A Frosty Reception
Al-Azhar Scolds Ahmadinejad on Sunni RightsLONDON, Asharq Al-Awsat—The first Iranian presidential visit to Egypt for more than thirty years has been beset with controversy, with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad being lectured by the Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh and then attacked outside a mosque by a man wielding a shoe.
A video released by Turkey’s Anadolu news agency on Tuesday showed a man throwing a shoe at the Iranian president as he left Cairo’s Al-Hussein mosque after evening prayers. The footage shows a man, believed to be a Syrian national due to his accent, striking out several times, and Ahmadinejad immediately being surrounded by bodyguards. The attacker reportedly denounced Ahmadinejad as a “coward” and was arrested following the incident.
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi received the Iranian president at Cairo Airport on Tuesday. The Iranian leader is in town to attend a summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Egyptian officials revealed that Morsi and Ahmadinejad discussed ways to end the bloodshed in Syria and strengthen bilateral relations.
Following this incident, Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb met with the Iranian president, during which time he warned Ahmadinejad not to meddle in Gulf Arab affairs. He denounced the “spread of Shi’ism in Sunni lands,” adding that Tehran must “respect Bahrain as a sisterly Arab state,” according to a statement by Al-Azhar’s media office. Egypt’s top Sunni cleric also called on Tehran to guarantee full rights to Iran’s Sunni community. Egypt’s Al-Daw’a Al-Salafiyyah (The Salafist Call) welcomed Al-Azhar’s call for an end to the oppression being exercised against Iran’s Sunni minority. Party spokesman Abdul Moneim El-Shahat stressed that Al-Azhar, as one of the top religious institutes in Egypt, has every right to issue such statements, even if they are not accepted by the other side.
Iranian official and semi-official news agencies did not report any of the Al-Azhar grand sheikh’s criticisms of Ahmadinejad and Iran. Iran’s official IRNA news agency quoted Dr. Al-Tayeb as saying, “We respect you [Ahmadinejad] as a person who is trying to create unity among Muslims,” adding, “we hope your idea of creating unity among Muslims can be materialized.” Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr emphasized that Cairo will not seek to improve its ties with Iran at the expense of Arab Gulf security.
Speaking on Tuesday, the Egyptian foreign minister said, “The security of Gulf countries is a red line for Egypt.” Regarding the prospect of Egyptian–Iranian rapprochement, he said, “Egypt has a clear-cut stance on this issue. This stance has been repeatedly declared by the president and the foreign ministry.” This is the first time that an Iranian president has visited Egypt since the Islamic revolution in 1979. Diplomatic ties between Cairo and Tehran broke down in 1980 after Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel and gave asylum to Iran’s exiled shah, Reza Pahlavi. In 1981, Iran named a Tehran street after Khaled Islambouli, assassin of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
However, relations between the two regional powers improved after the Egyptians elected an Islamist president in June. Despite this, Cairo and Tehran remain at odds over a number of issues, particularly the Syrian crisis. Speaking before leaving Tehran for Cairo, Iran state news agency IRNA quoted Ahmadinejad as saying, “I will try to pave the ground for developing co-operation between Iran and Egypt.” He added, “If Tehran and Cairo see more eye-to-eye on regional and international issues, many [issues] will change.” It is not yet clear to what degree this has been achieved by Ahmadinejad’s first visit to Egypt.