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By Emily Boulter, Non-Resident Associate, INEGMA

12 Feb 13. In February 2011, just two days after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt permitted two Iranian naval vessels to pass through the Suez Canal. It was the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that an Iranian naval ship had passed through the Canal, and was greeted by Israel, and other states in the region as a provocative manoeuvre. Two months later, Iran appointed Ali Akbar Sibouyeh, as its first ambassador to Egypt in thirty years. Both gestures symbolized a new course for Egyptian relations in the Middle East and prompted speculation over the nature of renewed ties between Cairo and Tehran.

Last August during the Non-Aligned Movement summit, President Morsi became the first Egyptian leader to visit the Islamic Republic in over thirty years. Iranian officials were quick to praise this positive step in bilateral relations. Egypt’s Al-Ahram newspaper reported that Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said, “Egypt is the cornerstone of the region and has a special stature in the Arab and Muslim countries…and we want relations of friendship and brotherhood with it”. However, during the visit Morsi did not meet the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei and at the summit, Morsi was eager to condemn the actions of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a speech. Syria has proven to be a major stumbling block, as Egyptians are firmly behind the rebels, while Iran’s ambassador to Damascus has said his country will defend Assad to the end. A spokesperson for the Egyptian president told Iran’s foreign minister that the president could not “ignore public sentiment in Egypt, which is against the Syrian regime”. Yet, Morsi submitted an idea in September 2012 that Iran becomes a member of an “Islamic Quartet”, along with Saudi Arabia and Turkey, in order to work for a non-military solution to the crisis in Syria. Salehi said in response that: “The common ground between us is more than our differences.”

In February 2013, amid the backdrop of regional uncertainty, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made a historic visit to Cairo to attend the three-day Organization of Islamic Cooperation summit, and was warmly greeted by President Morsi and taken to meet the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayyeb, who was frank in his criticism of the “spread of Shiism in Sunni lands”, while Iran’s president was effusive with praise for his Egyptian hosts: “the Egyptian people have their place in the heart of the Iranian people”. He spoke of forming a strategic alliance and giving Egypt an all-important loan to alleviate its flagging economy. Also, Egyptians will no longer require visas to travel to Iran. There has been no response to these offers, and according to Al-Ahram columnist, Fahmy Howeidi, he believes Ahmadinejad’s visit is “merely cosmetic”. The Iranian leader also had to endure the embarrassment of not one but two attempted assaults during the visit.

Traditionally among Sunni countries, Egypt has always been close to Iran. Former President Anwar Sadat allowed the former Shah to remain there until his death in July 1980, where he was given a state funeral. Yet relations were severed, due to Egypt’s peace agreement with Israel at Camp David and throughout the 1980s, as a result of Egypt’s decision to support Iraq in its war with Iran. Egypt supplied Iraq with spare parts and ammunition for its Soviet-designed weapons system. In 2009, Egypt accused the Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah of planning attacks inside Egypt, which led to the arrest of 49 men. After the removal of Mubarak, the United States, along with other Middle East states, cautiously waited to see how a Muslim Brotherhood government would proceed in its regional dealings. Iran’s Supreme Leader has great affection for Egypt. According to scholar Mehdi Khalaji, Khamenei invites Egyptian Quraan reciters to Iran every Ramadan. He has also tra

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