A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Mr. Morsi's Iranian Adventure

Muhammad Morsi's decision to become the first Egyptian leader to visit Iran since the 1979 Revolution (for the Non-Aligned Summit) raised concerns in the West, which along with Israel had been trying to persuade prominent figures not to go. But Morsi's decision to attack the Syrian regime from the podium — leading to a Syrian walkout — suggests that his visit will be not so much a legitimizing move for the Iranian regime, as it is a challenge to Iran for the regional leadership of Islamist movements. While Morsi did not directly attack his hosts, he did go after their sole regional Arab state ally, Syria.

Not so much friends as rivals?
On reflection, it makes sense. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, though it has evolved in many different ways from its Egyptian counterpart, is a key player in the resistance to the Asad regime. The Egyptian Brotherhood is hostile to Shi‘ism and would like to provide leadership for a Sunni Islamic revival in place of Iran's Shi‘ite efforts. And at least in part, the longstanding conflicts between Egypt and Iran are based on a natural rivalry as two regional power anchors in the region.

While Morsi made a reference to the family of the Prophet, a gesture towards his Shi‘ite hosts, he also referred to the four Rightly-Guided Caliphs, the first three of whom are cursed and denounced by the Shi‘a as usurpers. Those references, which were neither traditional nor necessary, seemed to point up the sectarian disagreements. In another interesting point, he referred favorably to Gamal Abdel Nasser's role in the founding of the Non-Aligned Movement in the 1950s. Given Nasser's role in the suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood, that too came as something of a surprise.

There has been a lot of speculation and a certain amount of alarm about the direction of Egypt's new foreign policy. Many questions still remain, and it is likely the West will not agree with many aspects of it,  but the visit to Tehran seems to have been less a granting of legitimacy than a challenge for leadership.

1 comment:

David Mack said...

Score one for Morsi. By going to Tehran, he showed revolutionary Egypt's independence from the U.S. and opened the possibility of greater regional leadership. By virtue of what he said, he made clear that the leadership will be Egypt's, not Iran's. And he satisfied the Saudis and Sunni Muslims everywhere. A bit like Sadat going to Jerusalem and then giving a touch speech to the Knesset.