Egypt’s Western allies worry Morsi is ready to embrace Tehran (THE GLOBE AND MAIL) PATRICK MARTIN 07/17/12)
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It was the No. 1 topic of conversation Monday in Jerusalem when U.S.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Israeli Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu, and it was undoubtedly the big subject for
discussion in Iran, too: Will Egypt’s newly elected President, a
leader of the revolutionary Muslim Brotherhood, try to tilt Egypt
For more than 30 years, Egypt under Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak
viewed Iran’s revolutionary Islamic leadership as a threat, and
relations between the two regional competitors were characterized by
hostility and a severing of diplomatic relations.
Now, facing the growing prospect of Iran’s nuclear weaponization, its
anti-Israel agenda and its goal of region-wide influence, the West
and its allies want to know if Egypt’s new Islamist leadership will
try to reverse that state of affairs and embrace Iran.
Certainly Tehran has sensed an opportunity to make a new friend and
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was among the first to
congratulate Mohamed Morsi on his election last month and to salute
his victory as “the final stage of the Islamic awakening.” Tehran was
even the first to apparently make up an interview Mr. Morsi had with
the official Iranian news agency on the eve of his victory.
In the alleged exchange, Mr. Morsi was reported by Tehran to have
said that Egypt must restore good relations with Iran in order to
create a strategic “balance” in the region, remarks that a spokesman
for the Muslim Brotherhood leader was quick to flatly deny, as he
denied any suggestion that the new leader would undo Egypt’s treaty
The seed, however, was planted and it was quickly rumoured that Mr.
Morsi would be making his first official visit as President to
Tehran, showcasing Egypt’s new friend.
Mr. Morsi’s visit to Riyadh last week was intended to dispel that
notion and to reassure Egypt’s biggest backers – the United States
and Saudi Arabia – that the President had no hankering to please Iran.
But while there is ample reason to believe that Egypt’s new
leadership will eschew all thoughts of an alliance with Tehran, there
are some compelling long-term reasons to suspect that a new
relationship may well be in the offing.
Standing in the way of an alliance is the fact that Sunni Islam, to
which the Muslim Brotherhood adheres, has long viewed Shiism, the
dominant faith of Iran, as heretical, and its followers as apostates.
The civil war in Syria, for example, is as much about this historical
divergence, pitting the Sunni opposition against the regime’s
Alawites (a Shia sect), as it is about democracy and dignity.
Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Qatar-based Egyptian cleric who is a lifelong
member of the Brotherhood and its most influential advocate, tells
followers to beware of the “Shiitization” of Sunni Arab populations.
And Saudi Arabia has pointed out that if Egypt wishes Riyadh’s
financial assistance, the Egyptian government better keep its
distance from Tehran.
Mr. Morsi himself has spoken of it being “Egypt’s destiny to lead,”
suggesting it would not fall into Iran’s orbit but would lead an
orbit of its own.
And, just in case Mr. Morsi had different ideas, Egypt’s Supreme
Council of the Armed Forces, a very pro-Saudi body, recently decreed
that a National Defence Council would determine any changes to
Egyptian foreign policy for the foreseeable future, and that military
leaders, not the civilian leadership, have a majority in the council.
But while the odds seemed stacked against Iran at the moment, the
idea of a Muslim Brotherhood-led Egypt embracing Iran should not be
written off as purely wishful thinking.
The two revolutionary Islamist movements – the Brotherhood and the
Shiites – share some common ancestry.
It was a 19th-century Persian Shiite intellectual, Jamal al-Din al-
Afghani, whose teaching in Egypt revived the Islamic movement and
influenced Hassan al Banna, founder of the Muslim Brothers.
And it was the radical teachings of the Egyptian Muslim Brother
Sayyid Qutb, embodied in works he produced in the jails of Gamal
Abdul Nasser in the 1950s and 60s, that gave a rationale to the
Shiites of Iran to plunge into revolution against the Shah who then
The man who translated Mr. Qutb’s Arabic works into Farsi was none
other than Ali Khamenei, today’s Supreme Leader in Iran.
And while then-Egyptian president Anwar Sadat shunned the Shia
revolutionaries, giving refuge to the deposed Shah and providing a
permanent resting place for his body, the new leaders of Iran
rejoiced at the assassination of Mr. Sadat and named a Tehran street
after his killer, an Egyptian Islamist.
Most importantly, says Alastair Crooke, a leading analyst of Islam,
the Iranian revolutionaries and the Muslim Brotherhood share a common
world view: both stand opposed to “Western individualism and
materialism” and are in favour of “the collective welfare of the
community” espoused by moderate Islam.”
As well, both also stand opposed to the “narrow, literalist and
intolerant interpretation” embodied by the Salafists in Saudi Arabia
and, increasingly, in other countries. In Egypt, the Salafists
account for an astonishing 25 per cent of the seats in the recently
elected parliament and pose a political challenge to the Muslim
Brotherhood, which captured 50 per cent of the seats.
To be sure, Egypt’s Muslim Brothers are divided on how to proceed
when it comes to Iran. Many argue the common revolutionary battle
against Western values and Israel should predominate, while others
insist on the practical value of keeping their distance from Tehran.
Indeed, Mr. Morsi will be going to Iran in August – but not to
embrace Tehran. He goes to attend the summit of the Non-Aligned
Movement, a body of some 120 states that mostly stand opposed to U.S.-
led Western institutions; Mr. Morsi has inherited the leadership of
the movement, which was previously held by Mr. Mubarak.
(At the group’s meeting, Mr. Morsi will be handing over the
leadership to Iran’s Mr. Ahmadinejad.)
As in everything else, it seems, the Muslim Brotherhood’s point man,
President Morsi, is tiptoeing through the convoluted relationship
between Egypt and Iran, hoping to keep everyone happy, at least for
now. (© Copyright 2011 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. 07/17/12)
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