When flight number 8000, operated by the private carrier Air Memphis, took off for Imam Khomeini International Airport around midnight on Saturday 30 March Tehran had made its first appearance on a Cairo airport flight information board in more than three decades.
Eight passengers, most of them Iranian diplomats, were on board. The aircraft returned to Egypt the next day, landing at Luxor airport with more than 50 Iranian tourists on board. Their arrival in Egypt coincided with a unilateral decision by the Iranian government to lift its own visa requirements for Egyptian tourists.
A spokesman for Air Memphis told Al-Ahram that regular tourism charter flights will start at the end of this month. The plan is for three charters a week, followed by regular flights from 1 June. There are no estimates of the number of passengers expected from either Egypt or Iran.
During a two-day visit to Cairo this week Iran’s deputy foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian described relations between the two countries as “unique”, adding that the key to restoring full diplomatic ties lies in Egypt’s hands.
Officials here have yet to declare whether Cairo plans to reciprocate Tehran’s eager overtures towards normalization.
Tehran severed ties with Egypt following the Iranian revolution in 1979 and Egypt’s signing of a peace agreement with Israel. Cairo’s support for Iraq in its war with Iran sealed the hostile relationship between Egypt and the Islamic Republic. Hosni Mubarak’s alliance with the US and Gulf states saw the hardening of an anti-Iranian discourse that ranged from accusations of fomenting unrest in the region to promulgating Shiism, the dominant sect in Iran. The latter is a major concern of Gulf states, spearheaded by Saudi Arabia.
Over the years Egyptian salafis, who are close to Saudi wahhabism, have voiced a rejectionist discourse against Iran’s shia. Although this was convenient for Mubarak’s regime salafis, then mainly an underground movement, had no public say on the issue. In post revolution Egypt, where they not only have a voice but exercise considerable influence, their anti-Iranian/shiite stand is as aggressive as ever.
This probably explains why the tourism agreement between Egypt and Iran effectively prevents Iranian tourists from visiting what for them would be the major draw, Cairo mosques dating from the time of the Fatimids (969 to 1171) when Egypt was officially Shiite. If Cairo’s aim was to boost its faltering tourism sector it makes no sense at all to place prime attractions off limits, even when doing so placates the Salafis.
Tehran has chosen to turn a blind eye to this detail. Its officials are far more interested in seizing a post-revolution opportunity to improve ties with Cairo.
“Egyptian-Iranian relations have been progressing over the last two years,” Abdollahian told a press gathering at the Iranian embassy in Cairo on Monday. He described relations as “good” and “suitable”. Iran, he said, is fully prepared to cooperate with, and help, President Mohamed Morsi, the Egyptian government and people.
Morsi made a historic visit to Tehran last August, the first by an Egyptian president for more than three decades. Though officially he was in Iran for the Non Aligned Movement summit the visit sent a clear signal to Tehran that post revolution Egypt was ready to improve relations. But there things stopped. In the months that followed, despite Tehran repeated signaling its interest in providing economic assistance and upgrading ties, no progress was made.
In desperate need of help to shore up its economy Cairo, still a US and Gulf ally, hasn’t been responsive. How long this will last remains to be seen. Assistance promised by supposedly “friendlier” states has yet to materialise, leaving Egypt’s economy on the brink.
Not that Tehran appears nonplussed. The decades-long barrier between two of the region’s most powerful states has been broken. Charter flights are only one symbolic, if politically loaded, aspect of this development. The next step will be signaled by strategic and economic agreements.
According to Abdollahian, the volume of trade between both countries in 2012 was only $400 million. “It’s not as much as it should be but this is a result of the holdover of fear from Mubarak days. If the fear subsides the volume of trade will double,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly.
An Egyptian-Iranian agreement was initially signed in October 2010 under Mubarak. Ahmed Shafiq, the then minister of civil aviation, signed a memorandum of understanding with Iran's vice president and head of tourism Hamid Ghavabesh. The agreement provided for up to 28 private flights a week.
Insiders say a powerful business tycoon close to Gamal Mubarak was behind the deal. The aim was purely financial, the tycoon motivated by profit. It signaled less a shift in Egypt’s position towards Iran but Mubarak increasingly giving way in the face of pressure exercised by his son’s semi-ruling business clique.
The agreement never came into effect. Three months after it was signed the January 2011 uprising which toppled Mubarak began. Now another businessman, Rami Lakah, owner of Air Memphis, has stepped in to replace the now jailed NDP tycoon.
It has taken post revolution Egypt two years to implement the agreement: the delay must inform any assessment of how far Morsi is willing to go with Iran, especially given that the initial steps were taken by his predecessor. Is it really about an exchange of tourists, or is Egypt using the move as a prelude to establishing full diplomatic relations with Iran and a trial balloon to test US and Gulf tolerance of any further rapprochement?
Only time will tell, though if events of the past two years are anything to go by it is the dynamic on the ground, and new geopolitical realities taking shape, that will determine the fate of any Cairo-Tehran alliance.
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly