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April 07, 2013, Sunday

Should Egypt fear Iran?

Two of the most important countries in the Middle East, Egypt and Iran, have begun using tourism as a tool for normalizing relations.

Flights have finally started up again after a break of 34 years and Iranian tourists have started to visit Egypt again. Many believe that these types of reciprocal visits will pave the way forward for the peoples of both countries to begin to understand one another and thus for the development of diplomatic relations.

At the same though, despite Tehran’s strong desires to see relations developed further with Egypt, the fact remains that there exists a serious anti-Iranian stance in Egyptian public opinion. Behind this public opinion is the idea that once relations improve between the two countries, Iran will use it as an opportunity to spread Shiism. Is there any real basis for this fear? There absolutely is. Though the exact numbers are not known, it is said that there are more than 10 million members of various Sufi orders throughout Egypt. It is also said that the majority of these people are not literate. And this fact creates mistrust in Iran, which sees spreading Shiism as an important part of its strategy to widen its spheres of influence.

For many centuries now, Iran has backed Shiism-related activities that promote its beliefs -- sometimes openly, sometimes secretly -- throughout a wide Islamic region, including of course Turkey. And Egypt, which was at one time the center of the Shiite Fatimid caliphate, has always been an important target for Iran. There are many Fatimid structures throughout Cairo, including of course the famous al-Azhar and Imam Husain mosques. It is now feared that Iranian tourists could play the main role in helping the spread of Shiism throughout Egypt. Which is why it is being said that Egyptian officials are really only going to allow Iranian tourists to head to more designated touristic areas like Sharm el-Sheikh, Luxor and Aswan. At the same time, though, for an Egypt trying to bring in more tourism, and trying also to improve its diplomatic relations with Iran, it does not appear very possible to limit Iranian visitors to these touristic regions.

In short, running a relationship based on fear will not work for Egypt, when it comes to Iran. Turkey, despite its many clashes with Iran on a number of issues, and despite the fact that it has faced serious attempts by Iran to spread Shiism, now has trade relations with Iran that amount to $20 billion annually. There are also more than 1 million Iranian tourists who visit Turkey every year. What’s more, if one considers the prominence of the al-Azhar Mosque -- thought to be a fortress of Sunni Islam -- and the sheer percentage of pious Egyptians, it really does not seem very likely that the spread of Shiism in Egypt will be very successful.

Prior to the Islamic revolution in Iran, Egypt and Iran enjoyed very close relations, particularly during the reign of Egyptian King Farouk. In fact, the last shah of Iran, Reza Pahlevi, is even buried in Cairo. During the Khomeini era in Iran, however, relations between these two countries deteriorated rapidly. And Iranian support for the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was the reason given for the breaking off of diplomatic relations between the two countries. At the same time, one should not underestimate the role played by covert US and Israeli pressures placed on Hosni Mubarak during this era either.

Egypt, which is currently engulfed in serious economic problems, ought not to be involved in either political or diplomatic crises with any other country, including Israel. In fact, quite to the contrary, it should be focused on straightening out its relations with everyone, including Iran. Egypt, which has always seen itself as a protector of the Gulf States in the face of Iran, needs to make a certain peace with Iran in order to be more of a serious deterrent against Tehran. What’s more, Egypt needs Iran in order to be able to reach the Indian subcontinent, as well the Turkic republics of Central Asia.

And it is of course quite possible and likely that the same media and opposition forces which sharply criticize every step taken by the Mohammed Morsi regime will also slam any compromise or agreement made with Tehran by Cairo. But the Egyptian regime must, while listening to this criticism, forge ahead within the framework of a certain roadmap on normalizing relations with Iran. It is truly a strange situation when diplomatic relations between two such powerful regional countries remain so weak.

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