hojjatollah Joudaki 

Active ImageReview of Iran’s relations with Egypt over the past half a century will reveal that bilateral relations have been consistently turbulent from the military coup which was staged by Free Officers Movement led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, up to the present time. The only period when relations were friendly was following election of the former Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, until the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. That period was a honeymoon period for Iran-Egypt relations. Thus, relations have been nonexistent for a matter of about 50 years.

50 years of severed relations between Iran and Egypt

After the successful coup which toppled monarchism in Egypt, the Free Officers Movement established powerful relations with the eastern bloc gradually distancing from the west and Israel. Iran, on the other hand, got very close to the west, especially the United States and Israel, following the August 19, 1953, coup d’état against the popular government of Dr. Mosaddeq which was masterminded by the United States.
 
Therefore, the Iranian Shah became a close ally of the west. Subsequent to those developments, Iran’s interests were in conflict with Egypt’s. As the Cold War raged between political systems in Iran and Egypt, they took hostile steps against each other. Gamal Abdel Nasser supported Iran’s political opposition to the extent that they underwent military training courses in Egypt to topple the Shah. Abdel Nasser also officially supported Arab separatist movements in southwest Iran, armed them, and used “Arabian Gulf” instead of the Persian Gulf.

Despite tension between Shah and Nasser, Iranian people took a different approach to Nasser’s measures. Iranian intellectuals, who fought against the Shah, admired Nasser’s anti-imperialistic and anti-Zionist stances. Of course, Iranian religious figures opposing the Shah criticized Nasser for executing Seyed Qotb. After Sadat was elected president, Egypt became inclined toward the west and established cordial ties to the Iranian regime.

Following the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and domination of an internationalist discourse over the Iranian foreign policy and subsequent to Egypt’s peace accord with Israel, relations between Tehran and Cairo were severed on the order of the late Imam Khomeini and, once more, friendship gave way to hostility.

Thus, Iran’s relations with Egypt, which had been once cut under the rule of Abdel Nasser, were cut again by Imam Khomeini. Severance of relations was followed by increasing problems on both sides. At first, the main problem was Egypt’s relations with Israel and Camp David peace accord. Then, Egypt took an active part in anti-Iranian plots led by the United States. On the other hand, Iran’s support for opposition groups in Cairo and naming a Tehran street after Khaled Eslamboli, the Egyptian officer who had assassinated Sadat, worsened an already tense atmosphere between the two nations. Recrimination rife in both countries, which has continued even up to the present days, further complicated the situation.

Cultural relations between two nations

Although political relations have been cut off over the past 50 years, cultural interactions between the two nations have never ceased. In fact, during all the time that Egyptian and Iranian politicians exchanged fire, cultural figures in Iran and Egypt were concerned about other issues. They were moving to cement cultural relations between the two nations without much hype. Dar ul-Taqrib Bayn al-Mazahib al-Islamiya (Organization for Proximity of the Islamic Denominations) was a good example which did its best to build correct understanding of Islamic denominations, especially between Shias and Sunnis. Efforts made by Sheikh Mahmud Shaltut and Mohammad Taqi Qomi during that period were especially laudable. He was admirable both for establishing his own school, and for raising scholars at the abovementioned organization. At that juncture, Qomi represented the Iranian culture and closely worked with the Egyptian thinkers from Al-Azhar University. Their common work dispelled many misunderstandings in the minds of Shias and Sunnis as represented by the Iranian and Egyptian nations.

Before victory of the Islamic Revolution, many revolutionary figures in Iran were inspired by their Egyptian peers. For instance, the title of Dr. Shariati’s book, What Should Be Done, closely resembled that of Khalid Muhammad Khalid Idah. Also, many books written by Seyed Qotb, including Social Justice in Islam, were translated into Persian before the Islamic Revolution and were printed many times.

Active ImageEgyptians have also cared a lot about Iran during the period when their countries were not on a friendly footing. They translated many important Persian books into Arabic. Although political relations are still out of the question, there are 14 independent Persian language departments at the Egyptian universities with more than 200 teachers and over 4,000 students. Many Persian books have been translated by them and more than 900 academic theses have focused on Iran. Al-Ahram Institute established an Iran desk more than 14 years ago where 40 scholars are engaged and publish a monthly entitled “Mukhtarat Iraniya (Excerpts from Iran).” They also translate all editorials in the Iranian newspapers and conduct strategic discussions on Iran. They introduce an influential Iranian figure every month and this has updated Egyptian’s knowledge of Iran.

Therefore, cultural relations have been never cut, though the volume of cultural work in Iran has not been significant. Apart from translating a few books, we have done nothing serious to know about cultural and political environment in Egypt. This is why the Iranian diplomatic apparatus is, at times, charged with passivity toward Egypt. How many academic theses have we compiled on Egypt? They run an interest section in Iran as we have in Egypt with an equal number of staffers. Why they are so active in gathering information on Iran and know so much about our country while we know so little about them? Although I had translated a few books on Egypt before traveling there, once in Egypt, I suddenly realized how scanty our information about Egypt is.

Impediments to détente

In addition to inadequate understanding, a major obstacle to reestablishment of political relations is improper literature used by radical circles and print media on both sides. For example, there is a newspaper in Egypt called Ruz al-Yusuf, which follows a secular approach and keeps insulting the Iranian officials. On the other side, there are Kayhan and Jomhouri Eslami newspapers in Iran which follow a similar line. Most negative remarks result from lack of proper understanding on both sides.
We write against them and they retaliate in kind. Such offensive material is sure to affect bilateral relations. For example, a group of political activists produced a film on the assassination of Sadat which they called “Execution of Pharaoh.” It elicited strong protests from the Egyptian government. Quran has advised the faithful not to insult infidels’ idols because they will insult their God in return. Therefore, we should note that such behavior will only deteriorate bilateral ties.

Iran’s efforts to reestablish relations

Active ImagePresident Ahmadinejad announced in May 2007 that if the Egyptian government gave the go-ahead, Iran was ready to reopen its embassy in Cairo in less than 24 hours. Of course, this was not a calculated remark and stemmed from lack of correct understanding of the situation in Egypt. In the first place, embassies are open and the main issue is to raise relations above the interest section. To do this, both sides should overcome obstacles. For example, Egypt considers Gaza its backyard, but we support Hamas. Egypt will naturally respond by doing the same in another region which we consider our political backyard. Therefore, as long as obstacles are in place, nobody can expect relations which have been cut for more than half a century to be resumed overnight.

Useful solutions and measures

In my opinion, both countries’ officials should first avoid of any action which will further deteriorate tension. They must prevent use of foul language against the other country’s statesmen. Insult has never solved any problem. A wise policy is for us to prevent such insulting language and do our best to resolve problems.

For instance, a recent fatwa issued by the Supreme Leader in forbidding insult to Prophet Mohammad’s (PBUH) wives was a very effective step which can greatly facilitate interactions with the Sunni and Arab world. More emphasis on this issue will further help to improve relations.

On the other hand, reestablishment of flights to Egypt, which has been proposed recently, can be very effective if actually realized. Of course, visa problems should be solved first as Egyptians are very strict about giving visa to Iranians and even Iranian diplomats have difficulty obtaining the Egyptian visa. Iran, on the other hand, has applied the same austerity to issuing visa to Egyptians. Therefore, although direct flights are effective in the expansion of relations, other steps should be taken to facilitate visa formalities and gradually pave the way for the expansion of relations in other areas of interest.

Links for Further Reading:

1- Egypt Plays Iran Card: http://www.iranreview.org/content/view/6061/36/
2- Rivalry Between Egypt and Iran Beyond Mideast: http://www.iranreview.org/content/view/6147/41/

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