Track Persia – Apr 25, 2017
Ammar al-Hakim, one of Iraq’s prominent Shi’i clerics and politicians, travelled to Cairo this week in a visit that highlighted the warming relations between Egypt and Iran, Hakim’s main sponsor.
Hakim and his delegation of Iraqi political figures were in Cairo ostensibly to promote their vision for a post-Islamic State (IS) Iraq, the ‘National Reconciliation Plan,’ which has already run into trouble.
Egyptian President Abdelfattah al-Sisi stressed his support for unity and reconciliation among all Iraq’s factions, but Hakim’s visit sparked a social media backlash in the Sunni Arab world’s most populous country.
The hashtag #No_to_Ammar_Al-Hakim_in_Egypt went viral, with Egyptian and other Arab social media users condemning what they describe Hakim and Iraq’s Shi’i religious and political establishment of sectarian abuse against Iraq’s Sunni population.
Al-Hakim is leader of the Ashura Brigades, part of the now infamous, Iraqi state-sponsored al-Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Force) that has been accused of carrying out war crimes against Iraq’s Sunni Arabs during the military campaign against IS since 2014.
He is also head of Iraq’s National Alliance, the largest predominantly Shi’i political bloc and the leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a political party and movement well-represented in the national legislature, and the closest to Iran of Iraq’s three main Shia political parties.
Iraq has increasingly been used by Iran as a pawn in its attempts to pull Egypt into its orbit.
In a statement, Hakim said he discussed with Sisi building “a strategic alliance between the two brotherly countries in the security, political, and economic spheres in a way that benefits the interests of both the Iraqi and Egyptian people.”
Iraqi oil, Iranian money
Arabic media has suggested that Iran is seeking to increase its investment in Egypt amid Cairo’s increasingly strained relations with Saudi Arabia, which had been Sisi’s main regional backer since he came to power in a military coup in 2013.
Egyptian-Saudi relations were seriously damaged over the ownership of two Red Sea islands, and by Cairo’s vote in favour of a Russia-sponsored UN Security Council resolution on Syria in October 2016 that went against the Gulf country’s position supporting the imposition of a no-fly zone.
Tehran also lobbied for Cairo’s participation at the Lausanne conference on Syria that same month. This was likely to ensure a pro-Assad majority in the room, but still showed how the two countries’ foreign policies were converging, on Syria at least.
In response, Saudi Aramco cut off fuel supplies to Egypt, forcing the latter to rely on Iraq instead (in an Iran-sponsored deal) and reportedly even to discuss oil imports directly from Iran as well.
There were also talks about exporting Iranian oil to Europe through the Egyptian Sumed pipeline. Iran has also recently allowed the import of Egyptian oranges, despite producing much of its own fruit and vegetables, in a move interpreted as strengthening bilateral business ties.
Egyptian media also reported that Iran was aiming to increase its total investment in Egypt to 20 billion Egyptian pounds ($1.1bn) over the next five years – a dramatic increase on the 2.4 billion Egyptian pounds it invested in the country between 1970 and 2011.
The Misr-Iran Development Bank (MIDB) announced earlier this month that its loans to small and medium sized businesses (SMEs) reached 1 billion Egyptian pounds at the end of 2017’s first financial quarter.
MIDB was set up in 1975, four years before the Iranian revolution. It has been operating ever since and has even been accused of helping Iran evade sanctions.
Egypt and Iran: A tense relationship
Following the 1952 revolution, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser had a hostile relationship with the Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who the former saw as a pawn of Western imperialism in the region and as having an anti-Arab agenda.
Under Egypt’s next president Anwar al-Sadat, the two countries’ relations warmed. After signing a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, Sadat placed Egypt firmly in the West’s camp. The Shah, for his part, settled border disagreements with Iraq through the 1975 Algiers Agreement and renounced Iran’s claims to Bahrain in 1970.
In 1979 the Shah was overthrown and in 1980 Egypt and Iran cut all diplomatic relations after Sadat offered the Shah refuge in Egypt. He was buried in Cairo and his grave is still open to the public today.
After Sadat’s assassination in 1981, Iran named a street after his killer, and Egypt backed Iraq in the 1980s Iran-Iraq War.
Relations remained sour. In April 2006, for example, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stirred anger when he said: “Definitely Iran has influence on the Shia. The Shia are 65 percent of the Iraqis… Most of the Shia are loyal to Iran, and not to the countries they are living in.” He also said that civil war “has almost started” in Iraq.
The two countries still do not exchange ambassadors, having only ‘interest sections’ in each other’s countries.
Egypt’s secular military establishment see Iran as a sponsor of radical Islamic movements in the Middle East, and the Islamist opposition are opposed to its spreading of Shi’i Islam and its war against Syria and Arab Sunnis. Both government and opposition, and Egyptian citizens more generally, see Iran as trying to spread Shi’ism inside Egypt – something vehemently and vigorously opposed by all political currents in Egypt.
According to a 2014 poll by the Pew Research Center, 83 percent of Egyptians had an unfavourable view of Iran, the second-highest in the Middle East after Jordan, where 87 percent had an unfavourable view of Iran.
Furthermore, despite Iranian commentators often trying to draw parallels between Iran and Egypt as two countries with long, pre-Arab and Islamic histories, Egypt still sees itself as proudly Arab and Sunni Islamic – a legacy of both secular Arab nationalism and Islamic revivalist movements, of which Egypt was the epicentre of both through Nasser and the Muslim Brotherhood respectively following the collapse of the Ottoman Caliphate.
Earlier this month, for example, the pro-regime Egyptian daily Youm7 published an article titled “Shia leaders admit: Iran funded ‘Sunni’ terrorist groups to commit suicide attack,” and quoted experts who said Iran would do anything to create a Persian empire and had joined forces with the West to tarnish the image of Sunnis.
Sisi himself made the same accusation at the 28th Arab League summit at the end of March, saying: “These terrorist groups do not appear to care much about any sectarian differences when they need mutual co-operation, but they apply sectarian discrimination when they attack and kill fellow Muslims.”
Youm7 published another article last month about Egyptian Shi’i leaders attempting to create a council for themselves inside the country. The newspaper quoted Egyptian parliamentarian Shoukry el-Gendy, a member of the Religion Committee, as saying: “Egypt is a Sunni state and there is no room for Shia inside it.”
Thus, despite lacking a sizeable Shi’i minority of its own, Egypt sits firmly and vocally on the Sunni side of the Middle East divide.
Iran infiltrates Egyptian soft power
Despite its waning influence, Egypt still wields considerable soft power in the Middle East through its music and movies.
Both of these have been targeted by Iran, through Iraq, to improve its image in the country.
One of Egypt’s most famous folk singers released a song praising Iran-backed al-Hashd al-Shaabi in Iraq for its role in the fight against IS.
Shaaban Abdel Rahim, popularly known as Shaabola, released the song “Big Words” just before the New Year in which he expressed love for Iraq and said that Hashd fighters were “real men” defending their country.
An interview in the lead-up to the song’s release appeared to cast doubt on the extent of Shaabola’s political support for al-Hashd and depth of knowledge about its activities.
Asked how the project came about, Shaabola said: “Someone from Iraq told me that these al-Hashd al-Shaabi are fighting Daesh… I did it against Daesh.”
Asked if he was afraid that the song would be interpreted as a political statement and whether he was taking sides amid regional Sunni-Shia tensions, Shaabola said: “No, no, not at all… The guy told me that these guys called al-Hashd al-Shaabi are fighting Daesh.”
He also denied that money was a motivating factor, saying he was paid only 10,000 Egyptian pounds ($552) for the song.
Shaabola, who has regularly spoken of his own illiteracy, has also previously sung songs against the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and mourning the execution of Saddam Hussein – hardly positions associated with Iraq’s Shia militias.
Al-Hashd al-Shaabi are a key part of Iran’s network of foreign militias fighting on its behalf across the Arab world, including in Syria in defence of Bashar al-Assad’s government.
In 2014, a Pew Research Center poll found 66 percent of Egyptians having a ‘very unfavourable’ opinion of Assad.
To put Assad’s unpopularity in Egypt in context: This was a year after the country’s military coup against an Islamist government, with Egyptian state media declaring the state was at war with terror – the same refrain Assad uses; it was also two years before the horrors of the bombardment of Aleppo in late 2016 early 2017 that enraged the Arab world; and Egypt was the third-highest anti-Assad country in the poll after Turkey and Jordan who both neighbour Syria and have had to shelter millions of refugees as a consequence of Assad’s war on his people.
With this in mind, it easy to see why Iran is attempting to improve both its own and al-Hashd’s image in Egypt.
The mystery of the Karbala Film Festival
Iran, again through Iraq, has also been drawing in a number of Egyptian movie stars into its operations.
The Karbala Film Festival has taken place every year since it 2015 – and every year a group of Egyptian actors have attended, received awards, been taken on tours, and come back to Egypt with pro-Hashd views.
The actors include: Ahmed Maher, Mahmoud el-Gendy, Futouh Ahmed, Farouq el-Fishawy, and Hanan Shawqi.
Some of these actors are B-List at best, but others – particularly Farouq el-Fishawy – are household names and icons of Egyptian cinema.
Upon their return they were involved in fiery media interviews by an Egyptian press bewildered that such actors would make such a journey.
Mahmoud el-Gendy, another household name, only earlier this month at the 2017 Karbala Film Festival, received an award from none other than the personal representative of Ayatollah Sistani, Iraq’s highest Shi’i clerical figure.
The response of Egyptian social and state media alike to these actors’ visits to Iraq were the same as those of Hakim’s visit to Egypt earlier this week: hostility against both the Iraqi al-Hashd for its crimes against Sunni Arabs, and hostility as well against Iran’s attempts to spread Shiism in Egypt.
Full Egypt-Iran reconciliation unlikely
In December 2016, Yasser Othman, the head of Egypt’s Interests Section office in Tehran, met with Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, to discuss ‘regional issues.’
In the ensuing diplomatic firestorm, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry was forced to put out a statement saying: “Egypt maintains a severance of diplomatic relations in the past 25 years and has taken no position to change that situation.”
Last March, Othman met with Alaeddin Boroujerdi, chairman of the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee.
Boroujerdi reiterated the two countries “historical affinities,” Iran desire to deepen political and economic ties, as well as mentioning the possibility expanding cooperation in the tourism industry.
Egypt’s tourism industry has been battered by political instability and terrorism, while Iran has recently had its sanctions lifted, for now at least. With its abundance of Sufi saints and shrines revered by Shi’i Muslims, Cairo would make an attractive tourist destination for Iranians, and Iranians a much-needed source of foreign-currency in Cairo.
Egypt’s change of stance on Syria, and warming relations with Iran, are often referred to alongside Cairo moving closer to Moscow for first time since the Nasser era. For example, the two countries are reportedly considering the renovation of an ex-Soviet naval base in the coastal town of Sidi Barani which was in use until 1972. But talks of Egypt joining the Russia-Iran-Syria axis are overblown, for a number of reasons.
Firstly, Egypt only opened the door to Iranian intrigues after troubles emerged with Saudi, and Cairo knows Tehran cannot supply it with anywhere near the billions of dollars the Arab Gulf has given it. If Egypt and Saudi can smooth things over, interest in Iran will likely wane.
Secondly, Egypt opening doors of communication with a resurgent Iran now enmeshed with Arab affairs could be seen as a political necessity, and is still far short of restoring diplomatic relations, let alone a full-blown alliance.
Thirdly, Egypt’s pivot to Russia was due to Cairo’s frustration with Obama’s lukewarm support for the coup after the mass killings of Morsi supporters. Moscow, like Iran and Saudi, cannot replace what Egypt receives in financial and military assistance from Washington.
Fourthly, Donald Trump on the campaign trail and in the Oval Office has been incredibly public about his support for Sisi – and equally as public about his opposition to Iran.
Sisi will be unlikely to give up the West for the East.
Iran has, and always will have, its eye on Egypt, which as the Arab world’s most populous and influential country would be the jewel in the crown of its nascent empire.
Egypt, however, is simply trying to extract the maximum it can from all parties involved – and those in power in Cairo are loyal to no-one but power itself.