Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Egypt president to visit Iran, a first in decades

CAIRO — Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi will attend a summit in Iran later this month, a presidential official told the Associated Press on Saturday, the first such trip for an Egyptian leader since relations with Tehran deteriorated decades ago.

The visit could mark a thaw between the two countries after years of enmity, especially since Egypt signed its 1979 peace treaty with Israel and Iran underwent its Islamic revolution. Under Morsi's predecessor Hosni Mubarak, Egypt, predominantly Sunni Muslim, sided with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-dominated Arab states in trying to isolate Shiite-led Iran.

Until now, contacts have been channeled through interest sections, a low-level form of diplomatic representation. In May last year, Egypt, which was ruled by an interim military council, expelled a junior Iranian diplomat on suspicion he tried to set up spy rings in Egypt and the Gulf countries.

It's too early to assess the implications of the visit or to what extent the Arab world's most populous country may normalize relations with Tehran, but analysts believe it will bring Egypt back to the regional political stage. The visit is in line with popular sentiment since Mubarak's ouster in an uprising last year for Cairo to craft a foreign policy independent of Western or oil Gulf countries' agendas.

"This really signals the first response to a popular demand and a way to increase the margin of maneuver for Egyptian foreign policy in the region," said political scientist Mustafa Kamel el-Sayyed. "Morsi's visits … show that Egypt's foreign policy is active again in the region."

"This is a way also to tell Gulf countries that Egypt is not going to simply abide by their wishes and accept an inferior position," he added.

The presidential official said that Morsi will visit Tehran on Aug. 30 on his way back from China to attend the Non-Aligned Movement Summit, where Egypt will transfer the movement's rotating leadership to Iran. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not yet authorized to make the announcement.

The trip is no surprise — it came days after Morsi included Iran, a strong ally of Syrian Bashar Assad, in a proposal for a contact group to mediate an end to Syria's escalating civil war. The proposal for the group, which includes Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, was made at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation summit in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca.

During the summit, Morsi exchanged handshakes and kisses with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in their first meeting since Morsi assumed his post as Egypt's first elected president.

The idea was welcomed by Iran's state-run Press TV, and a leading member of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood said that Tehran's acceptance of the proposal was a sign Egypt was beginning to regain some of the diplomatic and strategic clout it once held in the region.

After the fall of Egypt's longtime strongman Hosni Mubarak in last year's popular revolt, officials have expressed no desire to maintain Mubarak's staunch anti-Iranian stance.

Last July, former Egyptian foreign minister Nabil Elaraby, who also heads the Arab League, delivered a conciliatory message to the Islamic Republic, saying "Iran is not an enemy." He also noted that post-Mubarak Egypt would seek to open a new page with every country in the world, including Iran.

Tensions have not been absent however in contacts with Iran's clerical state since Egypt's uprising. When a delegation of politicians and youth activists made a visit to Iran last year, one Egyptian pro-democracy activist, Mustafa el-Nagger, said his Iranian hosts claimed the revolt sweeping the Arab world was part of an "Islamic awakening." He responded with a different interpretation: the anti-Mubarak uprising was "not a religious revolution, but a human evolution."

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