The New Egypt: A Potential Ally

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Nasser Saghafi-Ameri

Iran and Egypt are set to restart bilateral relations after more than three decades of animosity. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in his first phone call to the newly-elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi said that Iran will place no limits on the strengthening relations with Egypt. He invited his counterpart to a summit of Non-Aligned Movement nations which is set to take place in Tehran at the end of August 2012. Ahmadinejad emphasized that the two nations shared a cultural heritage, and that Iran was prepared to bolster ties in the fields of technology, industry and economy, stressing also the necessity of political dialogue.

The Iran-Egypt relations fell into a period of stagnation following the signing of the Camp David Peace Accords between Egypt and Israel in 1979. The breakup of ties between Cairo and Tehran, and Egypt’s realignment with Israel, was well tuned with Israel’s interest. In fact, the continuation of Egypt's antipathy toward Iran became one of the pillars of Israel’s national security. After the assassination of Anwar al-Sadat, and during Hosni Mubarak's reign, Egypt’s alignment with the US was reinforced to the extent that Egypt became a U.S. ally in the Middle East backing all U.S. initiatives in the region. During the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, Egypt gave its support to Saddam Hussein by providing an estimated five billion dollars in weapons. After a period of lull, beginning in 2000, during President Mohammad Khatami time in Iran, a series of unsuccessful attempts were made to heal the relations between the two countries. Yet, the American pressure prevented any such revival.

Other attempts also failed and produced little action even when President Ahmadinejad expressed Iran's enthusiasm for restoring diplomatic relations saying that “We are determined to pursue normalization of relations with Egypt, and if the Egyptian government declares its readiness, before the working hour is over today, we are willing to open Iran’s embassy in Cairo.” 

However, the big change came in February 2011, shortly after Mubarak stepped down from the office, when Iran requested permission to transit two warships through the Suez Canal and the Egyptian authorities agreed to the request. Presumably, the perception on both sides was that they would gain by reviving their relationship in the changing regional environment. For Iran, the Egyptian revolution has created a new political situation, in where Egypt is increasingly siding with the Palestinians and distancing itself from Israel. For three decades Islamic Republic of Iran felt to be alone and mostly without any help in defending the cause of the Palestinians. It is therefore a sign of relief for Iran to see Egypt back in the region’s politics and on the right side of the political-security equation. That would also greatly enhance Iran's power play in the region, and especially with regard to the American confrontational policies. For Egypt, as the traditional leader of the Arab world, opening relations with Iran would help to restore the leadership position which was lost in the wake of siding with the US and Israel in the precarious geopolitical equation of the Middle East.

Reshape of the Region

The countries of North Africa and the Middle East from Morocco in the west to Oman in the east are going through an unprecedented upheaval. The turmoil in the region had significant repercussions for Egypt as a prominent player in the Arab World and a strategic pivot. Internally, Egypt is facing several major challenges: first, is the political crisis which is the direct cause of fault lines running through its complex political and ethnical landscape. The Islamist, Copts, conservatives, liberals, nationalists, and of course the strong military echelons are all involved in a power contest.  A major factor in this process is the youth force thriving for change in the new Egypt. The Egyptian youth constitute over 60 percent of the population under 25 years. Although they are among the nation's most educated segment of the population, some 80 percent of them are unemployed. Not surprisingly, they were among those who started the revolution in Tahrir Square.

The second major challenge that Egypt is facing is in the economic field. Although Egypt has the most diversified economy in the Arab world, it is facing many challenges in its economic development plans. The free-market economic order under the Mubarak regime, advocated by the IMF and the US, did not improve the economy to the extent that its primary benefactors were only the wealthy Egyptians. Thus, today the new political establishment is faced with multitude of economic challenges.

Another related matter is the role of the military, which has steadily increased its stakes in the Egyptian economy since the early 1950s, with the coup d'état by the army. It is estimated that presently this institution controls 30 percent of Egypt’s GDP. What even makes the picture more complicated is a strong military-to-military relationship with the US, based on the annual $1.3 billion US military aid to Egypt. Thus, the question is: to what extent the military is willing to give-up its control over the economy; when it will relinquish power to the civilian government; and to what degree the US is ready to influence that process.

The other issue waiting for a solution is the status of the Israel-Palestine conflict and future of the Camp David Accords. Those who are seeking revision in the Agreement note that the conditions have changed since it was signed. They argue that the Agreement was based on the regional balance of power during the Cold War era, while any agreement should be based on the balance of interests.

Iranian-Egyptian Ties

In the wake of the Egyptian revolution, recent events between Egypt and Iran have pointed to a forging of renewed diplomatic ties between the two countries. There are signs that Egypt is going to start a new chapter in its foreign relations, significantly pointing towards a tendency to form interests independent of the US.  Iran welcomes such a change in the Egyptian foreign policy posture. All indications demonstrate that both Iran and Egypt are up to form a new bond in the shifting landscape of the Middle East.

The prospect of relations is promising at all levels of bilateral, regional and international. At bilateral level trade, tourism, technical cooperation especially for the infrastructure in the fields of energy could be on the list. At regional level, the new Egypt could change positively the balance of power especially in what relates to the Palestinian issue, and deflating extremism in the Arab World that mainly took shape due to the absence of a powerful and effective leadership. The new Egypt could also play a major role in damping radical and warmongering forces in Israel, those who enjoyed Mubarak's policies of appeasement, notably in the case of Gaza tragedy in 2008.  

At the international level, Egypt and Iran could have a stronger voice in the Non- Aligned Movement promoting the causes of this Movement. The same is true regarding the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and safeguarding the rights of member states of this Treaty for development of peaceful nuclear technologies.  Egypt is planning for its first nuclear power plant at El Dabaa. While, Iran is endowed with wealth of knowledge and technologies in the field of nuclear power plants which could share with Egypt. In this context and in future, Egypt can become a candidate like Iran for membership in the group of ' Non Weapon Nuclear States'. Meanwhile, both countries could coordinate their activities in the fields of nuclear disarmament and the establishment of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, which Iran initiated and was cosponsored by Egypt in 1974.

Undoubtedly, above mentioned plans for future cooperation are not without challenges. Already some countries in the region are showing anxieties on the prospect of future of the Iran-Egypt relations. Already, the al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper, which is noted for having the support of the Saudi government, has warned President Morsi and his government not to befriend Iran.

The editorial stated that “If Egypt re-establishes diplomatic relations with the Ayatollah’s regime in Iran, this would suggest that Sheikh Morsi has no understanding or awareness of the reality on the Arab eastern front. Iran’s threats – namely that it will bombard the Gulf region if Iranian nuclear sites are targeted, its attempts to penetrate the Arab identity of Iraq and Syria, and its domination of areas of Lebanon (through the Hezbollah mini-state) must all prompt Egypt, the largest Arab state, to be watchful, cautious and attentive.” The article further made a veiled threat pointing to the possible expulsion of two million Egyptian workers in the GCC countries if Egypt would not heed the warning. 

Egypt is well aware of Iran's growing prominence in the Middle East and its influence on regional forces, and is unlikely to adhere to the zero sums game, espoused by some powers in the region. However, continued challenges by the US and its allies in the region to keep Egypt away from Iran should not be discounted for the time being.

Despite many ambiguities, one thing seems certain and that is that the hostile elements in Egypt who worked relentlessly in the past against any meaningful relations with Iran are no longer in their positions. Therefore, the prospect of the increased relations looks more promising than ever before.

*Nasser Saghafi-Ameri is a former senior Iranian diplomat, and a scholar and author in the fields of foreign policy, international security, and nuclear disarmament.

Source: Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies (MERC)

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