Egyptian Prime Minister Visits Iraq For Business, Not Friendship

Egyptian Prime Minister Hashim Qandil’s visit to Baghdad was justfied by economic interests, not political friendship, writes Jihad el-Zein.

al-monitor Egypt's Prime Minister Hisham Qandil attends the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Jan. 25, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Denis Balibouse.

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Mar 8, 2013

What Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil said at Cairo International Airport after he returned yesterday [March 6] from his closely followed visit to Baghdad were not empty words.

Qandil provided a detailed list of the results of his visit. He announced that he signed with the Iraqi government agreements in the field of energy and that Egyptian companies have won development projects in Iraq in the fields of housing, trade, investment and training based on the various Egyptian experiences.

The prime minister, who was accompanied by dozens of Egyptian businessmen, wanted to send the message that Egypt’s renewed relations with Iraq are based on clear economic interests for Egyptians. He did not mention “nationalism” and said that the relationship between the two countries “is based on economic interests, not feelings of friendliness, brotherhood, or religion.”

Saying the two countries’ “interests” really just means Egypt’s interests. He said this to preempt any possible attacks on his visit in light of the political and sectarian divisions raging in the region, and to prevent criticisms of his visit by Iran’s internal and external opponents.

After President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Cairo last month, it seems that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has started changing its foreign policy toward Iran. Egypt wants to justify the relationship by putting it within the context of economic interests. The economy is the pressing issue in Egypt.

A few days before the Egyptian prime minister visited Baghdad — Iran’s ally, which has oil revenues exceeding $100 billion a year — the Egyptian government quietly signed with Iran a tourism agreement that organizes the movement of Iranian tourists to Egypt and encourages religious tourism, especially to the sacred shrines of Ahl al-Bayt in Cairo. Most Iranians, especially the lower class, are enthusiastic about this kind of tourism. That agreement, if implemented, will have a significant impact on the tourism scene in Egypt. Tens of thousands or perhaps hundreds of thousands of Iranian tourists may visit Egypt and reestablish the Egyptian-Iranian relationship based on tourism. Observers should closely monitor any developments.

The ruling Muslim Brotherhood is playing a dangerous game. It is carrying out diplomatic “infiltrations” on the one hand and speaking the language of “interests” on the other. This means that the Brotherhood is slowly changing the links between Egypt’s diplomacy since the regimes of President Anwar Sadat and President Hosni Mubarak with American, and more importantly Saudi Arabian, policy. This means that the relationship between Saudi Arabia, the Gulf (with the exception of Qatar and Oman) and the Brotherhood will continue to get worse, quietly with Saudi Arabia and openly with the UAE.

Egyptian foreign policy is taking the “slow desert road,”  as opposed to the desert highway that Cairenes use to get to Alexandria quickly.

There is no doubt that within the Muslim Brotherhood is an influential Egyptian current that supports renewing the old relationship with Iran despite substantial disagreements, especially over Syria. It is an irreconcilable disagreement: the Muslim Brotherhood supports the Syrian popular revolution while Iran supports the regime. Neither side can back down. But they do agree on “rejecting outside interference” and supporting “a political solution” in Syria. This agreement, at least nominally, allows them to put their differences aside.

Some within the Muslim Brotherhood may be influenced by how Turkey manages its relations with Iran: there is an upper ceiling for their differences and an upper ceiling for whatever they agree on. Each of those ceilings has deep historical roots. They agree on major economic interests and they disagree on core issues in international relations, which are now about Syria. That country is experiencing a proxy war between Tehran and Ankara. So why should Egypt not be in it as well?

We have to put the situation in Gaza within that context and examine how much the “Hamas wing” within the Brotherhood is influencing the Brotherhood’s positive relationship with Iran.

The irony is that a large part of the Egyptian leftist and liberal elite are at war, and scoring victories, against the Brotherhood’s authoritarian tendencies. That elite has traditionally supported independence and is not against Egypt having an independent foreign policy. The Brotherhood is proudly seeking independent foreign policy. But although this elite is not against rapprochement with Iran, it rejects the Brotherhood’s “secret deal” with Washington. In this sense, the Egyptian revolution’s religious and liberal wings have something in common. The internal conflicts are many but they will eventually produce a different foreign policy than before the revolution. Let us monitor what transpires and at what cost.

We should distinguish between supporting the secular and liberal opposition inside the region’s “obscurantist religious regimes” and their courageous confrontations from Iran to the Nile Valley on the one hand, and between encouraging the necessary renewal of Iranian-Egyptian and Iraqi-Egyptian relations on the other, because the latter help ease the sectarian tensions in the Arab world. And we should encourage those relations even more if they are based on rational interests.

Therefore, we wholeheartedly congratulate the Egyptian prime minister for his visit to Iraq and the results of that visit. We want Egypt to be present all over the Arab world, especially in the Levant. The visit to Iraq is a good model to follow.

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