- Published on Thursday, 28 April 2011 09:52
- Category: The Connection
This week, reports of an Iranian ambassador being appointed to Egypt raised an eyebrow or two. After weeks of goodwill statements from both countries, the appointment was seen as further confirmation of a budding relationship between the once-hostile states.
But as Egypt attempts to become Turkey 2.0, developing relationships with countries in the region based on economic interests, it will not find that the old Middle East paradigm has been swept away. Egypt’s long-standing ally and Iran-foe, Saudi Arabia, will make it difficult for Egypt to extend a welcoming hand to Iran.
In Early April, Egyptian Foreign Minister Bail El Arabi illuminated his vision of a new Egyptian-Iranian relationship: “What we are pursuing with Tehran are normal relations – basic normal relations, no less no more.” El Arabi met with an Iranian official before making the public statement. A source in the Egyptian Foreign Ministry added that even Gulf Countries, frequently critical of Iran, retain ties with Iran and have embassies in Tehran – why couldn’t Egypt? Beyond diplomatic niceties, Egypt has begun allowing Iranian war ships to cross the Suez Canal. Iran responded in kind, with its Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi (reports now indicate that Salehi may have been relieved of his post) declaring: “The Egyptian people by taking steps toward realizing their just demands opened a new chapter in the history of the country and again I congratulate them on this victory.”
As the relationship between Egypt and Iran entered the public spotlight, the situation in Bahrain became increasingly unstable. In support, Shiite protesters in Iran are calling for representative rights for Bahrainis through peaceful protest not unlike those that ousted Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Conversely, Saudi Arabia responded in support of the Bahraini government, sending troops into the country to control the crowds while gathering the Gulf Coalition Council to condemn Iran for meddling in Bahrain’s domestic affairs. Were Hosni Mubarak still in power, Egypt might have joined in the cries against Iran. Of course, with Hosni Mubarak in custody and decidedly removed from power, Saudi Arabia is missing a key ally.
Since Mubarak was overthrown, Egypt has also made overtures to movements throughout the region that are seen as aligned with Iran. Most significantly, El-Arabi said publicly that Hezbollah is an integral part of Lebanon, and indicated that Egypt would like to keep a dialogue open with the group. This is in sharp contrast with Egypt’s previous leadership, which had no ties with Hezbollah. Of further relevance to Israel, Egyptian officials indicate that they have plans to visit Gaza and meet with Hamas. Egypt is now allowing Hamas to travel through the Cairo airport to get to Damascus, the official headquarters of Hamas. Burgeoning political ties between Iran, Syria, Hamas, Hezbollah and Egypt appear to be a building combination threatening Saudi Arabia’s regional interests. What’s more, other Saudi allies in the region, like Jordan, are also reaching out to Iran. King Abdullah of Jordan even claimed that he would visit Iran during the Persian New Year (the Iranian parliament did not allow the trip to go through).
Will Saudi Arabia allow Egypt to continue to develop a relationship with Iran? A key sign may come this week, as Egyptian Prime Minister Issam Sharif plans to visit Riyadh to meet with King Abdullah. Saudi media reports that the meeting would be “a chance for the Saudi leadership to be brought fully up to date on internal developments in Egypt over the last few months and for economic cooperation to be widened and trade exchange to be increased between the two countries and also between Egypt and other Gulf countries.” Saudi Arabia’s wealth makes it a persuasive partner. Saudi Arabia could potentially withhold economic support in order to persuade Egypt to reign in its diplomatic efforts toward Iran. The U.S., too, has potential bargaining power – might the U.S. pressure Egypt to push Iran away at the risk of losing aid? Especially given Egypt’s precarious economic situation, these factors might determine future economic and political alliances.
If Egypt continues to build its ties with Iran, Saudi Arabia might also [over]reach into Egypt’s domestic sphere, attempting to ignite sectarian fears in the country. A number of Salafist - fundamentalist Muslim elements in Egypt - hold Shiites in contempt. According to the Associated Press, “Salafis have also threatened to destroy some of the most revered shrines in Cairo, dedicated to members of Prophet Muhammad's immediate family and beloved by many more Muslims.” Beyond the Salafists, Saudi Arabia might have a friend in Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayib, the leader of Egypt’s famed Al-Azhar Mosque who recently said, “Iran must not interfere in events in Bahrain and other Arab countries, but must consider what is happening as internal questions.” Calls from Al-Azhar and Salafists to abandon diplomatic relations with Iran could sway the nation’s attempts to partner with Tehran.
While a more open government in Egypt certainly opens the potential for a new, broader regional network, the new government’s diplomatic actions have shown that the region’s strongholds may yet maintain a grip on the status quo.By Kianpars, Alsan Media Columnist
Photo Credit: Daniella Zalcam