Editor’s Note: This article was written by former ADV author Manar Heikal.
When Egypt’s 2011 revolution succeeded in toppling then-President Hosni Mubarak, Iran celebrated. But the news of the downfall of President Mohamed Morsi and his government was received with mixed feelings in Tehran, which was just starting to engage in more cordial relations with Egypt. Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood did not have connections with Iran before Morsi invited Ahmadinejad to visit -making him the first Iranian president to set foot in Cairo since the 1979 Islamic Revolution; yet the sequel of events that follow the MB’s rule shape many prospects of the Iran-Egypt relations and by referring to the current and historical relations between both countries; it is observed that the Egyptian government holds major restriction on Shi’as and considers them as a dangerous minority.
Efforts to improve Iranian-Egyptian relations were cemented with the offer to host hundreds of Iranian tourists, yet restrictions on where and what they could visit was a stumbling block between the two nations. Fanning the flames was a growing anti-Shi’a sentiment not only toward Iranian tourists but to the Shi’a community in Egypt and culminating in the disturbing mob lynching and murder of four Shi’ite Egyptians in the Giza village. Discrimination against Shi’a has always been around in Egypt, and even after the MB’s rule, people still practice discrimination against Shi’as and thus they relate it to Iran; as Iran hosts the largest branch of Shi’a Islam.
The Egypt-Iran Connection
Modern-day Iranian-Egyptian relations date back to the royal marriage between the then-ruling dynasties Mohamed Ali and Pahlavi. The union between Egypt’s Sunni Princess Fawzia and Shi’a Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi forged ties between the two countries and narrowed down differences, effectively serving to connect two of world’s greatest civilizations. At the ceremony, Sheikh of Al-Azhar Mustafa Al-Maraghy even gave a speech attempting to merge the two sects of Islam that were symbolically being joined.
But that attempt to forge relations came to an end as King Farouk’s friendship with his brother-in-law faltered his several trials to attract the attention of Princess Ashraf -the shah’s twin sister- failed miserably. Even though Princess Ashraf later went on to marry Ahmed Shafiq Bey, son of Egypt’s then-Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq Pasha, relations gradually collapsed between the two countries, culminating with Princess Fawzia’s return to Egypt in May 1945 after her unhappy life in Iran with the shah – she divorced him later that year.
On November 19, 1951, Mohamed Mossadegh, Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister known for his anti-colonial stance, stepped off the plane at Farouk Airport to the cheers of a huge crowd of admiring Egyptians waving banners in both Farsi and Arabic that read, “Long live Mossadegh, the Warrior Friend of Egypt.” The crowd proceeded to carry him off to his car amid chants of “Long live Mossadegh” and “Long live the leader of anti-imperialism.”
Iran’s struggle with Britain over its oil resources had inspired many neighboring nations, and nowhere was this more evident than in Egypt, which was embroiled in a contest of its own with the British over control of the Suez Canal. Upon his visit, Al-Ahram wrote, “Iran and Egypt have taken up the sacred duty of freeing themselves from the shackles of colonialism.” In Abdeen Square, another crowd estimated at 20,000 people waited to greet him. At the time of his visit, crowds flooding the streets of Cairo were reported to number around 2 million. Many historians say that then-President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal was greatly inspired by Mossadegh’s 28 Mordad coup after he nationalized the Iranian oil sector, which had been under British control since 1913. A street in Giza still carries Mossadegh’s name today.
Over the past half century, bilateral relations have been consistently turbulent – from the military coup staged by Free Officers Movement led by Nasser and toppling monarchism to the present time. Nasser established strong relations with Arab leaders to gradually distance Egypt from Israel and the West. A still-royalist Iran, on the other hand, developed close relations with the West, especially the US and Israel. It is often claimed that the CIA was instrumental to the shah in destroying Mossadegh’s government.
A political earthquake hit Iranian-Egyptian relations at the Cold War raged between the world’s powers: Nasser supported Iran’s opposition movements against the shah’s government and officially gave his blessings to the financing the separatists and using the term “Arabian Gulf” instead of Persian Gulf. Political activists who fought against the shah admired Nasser’s anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist stances.
Relations only started warming up again when President Anwar Al-Sadat came to power in 1970. Sadat revived Egypt’s ties with the West and established friendships with the Iranian regime. He considered Mohammed Reza shah a friend and was the first to welcome his stay in Egypt when almost all other countries rejected the latter’s request for asylum following the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the shah’s subsequent expulsion from Iran. The shah lived in Egypt from March 1980 until death on July 27, 1980, and is buried in Cairo’s Al-Refa’i Mosque.
The Iranian-Egyptian friendship turned sour once again when Egypt signed the peace treaty with Israel in 1979. Iran’s post-revolutionary government turned against Sadat for becoming the first Arab leader to recognize the Jewish state; Ayatollah Khomeini severed relations between Tehran and Cairo, and declared Sadat an enemy. Khomeini, who accused Sadat of “betraying Islam,” called upon Egyptians to overthrow their leader and publicly supported Islamic Jihadi threats to assassinate Sadat.
In turn, Sadat denounced Iran’s supreme leader, calling him a “lunatic” and accusing him of “distorting Islam.” When Sadat eventually was assassinated, Iran considered his killer Khaled Islamboli a martyr and even had a street named after him in Tehran. As an ally of the US, President Hosni Mubarak made no attempt to restore relations with Iran, and during his tenure, Iranians could not enter Egypt on their Iranian passports.
Looking to the Future
While Morsi made some attempts to rekindle ties with Iran, they were short lived and not constructive. Right after his election, he became the first president in more than three decades to visit Iran, under the umbrella of passing the chair of the Non-Aligned Movement to Tehran. Yet while there, he criticized Syria’s Assad regime, of whom Iran is a patron, and later sided with Syrian rebels by severing diplomatic relations with Syria.
Morsi’s Tehran visit yielded some results in tourism, with Iran waiving entry visa requirements for Egyptians and Air Memphis, owned by Egyptian businessman Rami Lakah, ran the first direct commercial flight from Cairo to Tehran in 34 years. But the first group of Iranian tourists sparked a wave of angry rhetoric from hard-line Islamists claiming the Shi’a visitors were a threat to national security.
According to historian Refaat, Egypt’s large Persian community had started to dwindle by the time Gamal Abdel Nasser married his wife Tahia, who was Iranian and a Shi’a Muslim. In fact, Nasser had to take permission from the Kazrouni Bey, informal leader of the Persian community. While there are no definitive numbers about how many Iranians there are in Egypt, many still gather in the Iranian Interest Section, which handles consular services, for traditional celebrations such as the spring rituals of Haft-Seen.
In fact, they only seemed to initiate a sectarian division and fan fears of Shi’a militancy in the region, as evidenced by Qatar-based Sunni cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s call for jihad in Syria at the May 30, 2013, convention at which Morsi was not only present but showed support. The flow of Iranian tourists was cut short once Iran realized Egypt would not allow them to visit Shi’a holy sites in Cairo such as Al-Hussain Mosque and the shrine of Al-Sayyida Nafisa.
It is true that cultural relations between the two nations never ceased, even amid political tensions. In February, the Iran Book News Agency (IBNA) offered to seal agreements and establish ties with Egypt’s Ancient Library of Alexandria, but the proposal was dropped by the Egyptian side, citing the political unrest.
On July 20, 2013 Egyptian security forces raided the office of the Iranian Al-Alam Arabic language satellite channel in Cairo and detained its director without giving any explanation for these actions; local media reported the channel was a “threat to national security.” Iranian Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Mohammad Hosseini responded that the Egyptian government’s ban on Al-Alam harms Tehran-Cairo ties; at press time the issue had not been resolved. None of this bodes well for diplomatic relations.
Following the mass protests of June 30 and the ouster of Morsi, Egypt is still to go through the battle against fascist regimes. One can see hope for the revival of the relations between both countries, yet Egypt has its work cut out for it. Although Iran continues to keep the name of Sadat’s assassin as a street in Tehran, the current regime is working its way up in showing the world its progress in getting (slightly more) lenient in comparison to the prior one. Unfortunately, Egypt’s still holds restrictions against Shi’as and Iranians.