The dust is already settling in Tahrir Square, allowing us a glimpse of the political realities beginning to emerge in the new Middle East. Three recent events reveal how the region’s delicate balance of power — stuck in a general holding pattern for decades — has changed.
Last week, Iranian warships completed their first voyage through Egypt’s Suez Canal since 1979, when the Iranian revolution brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power and Egypt signed its historic peace treaty with Israel, giving rise to the bitter Cairo–Tehran rivalry.
Two days later in Istanbul, Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak told me
in an interview that the Muslim Brotherhood should not be part of the governing process in Egypt unless they completely renounce violence. At the same time, the Jordanian monarchy was grappling with the demands of its country’s Brotherhood chapter, the Islamic Action Front, which was attempting to replicate Cairo in Amman.
And the return of Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa projected to the world the image of an Egypt looking to reclaim its past glory.
Enemies of the Revolution
“Any form of political relations with Hosni Mubarak is tantamount to getting digested into the system prepared and designed by America and Zionism in the region.”
This Iranian newspaper quote, as Ray Takeyh pointed out in Hidden Iran, neatly summarized the Islamic Republic’s attitude toward Egypt. Those who considered themselves the “guardians of the revolution” saw Egypt as the leading force working against them. One reason for this perception was Egypt’s ostensibly secular police state, which to the Iranians was in direct contravention of what the mullahs had established and were attempting to export.
Though Syria also fit that description, the Baathist regime of Hafez al-Assad was unrelenting in its opposition to the recognition and survival of the Jewish state next door, while Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel was, in the eyes of the Islamic revolutionaries, religious and political treason.
The wound deepened when Egypt, seeking to reclaim some of its credibility as pan-Arab champion, supported Iraq in the Iran–Iraq war. In 1980 Egyptian president Anwar Sadat also welcomed the deposed Iranian shah to Egypt, where he died and was given a state funeral. The Iranians, in turn, named a street after Khalid Islambouli, Sadat’s assassin, and continued to fund and encourage Islamist anti-Mubarak groups within Egypt.
The two countries never reconciled, and the rivalry — especially since Egypt stood as a secular bulwark against the spread of the Islamic revolution — maintained an important balance in the Mideast.