Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad broke more than 30 years of political stalemate with Egypt, arriving in the Sunni Muslim country on a historic trip that may create new challenges for his Islamist Egyptian counterpart.
Ahmadinejad’s visit for a summit of Islamic nations makes him the first Iranian leader to visit Egypt since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and comes at the tail-end of a conflict-fraught presidency that deepened his nation’s divisions with the West. The two men 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.
Shortly after his election, Mohamed 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 his ousted predecessor Hosni Mubarak. Since that visit, Mursi has faced opposition mount against him 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, as the most populous Arab nation, 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 Bashar 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.
The Iranian leader was to meet with the top cleric at Al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world’s pre-eminent religious institution, the state-run Middle East News Agency reported.
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.