Egyptian turn towards Iran likely just rhetorical

The new regime in Egypt is unlikely to seek a full-on rapprochement with Iran.

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Claudia Mendoza
On 19 May 2011 14:37

Since the ousting of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt has experienced significant internal and external changes, illustrating a desire to jettison Mubarak-era policies. Internally, constitutional reforms — which received a majority vote of approval in a referendum — have addressed a number of grievances.

Modifications in Egypt’s foreign policy — namely its courtship of Iran — are also in defiance of Mubarak-era policies. As the Arab world’s most populous and strategically important country, how post-revolution Egypt conducts its foreign policy will have a great impact on the region and many are watching it cautiously.

Egypt and Iran have not had diplomatic relations since Egypt granted the deposed shah of Iran asylum after the Islamic revolution of 1979, and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel. Mubarak’s hatred of Iran — a controversial foreign policy approach — was clearly shown in his relationship with its adversaries: he provided weaponry to Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War; maintained peace with Israel; and supported the UAE’s claim to three small gulf islands over which Iran also claims sovereignty.

Under Mubarak, Egypt also formed part of the alliance against Iran and its proxies. Its tough stance on Hamas in particular, was unpopular amongst Egyptians, most of whom remain hostile to Israel. According to an opinion poll by the US based Pew Research Center, 54 per cent of Egyptians want to end the peace treaty signed in 1979. Seeking approbation both regionally and at home, many fear that Egypt will consider a more populist foreign policy.

Indeed, Iran is keen to benefit from the political changes in the Middle East by realigning with the new emerging governments.

Egypt’s shunning of Mubarak-era policies will certainly please Iran, which is already benefiting from its proxy Shiite organisation Hezbollah taking power in Lebanon, and from the challenge being mounted in Bahrain (which has a Shiite majority but is Sunni ruled).

This is all in addition to the spotlight temporarily being taken off its nuclear program and it being able to take credit for the uprisings as an extension of its own revolution. Establishing diplomatic relations with Egypt will strengthen it further.

The results of the Egyptian parliamentary and presidential elections due to take place by the end of the year will give a clearer idea of which foreign policy path it will take. However, any new government will undoubtedly prioritise domestic rather than foreign policy, specifically the economy and access to water.

The former has been precarious for some time and has been further exacerbated by the disruption to production and tourism because of the uprisings. The new government will deal with the latter by working to improve relations with African neighbours in order to protect its share of the water of the Nile.

In fact,the crux of Egypt’s foreign policy is unlikely to change at all. Its peace treaty with Israel will undoubtedly be adhered to unless, of course, it is violated by Israel. Indeed, it is in Egypt’s national interest to maintain the status quo, regardless of who comes to power. Conscious of Arab and domestic public opinion however, there will be a continued change in rhetoric.

With respect to Iran, the Egyptian prime minister underlined during his first visit to the Gulf that Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) security is a red line in the country’s foreign policy and normalising ties would not be at the expense of the GCC states. Since Riyadh has been generous with its financial support of Egypt, Cairo will be careful not to make moves — such as strengthening Iran — which will anger Riyadh, for fear of it withholding further support.

The reality of the considerable differences between Iran and Egypt, namely the Arab-Persian, Sunni-Shia divide as well as Iran’s regional ambitions, will likely overshadow any desire for major change.

Given the above, it would be wise for the international community to spend less time worrying about Egypt’s rhetoric and instead focus its efforts on working to help it through the difficult process of change as it moves towards becoming a free and liberal society.

This starts with economic engagement in order to empower the most forward leaning parts of society. If democracy prevails this would represent a powerful challenge to an Islamist ideology which carries regional weight.

If Iran and its proxies, not democracy, emerge as the real victor of the uprisings it would belie the true nature of the Arab Spring.

Claudia Mendoza is a Research Analyst at the Legatum Institute in London.

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