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Ahmadinejad in Cairo

Amy Farina

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in Cairo on Tuesday for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation summit and was warmly greeted by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi with a red-carpet welcome and a military honor guard. The two also exchanged kisses on the cheek. The three-day summit marks the first time an Iranian president has visited Egypt since the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the subsequent deterioration of their relations. Indeed, former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat made policy decisions that stood at odds with the Iranian regime such as establishing a peace treaty with Israel and becoming an ally of the United States and Europe. Previously, the U.S. had used Egypt as a bulwark against the meddling nature of the regime in Tehran.

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi greets Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at Cairo airport. (Photo: Handout/EPA)

According to a security official, the two leaders discussed their differing positions on Syria. Their disagreement has brought the wider Sunni-Shiite conflict to the fore as Morsi, the leader of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood in the majority Sunni state of Egypt has called for Syrian President al-Asad to step down. In contrast, Iran remains Asad’s biggest backer as he continues to slaughter Sunnis in Syria. In September, Morsi offered incentives to Ahmadinejad to end his support for the Syrian regime including the offer of greater diplomatic recognition to Iran. It is hardly surprising that Tehran balked at the offer.

Contrary to Morsi’s warm welcome, not everyone in Cairo greeted the Iranian president with open arms. While entering the holy Sunni mosque of Al-Azhar in downtown Cairo, a anti-Iranian protester threw his shoes at Ahmadinejad. At a meeting inside the mosque with top Sunni Muslim scholar Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb, the Sheikh warned Ahmadinejad not to interfere in the affairs of the Gulf states and to uphold the rights of the Sunni population in Iran. The Sunni cleric also condemned the violence in Syria, with one of the Sheikh’s aids later describing the meeting as “tense.”

Ahmadinejad stated in a press conference that he would continue to hold bilateral talks with the purpose of strengthening the relationship between Tehran and Cairo. He offered to “help rescue Egypt’s failing economy” by providing a “big credit line.” Nevertheless, it remains unclear how much Tehran can realistically do with Western sanctions and its own devalued currency. For its part, Egypt’s economic troubles and recent drop in foreign currency reserves will likely pose a problem for Morsi, especially as he tries to maintain his relationship with the West. It is in Morsi’s interest to continue receiving the $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid and the $4.8 billion IMF loan–all of which may depend on whether the Egyptian leader aligns his country more with the West or with Iran. Ahmadinejad’s visit to Cairo therefore demonstrates yet another delicate balancing act by Morsi that will be followed closely in Washington and Tehran.