The visit by the Egyptian presidential delegation to Iran raised questions about its purpose because it “happened suddenly and [the delegation] used a private aircraft.” Moreover, the agenda of the visit was not formally announced.
The Egyptian presidential office announced that the aim of the delegation — which was led by the assistant to the president for foreign affairs, Essam al-Haddad, and the president’s chief of staff, Mohammed al-Tahtawi — was to “kick-start the quartet initiative launched by President Mohammed Morsi during the extraordinary Islamic Summit in Mecca” regarding the Syrian crisis.
Some experts described the presidential delegation’s visit to Tehran as “a step by the Egyptian regime to assess the dimensions of Cairo’s regional role, especially in relation to the Syrian crisis.”
Mohamed Said Idris, a former parliamentarian and an expert on Iranian affairs, said that it is clear that Egypt is moving to adopt a different position from those of Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia on how to resolve the Syrian crisis. He added, “Egypt’s vision is based on the rejection of any foreign military action to oust the regime in Damascus.”
During a meeting with Haddad, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warned of the repercussions caused by the Syrian armed opposition reaching power through violence. He said, “If those Syrian parties reach power by means of violence, then war, violence and chaos will reign in the country. And if Syria becomes unsafe, then the security of other countries in the region would be endangered as well. This issue threatens the whole region.”
In Tehran, Haddad met with Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, National Security Adviser Said Jalili and the foreign-policy adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Ali Akbar Velayati.
In a statement, the Iranian Foreign Ministry said that the two sides agreed on “the need to develop an action plan to implement the Egyptian president’s plan on the Syrian crisis through a mutually acceptable political solution that could help end the violence and to assist in the national reconciliation with the participation of the Syrian people.”
According to a statement by Iran’s presidential office, Haddad said, “Egypt wishes to stop the violence, conflict and killing in Syria, and we believe that the responsibility for solving this crisis rests with countries such as Egypt and Iran.”
The quartet initiative did not get very far, especially after Saudi Arabia failed to attend two consecutive foreign ministerial-level meetings without giving any reasons. Observers noted that Riyadh is not happy that Iran is present at these meetings.
During his 10 months in power, Morsi has shifted Cairo’s tone toward Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. At a meeting of the Arab League in Cairo in September 2012, Morsi called on the Syrian president to step down, but months later he proposed negotiations between the Syrian regime and the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.
However, in the Egyptian proposal, which was submitted by Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr during the ministerial meeting of the Friends of Syria group in Istanbul, the negotiations do not include all members of the Syrian regime group but only those whose “hands are not stained with the blood of the Syrian people.”
Idris said that there is no major change in the Egyptian stance toward Syria, “where Cairo’s constants are based on maintaining Syria’s unity and the absolute rejection of any military intervention for regime change. ... The real change is in the continuing deterioration of the situation in Syria and Cairo’s concern about the continued bloodshed, which would inevitably threaten Syria’s unity.”
Idris said that Morsi is cognizant of how much Syria’s national security affects Egypt. He said that “Morsi realizes the nature of regional changes, particularly given the Turkish-Israeli rapprochement. Since his visit to Russia, Morsi has been formulating an Egyptian approach in which Assad staying or leaving is no longer a priority. Morsi’s priority now is to preserve Syria.”
In a press conference with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, Morsi said that the positions of Moscow and Cairo on the Syrian crisis are identical.
Adel Suleiman, a strategist and the director of the International Center for Future and Strategic Studies, said that “there is no change in the Egyptian position, but the visit by the president’s advisor [to Tehran] indicates that Morsi is developing an Egyptian vision toward the Syrian crisis ... Iran is the one backing down regarding the Syrian crisis, even if it is only a tactical retreat. From the outset, Iran’s position was to give Assad unlimited support. But now Iran is not talking about Assad’s survival, but about the dangers posed by Assad’s alternatives.”
Suleiman said that Tehran has started fearing some regional changes such as “the shift in Turkish-Israeli relations and the deep political crisis of its ally in Iraq, which is represented by [Prime Minister] Nouri al-Maliki, as well as the current status of the Hamas movement, which has effectively returned to its mother organization, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood ... For Tehran, this is a very negative regional change. In the end, Turkish-Israeli rapprochement hurts Tehran’s interests.”
Observers believe that Syria is on the agenda of the Egyptian delegation’s visit to Ahmadinejad. But political science professor at the University of Cairo Hassan Nafi’a said to As-Safir that “it is not the only issue. ... I think that economic issues are the top priority, especially given that Iran has financial surpluses that could be invested in Egypt and that Egypt is counting on Iranian tourists” to revive Egypt’s tourism sector, which has sharply declined over the past two years.
It should be noted that Salafists held a demonstration and surrounded the headquarters of the Iranian diplomatic mission in Cairo to reject the arrival of Iranian tourists under the pretext of preventing the “spread of Shiism” in Egypt. According to the Egyptian Tourism Ministry, the demonstration caused the “temporary” suspension of flights between the two countries.
Nafi’a said, “Egypt should prepare itself to stand up to the US, Israel and the GCC as it re-establishes its relations with Iran. ... This requires a wide-ranging vision for Egypt’s regional role and its relations around the world. But that vision, unfortunately, does not exist.”
A number of diplomats are worried about Egypt’s relations with the Gulf states. Egyptian diplomatic sources said, “We have millions of Egyptians working in the Gulf countries. They represent a fourth of our budget revenues. Will Iran compensate us, at least partially, if that revenue is lost?”
A journalist close to the Egyptian government said that Islamist circles are “bothered” that Morsi’s initiative on Syria has not succeeded. They want to activate that initiative to gain politically, as happened in Gaza, or at least economically. Egyptian-American mediation contributed to the “truce” that followed the Israeli operation against Gaza in November 2012.
In a related development, an Arab delegation in Washington is meeting today [April 29], with US Secretary of State John Kerry to discuss the Syrian crisis after it held talks at the UN Headquarters in New York with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.
The Arab delegation is led by Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassim. It includes the secretary-general of the Arab League, Nabil el-Araby, in addition to representatives from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Jordan and Morocco. The delegation is scheduled to meet with US President Barack Obama and a number of senior administration officials.
For its part, The Washington Post reported that many Arab countries, as well as Turkey, Israel and some European countries, are pressuring the US to do more toward the Syrian crisis, although those countries do not fully agree on what exactly they want the Obama administration to do.
An Egyptian diplomat said, “It is clear that Egypt and Jordan, to some extent, reject military intervention, which Qatar and Turkey do not oppose. At the same time, European countries do not agree on whether to arm the Syrian opposition.”
Nafi’a said, “All these are Egyptian attempts to find a role in the region at a time when many capitals are wondering whether the Egyptian government has a future with all those challenges facing it. ... But the most important question is whether Egypt can use its political cards. I very much doubt it.”