Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s newly installed, democratically-elected president, has chosen Riyadh as the destination for his first foreign visit.
With his keenly anticipated arrival in the Saudi capital imminent, the news will deliver a bitter blow to its regional rival Iran. In recent days, Tehran has mounted a major diplomatic offensive, led by Foreign Minister Ali-Akbar Salehi, to improve relations with Cairo.
Now it would appear that despite the impending success of this strategy being heavily promoted in the Iranian press, it has failed, or at least suffered a serious setback.
So why does currying favor with the new Egypt matter so much to the Islamic Republic? And in choosing to prioritize a visit to the Saudi Kingdom, has President Morsi delivered a snub to Iran? Or has he merely embraced the reality that consolidating his tenuous grip on power requires influential supporters?
Iran broke off relations with Egypt in 1980, when Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David Accord and made peace with Israel. When Sadat was assassinated the next year, the revolutionaries in Tehran celebrated the murder by renaming a street after his killer. This petty action remained for many years the stumbling block in repairing diplomatic relations with Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak. In the wake of his removal from power last January, the Iranians intensified their efforts to re-engage with Egypt, and have enjoyed notable successes. However, full diplomatic relations at the ambassadorial level have yet to be resumed.
It would have been the crowning achievement of Salehi’s largely effective Egyptian foreign policy to have played host to Morsi on his first excursion overseas. That had been mooted for the meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement scheduled to take place in Tehran in early August.
However, Riyadh has stolen a march on Tehran, and in the febrile atmosphere infecting Saudi-Iranian relations, the "capture" of Morsi is a considered a massive psychological coup.
Both the regimes in Tehran and Riyadh suffer from questions surrounding their legitimacy, and association with the Arab world’s largest democracy, Egypt, is seen as no bad thing. However, in as much as Tehran and Riyadh would wish to bask in the reflected glory of this home-coming hero of the Islamist cause, they have just as much reason to be cautious. In either case — Iran or Saudi Arabia — both make strange bedfellows for this scion of the Muslim Brotherhood.
As a democrat, Mohammed Morsi’s credentials are a direct challenge to the divine-right philosophy engendered by the Saudi monarchy. While as a revolutionary, President Morsi’s populist platform undermines the authoritarian grip with which the fundamentalists in Tehran cling to power.
Notwithstanding which, Islam and brotherly unity are trotted out by all sides as the compelling if not entirely logical reason for cooperation. Not logical because the firebrand version of Islam espoused by the Ikhwan-al-Islam (Muslim Brotherhood) is in the Sunni tradition, rather than Shia mold of Iran, and inadvisable because it is based on populism rather the austere hierarchy of the Saudi monarchy. However, in an article celebrating Morsi’s decision to eschew Tehran in favor of Riyadh, the Saudi daily As-Sharq noted his pledge not to “export” the Egyptian revolution to other countries.
For Iran, friendship with Egypt would signal an end to its near isolation in the wider Arab world, and could be the precursor to a more general rapprochement. This could be even more crucial given the perilous situation that Bashar Al-Assad, Iran’s erstwhile ally, finds himself in in Syria. Furthermore, no would-be ally is able to play a more important part in Islamic Iran’s struggle against Israel than Egypt, nor offer greater succor to the largely pro-Iranian Palestinians in Gaza. Finally, it would help secure Iran’s western flank, which is hugely exposed, and help militate against the prospect of an attack by Israel and/or the United States.
For Saudi Arabia, the stakes are equally high. However, its primary aim is to frustrate Iran and block the extension of its franchise. In the great struggle for moral supremacy between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Riyadh feels it cannot allow itself to be outflanked — both literally and metaphorically — by Tehran. The support of Egypt, with the largest and most ancient population in the Arab world, brings with it a certain authority and legitimacy; the kind of cachet Saudi Arabia desperately needs if it is to assume (what it regards as a rightful) ascendency in the Islamic world.
And for Egypt? The fluid situation there makes an analysis of its strategic motives (or more accurately, those of its Muslim Brotherhood president) that much more difficult. However, it would be too much of a stretch to characterise Morsi’s trip to Saudi Arabia as a slight to Iran. A well-placed source at the Foreign Ministry told Al-Monitor that the Iranians will be “more cautious in their future dealings with him.”
However, Yoel Guzansky from the Institute for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv and former staff member at the National Security Council told the Jerusalem Post on Sunday (July 8) that Morsi’s choice of Saudi Arabia for his first foreign state visit was highly symbolic, and demonstrated that Egypt looked to Saudi Arabia not just for economic assistance but also for leadership. It was, he said, “a strategic consideration” on Morsi’s part to visit Riyadh, and would help to deflect from the domestic pressure from his current struggle with the military. There is, of course, the issue of trade to consider, too.
Egypt is in the midst of its most serious economic crisis ever, and that was the major cause of Mubarak’s overthrow. Unemployment is officially declared at 12.4%; the real figure is at least twice as high. Inflation is cripplingly high, and an underswell of unrest remains in the back streets of Cairo and Alexandria. Therefore, the immediate commercial opportunities offered by Saudi Arabia are more plausible and more realizable. Iran’s economy is mired in the gridlock created by the sanctions and its lack of access to global banking mechanisms, and while it produces a wider variety of goods than Saudi Arabia, trade with Iran is seen as problematic and compromising.
Ultimately, it boils down to geopolitical priorities, and Egypt will take care to steer a shrewd course between its two bigger brothers in Islam. There can be no dispute that when King Abdullah gets his photo call with Morsi, the Saudis will have struck first — but Middle East history suggests that the initial blow is rarely the decisive one.
Shahab Mossavat is a freelance writer and broadcaster based in London, and is on Twitter as @1Shahab1.