President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad received a public rebuke by Egypt’s top religious officials, with Arab-Iranian rivalries and the centuries-old ideological divide between Sunni and Shiite Islam clouding the start of his historic visit.
Ahmadinejad, in a televised press conference following his visit to al-Azhar, the Sunni world’s pre-eminent religious institution, said Egyptians are “always in the heart of Iranians” and discussions today were “rich.” The comments were an attempt to further warm relations under President Mohamed Mursi, an Islamist elected in June after Hosni Mubarak’s 2011 ouster.
Minutes later, he frowned as an adviser to the head of al-Azhar said the two sides had differed on key points that have stoked rifts for centuries between Shiite and Sunnis. Grand Sheik Ahmed el-Tayeb also issued a statement urging Iran against trying to spread Shiism throughout the Sunni world or interfere in the affairs of the Gulf Arab states. He also called for a religious edict against insults to the Prophet Muhammad’s youngest wife and his immediate successors.
“Egyptians are among the most loyal and loving people” of the Prophet Muhammad’s family, el-Tayeb advisor Hassan el-Shafei told reporters, stressing al-Azhar was committed to open dialogue. Still, he said, it was regrettable that some “attack the prophet and his wives, which creates tensions in relations” between the people of the two countries.
At one point in the press conference, Ahmadinejad spoke with his advisers and there appeared to be attempts by the Iranians to dispute or tone down the comments from the al-Azhar official. The divide between Sunnis, who comprise the majority of the world’s Muslims, and Shiites largely stems from succession disputes.
Ahmadinejad’s arrival in Cairo marked the first visit by an Iranian president to Egypt since the 1979 revolution in Iran -- an uprising that sparked more than three decades of frigid relations.
The two leaders embraced on the tarmac of Cairo’s airport and exchanged kisses on the cheek before holding brief talks that dealt with regional issues including the Syrian conflict, a thorny issue among Arabs who oppose Iran’s backing of President Bashar al-Assad.
Shortly after his election, Mursi had visited Tehran in a trip seen domestically as helping Egypt’s first freely chosen civilian president to reclaim the political clout the nation had lost under Mubarak. Since that visit, Mursi has faced mounting opposition as the economy stagnates and public anger grows over a lack of jobs after the uprising.
The visit by Ahmadinejad, whose nation is under international sanctions for its nuclear program, highlights the balancing act Mursi faces. The Egyptian leader has been eager to reaffirm his commitment to the security of the Arab Gulf states whose support and goodwill is key to propping up the economy. Egypt’s net international reserves fell to $13.6 billion in January, their lowest level in at least 15 years, according to central bank data issued today.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which fielded Mursi for office, “never really endeavoured to make any extensive changes in foreign policy,” American University in Cairo political scientist Ashraf el-Sherif said by phone. The visit is “symbolic,” he said.
Even so, it offered new ammunition for Mursi’s critics. The Salafi Dawa, a leading clerical body of ultraconservative Sunni Muslims, urged that the Shiite Iranian president not be allowed to visit mosques or other venues of importance to Shiite Muslims and stressed its objection to him visiting Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the uprising against Mubarak.
Egypt must remember its “commitment to protect all Sunni nations from any political, cultural or military infiltration,” the group said in a statement reported on the state-run Ahram Gate website, stressing this was a national duty and a campaign pledge by Mursi.
It said Ahmadinejad must be confronted with alleged violations against Sunni Muslims in Iran, as well as the country’s position on the Syrian crisis and its support for Assad’s regime.
El-Sherif said the protest was mainly an issue of “political propaganda” by Islamists who seek to challenge the Brotherhood for dominance in parliamentary elections expected in a few months.
Egyptian officials have been careful to couch the current visit as one by a leader attending the Organization of the Islamic Conference summit.
Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr said an improvement in Egyptian-Iranian relations would be left to “circumstances,” and that Cairo’s bilateral relations with any nation would not come at the expense of security of the Gulf Arab nations, the state-run Middle East News Agency reported.