President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi received Sultan Haitham bin Tarik of Oman on 21 May as part of the Omani Sultan’s two-day official visit to Egypt to boost Egyptian-Omani cooperation.
The two sides “exchanged points of view on regional and international issues within the framework of permanent coordination and consultation between the two states and their efforts to promote regional stability and security, especially in light of the grave threats facing this region and many Arab countries,” read the statement issued by the Egyptian presidency.
“Both sides agreed on the need to intensify efforts to resolve current crises in a manner that serves the higher interests of the Arab peoples and safeguards their capacities and gains.”
A little over a week later, on 29 May, Sultan bin Tareq met with the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in the course of a two-day visit to Iran. Following the meeting, Khamenei tweeted: “We welcome Egypt’s desire to resume relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran. We have no problem in that regard.”
A day earlier, on 28 May, Cairo had hosted the Iraqi Shia cleric Ammar Al-Hakim, leader of the influential National Wisdom Movement, a member of the ruling coalition in Baghdad. Al-Hakim met with President Al-Sisi and other Egyptian officials to discuss the situation in Iraq and other regional issues.
Afterwards, in a meeting with strategic affairs specialists, Al-Hakim addressed the question of a possible Egyptian-Iranian rapprochement, saying it was important to take advantage of the current moment in the region to build new partnerships. He stressed Egypt’s importance in the rapprochement process given its regional weight.
The drive to end regional crises includes Arab-Turkish as well as Arab-Iranian rapprochement. It should be borne in mind, however, that it takes more than an initial show of good will to set the process in motion. Reciprocal steps are needed to test the parties’ intentions and commitment, and this takes time.
Baghdad and Muscat are well positioned to perform the role of intermediaries given their good relations with Tehran and growing influence in regional mediating efforts. The Baghdad regional summits have brought together non-Arab and Arab regional powers for two sessions, one in the Iraqi capital, the second in Amman.
In his address to the summits, President Al-Sisi laid out Egypt’s regional strategy and in so doing underscored a set of principles all regional players should uphold — good neighbourliness, mutual respect of national sovereignty, the rejection of attempts to impose faits accompli and the promotion of mutual benefits. The same principles were reiterated in the statement released by the presidency following the Omani Sultan’s visit to Cairo.
Oman has been instrumental in advancing the Iranian-Saudi rapprochement, efforts that were crowned by the mediating rounds that China hosted in Beijing in February and March, culminating the historic agreement between Tehran and Riyadh to resume diplomatic relations.
With Cairo the situation is different. Cairo and Tehran have never broken diplomatic relations, though they reduced the level of representation. Though the scope of interactions were reduced, charges d’affaires remained as channels for communication. The question now is whether diplomatic relations return back to the ambassadorial level, and whether areas of cooperation are expanded.
Cairo has long voiced clear reservations not just about the Iranian role in Iraq, but Iran’s regional policies in general. This is why relations between the two countries have remained at the charge d’affaires level since the Islamic revolution in 1979. From an Egyptian perspective, a return to normal diplomatic relations will require Iran to change the policies and behaviours that it has followed for four decades.
Over the same period, Egypt’s policies towards the region have, particularly since the turn of the century. With respect to the eastern Arab world, Egypt opposed the 2003 US military invasion of Iraq to topple the Iraqi regime. It also objected to Iranian intervention in Iraq in a manner that deepened sectarianism and helped entrench a sectarian-based quota system of government.
During his visit to Cairo, Al-Hakim sought to dispel negative impressions of the situation in Iraq. He stressed that Iraq has politically matured, and pointed out that while Iraq is situated definitively in the Arab fold, it is equally important for it to maintain an equilibrium with all its regional neighbours.
His Egyptian interlocutors fully understand this, as well as the need to deal rationally with political realities in a spirit free from ideological dogma. Al-Hakim took the occasion to praise Cairo for moving to include Pakistan in the framework of the regional drive toward rapprochement and the advancement of mutual interests.
While Cairo is keen on regional rapprochement with Iran, bilateral aspects of the relationship are governed by a range of other factors. Both sides need to take steps to overcome the barriers that stood in the way of earlier, tentative efforts to improve relations. The mediating efforts being undertaken by Oman may encourage this.
Omani observers have noted that Muscat is not operating in a vacuum but is responding to desires expressed by both Cairo and Tehran which have been reflected in the more positive and open-minded attitudes displayed by the Iranian and Egyptian media.
Cairo nonetheless appears more intent on accelerating the pace of normalisation with Turkey. It is noteworthy, in this regard, that President Al-Sisi, in a phone call to his Turkish counterpart President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to congratulate him on his electoral victory, agreed that the two countries should reinstate ambassadors. Egyptian-Iraqi relations also seem to be on track for similarly rapid improvement.
Although Egypt wholeheartedly supports regional reconciliation within the framework of its declared principles and policies, concrete evidence is needed before jumping to the conclusion that reviving the Egyptian-Iranian bilateral relationship has been placed on the front burner.
There is no denying, however, that Cairo is as keen as Tehran to take advantage of the current moment. Egypt appreciates the positive messages and signals it has received from Iranian officials who acknowledge that extra impetus in the rapprochement between Cairo and Tehran can only support greater regional reconciliation.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 1 June, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly