CAIRO – President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Cairo on Tuesday, the first by an Iranian leader in more than three decades, highlights efforts by Egypt’s Islamist leader to thaw long frigid ties between the two regional heavyweights.
Although the official welcome was warm, there was unscripted discord from Sunni protesters angry over Iran’s support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, as well as decades of sectarian animosity between Shiite-led Iran and the region’s Sunni majority.
At one point, Ahmadinejad was forced to flee an ancient mosque in downtown Cairo after a Syrian protester took off his shoes and threw them at him.
Later, anti-Iranian protesters raised their shoes up while blocking the main gates to Al-Azhar, the Sunni world’s most prestigious religious institution, where Egypt’s most prominent cleric chided Ahmadinejad for interfering in the affairs of Sunni nations.
The protests illustrate the limits to how far and how quickly Egypt’s Islamist President Mohammed Morsi can go in reaching out to Iran: His Sunni allies at home view mainly Shiite Iran as a bitter rival, and Cairo can’t afford to alienate Washington and Gulf Arab states who seek to isolate Tehran.
The three-day visit, centered around an Islamic summit, was an attempt by Morsi to strike an independent foreign policy and reassert Egypt’s historic regional leadership role following the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, a close U.S. ally who shared Washington’s deep suspicions of Tehran. Such a visit by an Iranian leader would have been unthinkable under Mubarak.
Morsi gave Ahmadinejad a red-carpet welcome on the tarmac at Cairo airport, shaking his hand, hugging and exchanging a kiss on each check.
Still, the chasm inherited from 34 years of bitter relations and the rift between overwhelmingly Sunni Egypt and Iran’s Shiite leadership were on display.
Sunni-Shiite tensions dominated talks between Ahmadinejad and Egypt’s most prominent cleric, Sheik Ahmed el-Tayeb, who upbraided the Iranian leader on a string of issues and warned against Iranian interference in Gulf nations, particularly Bahrain, where the ruling Sunni minority has faced protests by the Shiite majority.
El-Tayeb said attempts to spread Shiite Islam in mainly Sunni Arab nations were unacceptable.