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Egypt’s Interest in Iraq, Iran Is Economic, Not Ideological

Despite the concerns of Gulf states that Egypt’s recent rapprochement with Iraq, and by extension Iran, is founded on an ideological basis, experts assert the reason is purely economic, Abdelrahman Youssef writes.
Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi (R) greets Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki before the opening of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) summit in Cairo February 6, 2013. Leaders of Islamic nations called for a negotiated end to Syria's civil war at a summit in Cairo that began on Wednesday, thrusting Egypt's new Islamist president to centre stage amid political and economic turbulence at home. REUTERS/Egyptian Presidency/Handout (EGYPT - Tags: POLITICS) ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVI

With the end of the Arab summit in Doha two days ago, many observers are studying the new balance of power that is changing by the day, especially among the major Middle Eastern countries such as Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, in light of the Arab revolutions’ repercussions in them. The ongoing Syrian revolution against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime made great diplomatic strides when Syrian oppositionist Moaz al-Khatib sat on Syria’s seat at the summit.

Among the relationships that may affect the course of events is the one between Egypt and Iraq. Ever since the Egyptian prime minister, accompanied by a delegation of businessmen, visited Baghdad in early March, there has been a lot of talk about the future of that relationship and how it will impact the region. Both of these countries are major players in the region and have rich history and governments with religious roots. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is considered the strongman of Shiite Iran, while Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi comes from the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood. In addition, both of those countries have large populations and share economic ties. The number of Egyptians who work in Iraq once reached 5 million.

The highlight of the visit was the signing of an agreement between the two countries’ oil ministers. The agreement stipulates laying a pipeline from southern Iraq to the Red Sea in Egypt, passing through Jordan. The oil transported in that pipeline would be refined in Egypt and exported, in agreement with Iraq, after Egypt has taken its share of diesel, or 4 million barrels per month.

But the two sides also signed other agreements about infrastructure, lifting the ban on Egyptian dairy exports and releasing all Egyptian prisoners in Iraq. Questions have been raised about the secret behind this rapprochement, when Egypt and Iraq disagree on Syria. There have also been questions over whether the Gulf countries, which are afraid of Iraq and consider it to be an extension of Iran, are happy about that relationship, given that it affects the regional balance of power.

Iman Rajab, a researcher specializing in Gulf affairs, said to Al-Monitor that after Mubarak’s departure, the Gulf has been wary about the events in Egypt at both the domestic and foreign policy levels. When President Morsi started opening up toward Iran, the Gulf drew for Egypt the red lines that it should not cross in that relationship. The Gulf countries recognize that Egypt has strategic interests, part of which necessitate openness to Iran. But the Gulf is afraid because they do not understand the core reason for this openness. Is it because of interests or ideology? The information available so far suggests that it is based on interests because Egypt has tourism interests and Iraq has economic ones.

Rajab said that the Gulf countries will do no more than express their dismay. She discounted the possibility of tensions between Egypt and the Gulf.

With regard to Egypt’s openness toward Iran, Rajab said that the Gulf fears that this openness could be based on the Iranian Sunni-Shiite project, of which Iran aspires to be the leader. The project is about “a free Islamic Middle East.” Iran initially portrayed the Egyptian revolution as an echo of the Iranian revolution. Gulf countries are wondering, “If there is a war in the region, will Egypt stand with the Gulf states or with Iran for ideological reasons?” The Gulf fears that Egypt may eventually use religious discourse. But for now, the goal of Egyptian-Iranian rapprochement seems to be based on no more than economic interests.

Rajab stressed that Egypt does not consider Iraq an alternative to the Gulf states. Egypt is merely trying to open up a new market for Egyptian labor and new economic opportunities. Rajab considers the relationship to be in Egypt’s interest. Iraq wants to reduce Iran’s influence over its oil, especially since the bulk of that oil is located in Iraq’s south, which is near the Strait of Hormuz, a major corridor for Iraqi oil exports. If a war breaks out or if Iran is attacked, Iran may react by closing the strait. Iraq needs it to remain open because shipping through it is cheaper than the alternatives.

With regard to Arab relations, Iraq deals with Egypt as a gateway to the Arab world. Iraq’s relations with the Gulf states have stumbled. Kuwait is considered the most open toward Iraq. Kuwait attended the Arab League summit in Baghdad last year with a higher level of diplomatic representation than any other Arab country, with a delegation headed by Kuwaiti emir himself.

But what about the view that Iraq wants to use economic cooperation to link Egypt, and with it Jordan, to the Iranian axis through a network of economic interests? Such a development may change, or mollify, Egypt’s position on Syria and alter the balance of power in a way that relieves the pressure on Iran and its Arab and international allies.

Yousri al-Ghizbawi, a specialist in Iraqi affairs, said to Al-Monitor that the Muslim Brotherhood, which is ruling Egypt, is aware of that and will not allow it to happen because the Brotherhood cannot cross the American and Gulf red lines. Moreover, the Brotherhood is only trying to improve their economy because a bad one would seriously threaten their legitimacy.

Ghizbawi said that Iraq has done all it can to restore its relations with the Arab regimes but it failed. When the Arab revolutions erupted, Baghdad saw a margin of movement via Egypt. He pointed out that Baghdad also seeks to prove that it is independent from Iran despite their close ties. Iraq is courting the Arab countries to restore its relationship with them.

In Ghizbawi’s opinion, Egypt knows that “Baghdad is not less important than Libya. Egypt wants a regional presence via another country than Saudi Arabia, and it found that in Iraq, which has tense relations with the rest of the countries except for Qatar. The latter does not have good relations with its neighbors either.”

Mohammed al-Said Idris, an expert on Arab affairs, told Al-Monitor that the tense situation in Iraq and the possibility that Maliki may not stay at the helm over the long-term in light of the bad relations between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, makes it very difficult to predict what will happen, especially since Egypt has not yet solidified its new political identity. Therefore, there are many possibilities that could impact Egypt at any moment. He attributed the rapprochement between Egypt and Iraq to the Egyptian economic crisis and to the Egyptian government trying to solve the crisis in any way possible so that the average citizen can stop supporting the opposition.

Idris rebuked those who are warning that the Brotherhood is moving closer to the “Shiite axis.” He said that it would be good if a formula guaranteeing Egyptian interests is reached. He said that there once were 5 million Egyptians working in Iraq with very high remittances. Moreover, he said that Iraqi Shiites are proud of their Arabism as they fought alongside former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein during his war with Iran.

Egypt did not object to Khatib sitting at Syria’s seat during the Arab League summit or to the speech he gave, having supported the resistance against Assad [all along]. The Muslim Brotherhood has not forgiven the Syrian regime for killing about 10,000 of their followers in Hama in the early 1980s. Therefore it is unlikely that the Brotherhood will agree with Iraq on any policy that keeps Assad in power.

Magdy Sobhi, an economist and the vice president of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, discounted the possibility that the Egyptian-Iraqi rapprochement has political dimensions, saying that it is more about economic interests. He told Al-Monitor that Egypt consumes all its oil output and imports the rest. Therefore, Egypt is trying to close its diesel deficit by means of the Iraqi pipeline, while Iraq wants to export its oil through venues other than the Gulf. Moreover, Iraq wishes to increase its oil production to reach 7 million to 8 million barrels a day by the year 2017. The number of ports in the Gulf would be unable to accommodate that amount, and the weather in the region is not ideal. Therefore, it is better for Iraq that its oil pass through the port in the Red Sea, via Jordan, which in turn will be profitable by yielding transit fees and lowering the cost of its oil-import shipments, which are currently brought in overland.

Abdelrahman Youssef is an Egyptian journalist specializing in religious issues (Copts, Islamic movements, Sufis, religious communities) and political affairs. He has written for a number of Egyptian publications, including Al-Shorouk, Al-Youm Al-Sabe'a, Al-Watan, Egypt Independent and Egypt Daily News, as well as for news organizations outside of Egypt such as the Lebanese Al-Akhbar and Reuters.