The Egyptian Vacuum
June 23, 2011
By Lev Yuriditsky
Iran has made gestures toward the new Egyptian government ostensibly under the guise of wanting to start fresh but actually motivated by a desire to sway Egypt into Iran’s axis and away from Saudi Arabia’s. Egypt has responded positively.
Foreign Minister Nabil Al-Arabi met with his Iranian counterpart to discuss how they can open a new chapter in their relationships. Al-Arabi acknowledged the concerns of his Gulf neighbors but assured that the rebuilding of ties would not in any way jeopardize their security. While visiting Saudi Arabia in April, he went so far as to say that Arab Gulf security is a red line that Egypt will not trespass.
Iran has attempted its own reassuring. In May, the Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi visited several Gulf countries to alleviate recent tensions caused by the Gulf States’ accusing Iran of meddling in their internal affairs and of fanning the flames of unrest in Bahrain.
Recent events have caused a tangible deterioration in the volatile Iranian-Gulf relations. Beyond unfounded accusations from Saudi Arabia and Bahrain of meddling, the “pause” in an Iran-Bahrain underwater gas pipeline underscored a chill in relations.
An Egyptian-Iranian rapprochement, which both countries seem to want, will not go unheeded by Saudi Arabia. With Saudi Arabia recently pledging $4 billion to help Egypt rebuild its struggling economy, Saudi Arabia is trying to use its greatest asset, oil wealth, to exert a stronger influence on Egypt’s new government than Iran, which does not have such resources. Saudi Arabia is hopeful that the largess can pressure Egypt against restoring ties with Iran.
Both countries in recent history have been at odds with Egypt especially Iran as of late with Mubarak accusing Iran of allowing proxy groups to operate in his country and Iran criticizing Egypt for imposing a blockade on Gaza. Previous grievances not withstanding, Saudi Arabia and Iran recognize the significant role Egypt plays in the Arab and Muslim world and now have this unexpected opportunity to gain a stronger foothold in the region.
With both countries battling for Egypt, they each need to play to their strengths in order to gain favor with the new government. With a crippled economy, demanding public and the need to rebuild quickly, Egypt will greatly be aided by Saudi oil money.
Partnering with Saudi Arabia will strengthen Egypt’s bonds with the GCC, which will come with a lot of tangible benefits as well. But as much as Saudi Arabia is not a fan favorite in the emerging Arab world and is not becoming one fast with its crackdowns in Bahrain, Egypt being viewed as a Saudi proxy may hurt its reputation with the awakened Arab public. Lest we forget, Saudi Arabia didn’t even support the Egyptians in their drive for reform.
On the other hand, Iran can neither influence Egypt through monetary rewards nor through the prospect of gaining favor with the West, but if the Muslim Brotherhood comes to power, Iran may succeed in swinging the organization fully in its axis.
In this light, an Iranian-Brotherhood alliance should be seen no differently than Iran’s alliance with Hamas. The Sunni-Shia divide is not an issue. In fact, Iran has supported the Muslim brotherhood in the past, while the Saudi’s have oppressed them.
Iran has appealed directly to the Egyptian people with Supreme Leader, Khamenei delivering an eloquent speech in Arabic to the Egyptian protesters supporting their cause. This strong statement and his bond-building gestures will not soon be forgotten by the Egyptian public.
While both Saudi Arabia and Iran are Islamist countries, something that Egypt never really was, and Iran being a Shi’ite country whereas Egypt is Sunni, Egypt and Iran can relate with each other better. Both nations have very influential and prominent intellectual classes, something that is suppressed in the Saudi society. Egypt and Iran are two of the world’s oldest civilizations and both possess an abundance of culture in all forms. Both countries are also leaders of development in the Muslim world. So while they may have differences in the branch of Islam they adhere to, the intellectuals of Egypt can relate much better with those of Iran than of Saudi Arabia.
Iran is playing up these similarities. A delegation of 50 Egyptians including intellectuals, activists, and clerics paid a visit to Iran to discuss mending ties. During the meeting, the Egyptians and Iranians spoke highly of each other while assuaging old tensions. They spoke of the need to mend ties for reasons ranging from economic to strategic and general respect for each other’s cultures as well as mutual animosity towards Israel and the Zionists.
While things seem to be going well for the Egypt-Iran rapprochement right now, it may be very temporary. The two countries are seriously trying to thaw relations, and both have their own reasons for it, but it may prove harder than expected to simply forget 30 years of distrust. Egypt also hasn’t been getting encouragement from the Saudis or the West in it’s openness to Iran and if they truly feel threatened, they may begin to apply pressure against the restoring of ties. In a serious form, this may come by way of withholding financial aide.
At this point, it is still unclear what sort of country Egypt will become – secular, democratic, or Islamist. One thing is for certain and that is that the people of Egypt have an aversion to anything reminiscent of the Mubarak regime. This includes everything from western and Israeli-friendly policies to the tense relationship with Iran.
With sectarian violence erupting in different areas of Egypt against Coptic Christians, destruction of a gas pipeline to Israel and a strong and organized Muslim Brotherhood, there is a clear possibility of Egypt becoming an Islamist anti-West, pro-Iran country. This can heavily weigh on its decisions of with whom it will partner with. If Egypt wants to take the route of shunning everything Mubarak, including diplomatic relationships with the West, and become a strong, independent, yet pariah-state like Iran, they will certainly look to Iran as a great future partner. If, on the other hand, they want to continue to enjoy the benefits from maintaining strong ties with the West but simply fix the internal issues they had due to a corrupt regime, it will be in their best interests to distance themselves from Iran’s gestures.
Egypt’s best option is to strategically play both sides of the fence. It shouldn’t close the door on anyone willing to help or offer assistance as Egypt can not afford to not have the support of any nation. This will also keep both Iran and Saudi Arabia neutralized and not allow either to become too powerful in the region.
Lev Yuriditsky is an adjunct with the Institute for Gulf Affairs.