Since the establishment of Egypt’s first republic in 1952, the country’s foreign policy has never been clearly sectarian, with neither a Sunni nor Shiite identity taking precedence. Following the election of President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in June 2012, however, the administration has appeared to preach sectarian ideology.
Prior to the uprising, former President Hosni Mubarak angered the Shiites in 2006, remarking that “Shias [in Iraq] and across the Middle East are more loyal to Iran than to their own countries.” His comments were later dismissed by the Egyptian foreign ministry, reaffirming Egypt’s nonsectarian policy.
Article 2 of Egypt’s newly approved constitution identifies Islam as the religion of the state. This is hardly a new development in the recent history of Egyptian legislation. Yet another article, 219, takes the status of Egyptian Islam a step further by highlighting the country’s Sunni identity: “The principles of Islamic shariah include general evidence, foundational rules, rules of jurisprudence, and credible sources accepted in Sunni doctrines and by the larger community.” While Article 219 is meant to diminish contention within the domestic political scene by specifying the role of Sunni doctrines, it simultaneously solidifies Sunni dominance within the country as a whole and sends an important message to Sunnis and Shiites across the Islamic world.
Morsi’s decision to attend the 16th Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement, which was hosted by Iran in August 2012, was touted as a revolutionary revamping of Egyptian foreign policy. The move was interpreted as a positive step toward normalizing relations with the Islamic Republic, which have been strained these last 30 years.
Despite this implication of approval, Morsi made it a point at the summit to identify Egypt within the Sunni establishment. He began his speech in Tehran with, “May God's peace be upon his Prophet Muhammad," and then distinguished himself from his Shiite counterparts by including, “and may the peace of God be on the holy family of the prophet and the sahaba [close associates] of Prophet Muhammad: Abu Bakr, Omar, Othman, and Ali.” Though the reference to Ali, the most holy member of the prophet's family in the eyes of the Shiites, could have been perceived by Iranians as flattering, the addition of references to Abu Bakr, Omar, and Othman, [could be] considered a subtle attack on the Shiite audience.
Morsi went on to declare that the al-Assad regime "had lost all legitimacy.” He added that it was not enough to show sympathy toward the Syrian people, but that the time had come to act upon this sympathy. Yet Morsi intentionally did not mention the struggle of the Shiites in Bahrain for equal rights and basic democratic principles, implicitly showing his support for Bahrain’s Sunni regime. Indeed, in the same month, Maryam al-Khawaja, the acting president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, was refused entry to Cairo by airport security officials for "security reasons.” Her denial of entry sent another message of solidarity to the Bahraini regime.
Morsi perhaps ascertained that introducing sectarianism into Egypt’s foreign policy would be well received by his political base, especially by the large number of Salafi groups that consider Shiite Islam a danger to the religion and to traditional Sunni practices. The Salafi Nour Party, for one, has voiced the fear of “Shi`a-zation” by claiming to “witness it inside Egypt and throughout the Islamic world.” This fear started as a result of the American war on Iraq, when hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, a majority of them Shiites, found refuge in the Cairo suburbs.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reciprocated Morsi’s visit by traveling to Egypt himself in February 2013, making him the first Iranian president to visit Egypt since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Ahmadinejad flew to Cairo to attend a summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). "I will try to pave the ground for developing co-operation between Iran and Egypt," he told the official IRNA news agency before the trip.
Yet on March 5, Khaled al-Qazzaz, the foreign affairs secretary to Morsi, stated at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., that there are “no plans right now for advancing diplomatic relations with Iran until we see change.” Al-Qazzaz firmly added in regard to Syria, “We want Iran to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem.” And Mohamed Abd Elsalam, a representative of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party in Luxor, released a statement declaring Ahmadinejad’s visit “as part of the Islamic Summit and not as an official visit to Egypt.”
Members of the Egyptian group Salafist Call echoed such views, criticizing the historic visit and stressing their opposition to any "Shia influence on Sunni Egypt." They added that Ahmadinejad must "take responsibility for his part in the killing of women and children in Syria through his backing of the regime of Bashar al-Assad."
Morsi’s insistence on incorporating Islamic sectarianism into Egyptian foreign policy may provide Cairo with leverage in its difficult relations with Arab Gulf countries by emphasizing their common Sunni identities, leading to enhanced political relations and stability. However, this use of sectarianism has repercussions.
First, it emphasizes religious preference over national security interests, calling into question whether Morsi is putting his religious agenda above his top priority as president. Second, it could lead to similar tensions witnessed in Arab countries such as Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Finally, it adds to 10 million Egyptian Copts’ state of fear and distress regarding their religious identity and ability to live undiscriminated against among their fellow Muslim citizens.
Mohamed Elmenshawy is a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. He writes a weekly article in the Egyptian daily Al Shorouk. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter @ElmenshawyM.