Tuesday, August 1, 2023

When the ice began to melt between Cairo and Tehran

On Monday, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayeb issued a statement where he expressed his huge welcome to the message he received on Saturday from Ayatollah Alireza Arafi, the director of the religious Shia seminaries in Iran.

Very few paid attention to the statement despite its importance and timing.

Ayatollah Arafi sent on Saturday a message to Sheikh El-Tayeb, the head of the biggest Sunni institution in the world thanking him in a strong statement for his stand against the frequent insults against the Holy Quran hoping that officials and religious men in the Islamic world would follow his steps.

“Noble Egypt with its esteemed scholarly and religious institutions, especially Al-Azhar Al-Sharif, holds a prestigious, decisive, and inspiring position," Arafi said in what I considered the first message of its kind to be sent to an Egyptian official like Ahmed El-Tayeb from Iran and from the Shia world.

In his message, Sheikh El-Tayeb hoped that this incident would be the greatest incentive to heal the rift and unite the world of Muslims around the globe.

He renewed his call to move forward to hold an "Islamic - Islamic" dialogue between Islamic scholars around the world, of all sects and schools, to establish unity, rapprochement and acquaintance, and to reject the causes of sedition, division and difference. The Egyptian sheikh did not use “Sunni-Shira” but rather “Islamic-Islami”.

El-Tayeb also called Muslim countries to boycott Swedish and Danish products too, but this is not our issue here. No one paid attention to those messages coming and going from Qom to Cairo unfortunately.

Aside from heading the religious seminars in Iran, moderate Ayatollah Alireza Arafi is considered a rising star in the Iranian regime. He is also a member of the Assembly of Experts, which is a body of clerics that has the power to appoint and remove the supreme leader.

A loyal support to the current supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Arafi is likely to play an increasingly important role in the years to come.

No one paid attention to those messages coming and going from Qom to Cairo unfortunately.

Last Wednesday, the head of the Iranian Interests Section in Cairo Mohamed Hossein Soltani Farid posted a very interesting photo on his official Twitter account.

Farid posted a picture of him and a group of other men and children at Egypt’s Al-Hussein Mosque and Shrine. In Persian, he wrote “Tasu’a day at Imam Al-Hussein’s head Mosque in Cairo”.

The Iranian envoy appeared with a group of men wearing the distinguished color black in Tasu’a while holding the Holy Quran.

Asked by one of the Iranian journalists about why the Mosque looked so quiet, the Iranian diplomat answered that the Egyptian state unfortunately closes the shrine on the days of Tasu’a and Ashura. He added they “which I assume refers to the diplomatic mission’s men” were in the mosque and did not enter the shrine itself.

Tasu'a is the 9th day of the Islamic month of Muharram, which is a significant day for Shia Muslims as it is one day before Ashura, the day of Imam Al-Hussein's martyrdom. The head of Imam Al-Hussein is believed to be buried in Cairo at the Mosque and Shrine bearing his name.

Imam El-Hussein’s body was buried in his shrine in Iraq’s Karbala. The Karbala shrine is considered the third holiest place for Shia Muslims after Masjid Al-Haram in Mecca and Prophet Mohamed’s Mosque in Madina.

For the record, the Al-Hussein Shrine and Mosque in Cairo was re-inaugurated in 2022 after a major renovation that was funded by the Indian Bohra Shia Community.

The Dawoodi Bohra are one of the branches of the Ismaili sect in Shia Islam. The Bohras are considered a minority in Shia Islam.

I consider them the lucky Shias in Egypt as they are not bothered or harassed at all, unlike the Egyptian Shias who do not enjoy the same rights as the Bohras.

Before anyone speculates, Egyptian-Iranian relations have nothing to do with Bohras. Despite the Iranian government appearing to be supportive of the Bohras, tensions have arisen from time to time presumably due to the difference in their beliefs.

Now back to Farid’s tweet, I do not recall seeing a photo online of the head of the Iranian Interests sections at the Cairo at the famous landmark mosque and shrine.

In a way, I feel that this photo is another example of how things are gradually improving between Cairo and Tehran.

Egypt officially severed its diplomatic relations with Iran in 1980 following the revolution in 1979 and hosting the exiled Shah, and the two countries have remained largely estranged ever since.

However, people often forget that in 1991, diplomatic ties were restored between Egypt and Iran but at the level of Interests section rather than the embassy level.

During that time, Egypt and Iran began to cooperate at multilateral forums, especially the UN Security Council.

There were small attempts at rapprochement between the two countries. During the time of Mubarak, there was an attempt in the 2010s, especially when the reformists were in power in Tehran, but it failed.

There was another attempt in the time of Mohamed Morsi, as he visited Tehran in August 2012 while his counterpart former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Cairo in February 2013.

Following the ouster of the late Morsi in July 2013, any talk about rapprochement between Cairo and Tehran, especially with the Gulf states that backed and bankrolled the regime then, was out of the question. It was one of the conflict issues between the Gulf states and the Muslim Brotherhood president.

In March 2016, the former Iranian head of the Interests Section Mahmoud Mahmoudian held a very rare meeting with local Egyptian journalists in Cairo, stating that Iranian companies and investors were interested in investing in Egypt as it is the gate to Africa.

He also added that the disputes between Cairo and Tehran can be solved easily by dialogue. Years passed and nothing was solved.

However, things began to change in the last two years. Informed sources from Cairo and Tehran reported that there were talks between the two countries as Egypt began to enter economic and political partnerships and cooperation with Iraq and Jordan.

Logically, Cairo would not set foot in Iraq and announce economic cooperation with Baghdad if Tehran did not realistically approve. We knew from Iran that there were ongoing unofficial talks between Egyptian and Iranian officials in Baghdad with Iraqi mediation.

In early January, the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs revealed that the Iranian Foreign Minister had "positive talks" with his Egyptian counterpart on the sidelines of the Baghdad II conference in Jordan's capital Amman in December.

In March, the unexpected happened when Iran and Saudi Arabia, old nemeses, agreed to reestablish diplomatic relations and reopen embassies after years of tensions that reached proxy wars in a deal brokered by China!

Egypt welcomed the agreement and hoped that it would ease tensions in the region.

Three days after the agreement, Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Nasser Kanaani said that the Middle East region requires the positive potential of Egypt and Iran." Iran had its eye on Egypt.

In late March, Egypt eased visa requirements for citizens from 6 countries, including Iran, for the first time. (FYI, Israel is among those countries too.)

According to the Egyptian government, tourists from Iran will be allowed to obtain a visa upon arrival when heading only to South Sinai through a certified tourist agency.

The Iranians would continue their statements to encourage the Egyptians to open a new page, especially since Egypt is getting close to Syria, Iran's second Arab ally after Iraq.

In May, we found unofficially that the relationship between Egypt and Iran was on the agenda of Sultan of Oman Haitham bin Tarek's visit to Cairo in May.

A week later, Haitham visited Tehran, and Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was found saying in their meeting publicly that his country welcomed the restoration of relations with Egypt.

In the same months, Egyptian diplomatic sources denied that there were changes in the relations between the two countries, unlike what the Iranians claim. It was not a secret, Iran is trying to restore its relations with Egypt after Saudi Arabia.

One of the biggest obstacles in front of Cairo to restore relations with Tehran has been removed, but there are still other obstacles that stand against that. Above them is the intervention in other countries' affairs, especially Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.

Cairo wants Tehran to present some concessions, like Ankara, and honestly, I feel it is easier in the case of Turkey.

Tehran will not give up its powerful cards that protect its interests, whether in Yemen, Iraq, or Syria.

However, Iranian officials continue to make statements in an attempt to flirt with Egypt, while Egyptian officials are keeping their cool but have also sent positive signals.

In early July, Tasnim News Agency claimed that direct flights between Cairo and Tehran would launch in 45 days.

(FYI, in March 2013, the first commercial direct flights from Iran to Egypt in three decades began with Air Memphis, but Cairo suspended those direct flights following the ouster of Morsi in the summer of 2013.)

July is over, but we still have 15 days to see if this happens or not.

I am not betting on the flights. My bet is on the Islamic-Islamic dialogue that Ahmed El-Tayeb called for.

For me, this is more important and will bring peace to the Middle East more than Saudi Arabia normalizing relations with Israel. (They are already normalized unofficially.)

This move would be a significant milestone, even bigger than a photo in a popular shrine.

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