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Egyptian President's Iran Trip Signals New Priorities

  • Elizabeth Arrott

CAIRO — Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi goes to Iran Thursday, the first visit by an Egyptian leader since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.

Morsi's trip breaks an alienation dating back to Egypt's recognition of Israel and its welcome to Iran's deposed Shah.

The visit is pegged to the technical point of handing over the rotating leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement. And there has been no word of when and if full diplomatic relations will be restored. But the symbolism has concerned countries trying to isolate Iran - in particular, Egypt's long-time ally the United States.

Egyptian member of parliament Manar Shorbagy says her nation's evolving foreign policy should come as no surprise.

"I think that people around the world expect that Egypt after the revolution is not Egypt before the revolution and there should be changes, not just in national politics but also in foreign policy," she said.

She says Morsi's trip does not mean Egypt's full-fledged approval of Iran. The two countries take opposite sides on Syria, for example, - with Iran supporting the government. But when the Egyptian president suggested regional talks on ending the conflict, he pointedly included Iran.

"We do have differences with other countries, and we do have relations with them," Shorbagy. "So, I don’t see why exactly we wouldn't have any interest in having relations with Iran as Egyptians. I think from now on the world will have to deal with Egypt that has its own interests defined by its people."

High on that list of interests is business, and Morsi has been traveling to Gulf Arab states, to China, and is opening the border to Sudan, all in pursuit of better trade relations and a boost to the faltering Egyptian economy.

Abdullah al Ashaal is a veteran diplomat and Morsi supporter. He says that although Iran is an important regional power, he tried to persuade Morsi not to make the trip.

“The timing is very bad because now the conference has become a hot issue between the United States and Iran," he said. "Why should you seem to be tilting toward Iran against the United States? Why you put your name on the blacklist of the United States for nothing? What will be the benefits for you?”

Al Ashaal believes Egypt is heading toward normalized relations with Iran, but also thinks the apparent closeness could be a bargaining chip in an increasingly sophisticated game of international relations. Morsi will visit the United States in September.

"If Egypt doesn't normalize with Iran, what will be the return from Israel and the United States? As you know, international politics is like international commerce,” he said.

Whatever the future of Egypt's ties to Iran, al Ashaal predicts the days of other countries dictating what Egypt will do are over.
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