When it comes to Middle East analysis, one of the conventional lines of approach taken is to assume the sectarian paradigm whereby regional developments are interpreted through the lens of Shia-Sunni relations that are perceived as becoming ever more tense.
To an extent, this paradigm does have valid explanatory power. For example, on the subject of Syria and what role Assad should play in the country’s future, it is clear that the region’s nations are divided along a clear sectarian line on the matter, with Shia-led governments in Iraq and Iran, as well as the Lebanese faction Hezbollah, rejecting the idea that Assad must step down.
However, differing approaches towards Syria on a sectarian basis do not necessarily serve as a means to determine how the countries in the region might maintain economic relations with each other. The case of Egypt, whose government insists that Assad be removed from power, is the most recent example that demonstrates this point.
That Egypt is facing a severe economic crisis is not in doubt. The main cause is the ongoing political infighting as the current government under Morsi tries to consolidate its power base.
With general instability aggravated by protests, the country has seen a slump in tourism, and fears of provoking further unrest with cuts in subsidies have contributed to a vicious cycle delaying the negotiation of an IMF loan deal of $4.8 billion.
Facing a looming “economic cliff” and finding that aid from the Gulf states has on the whole been stingy (with Qatar’s aim in giving aid being particularly apparent: to prevent total economic collapse while keeping Egypt weak), the Egyptian government has accordingly turned for aid to two countries often considered to form part of the so-called “Shia Crescent” in the Middle East: namely, Iran and Iraq.
In the case of the former, one can note Egyptian Tourism Minister Hisham Zaazou’s recent trip to Iran in an effort to encourage Iranians to visit archaeological sites at Aswan, Luxor, and Cairo, together with a memorandum of understanding signed at the end of last month between Egypt and Iran for the promotion of tourism.
Like Ahmadinejad’s earlier visit to Cairo for the Organization of Islamic Conference meeting, Zaazou’s initiative was unprecedented in the history of Egypt-Iran relations since the 1979 Revolution.
To be sure, this turning to Iran for economic help has aroused a good deal of suspicion within Egypt itself. This suspicion unsurprisingly takes on a sectarian dimension.
For example, the Salafist an-Nour party released a statement on February 25 as Zaazou headed out to Tehran, viewing any development of tourism ties as a scheme for Shi’i infiltration and highlighting in particular the difference between Sunni reliance on Qur’an and Sunna as opposed to Khomeini’s doctrine of vilayat al-faqih (“guardianship of the jurist”), which an-Nour imputes to the Shia as a whole.
Likewise, the prominent Salafist preacher Safwat Hegazy has raised similar anxieties, attacking Ahmadinejad’s visit to Cairo and equating Shi’i Islam with “blasphemy.”
The paranoid fear of Shia encroachment at the hint of forging economic ties or meeting with Iranian officials is even reflected in otherwise more politically moderate outlets like El-Watan News, which I frequently link to on Twitter and can hardly be called pro-Islamist.
Though on a side note, it should be pointed out that El-Watan News has also run pieces featuring typical anti-Coptic conspiracy theories, such as the claim that the Coptic Church is running its own militia to use against opponents (cf. al-Jazeera Arabic documentary that made similar allegations, while the El-Watan piece cites a supposed Coptic convert to Islam).
In light of these fears, Zaazou has tried to make clear that the plans for tourism ties have nothing to do with political or religious cooperation between the two countries. Rather, it is a purely economic initiative.
Zaazou is of course correct: forging economic ties is not the same thing as sharing a strategic approach towards the region. Thus, the Egyptian government’s move should not be interpreted as an ideological “rapprochement” with Iran, but rather as economic pragmatism.
In a similar vein, we can understand the just concluded visit of an Egyptian delegation under the Prime Minister Hesham Qandil to Iraq to discuss strengthening of bilateral ties between the Cairo and Baghdad, with particular emphasis on economic cooperation.
This visit appears to have achieved a number of results, including an agreement to establish a joint Egypt-Iraq business council with focus on reconstruction, a lifting of an Iraqi ban on Egyptian dairy products, implementing of an oil pipeline project running from Iraq through Jordan and to Cairo, and the return of Egyptian workers to Iraq.
Al-Masry Al-Youm also reported that Iraq had agreed to provide Egypt with four million barrels of Basra crude oil per month. The figure may be open to dispute, but there are no doubt plans to import Iraqi crude in light of the fuel shortages afflicting Egypt.
Egypt’s fuel crisis has undoubtedly been the primary motivation for Cairo’s economic outreach to Baghdad, despite differing views on Syria that were apparently meant to be discussed during Qandil’s visit.
Analytically, Jordan is an identical case-in-point. In November of last year, Iraq offered a “gift” of 100,000 barrels of oil to Jordan amid protests in the latter country sparked by an announcement of a rise in fuel prices. More recently, Iraq has started technical work on an $18 billion oil-export pipeline from Basra to Aqaba.
Indeed, Jordan-Iraq ties run deep, with a large Iraqi expatriate community in Jordan. Even so, the extensive economic cooperation does not translate to a shared regional outlook, as Baghdad still refuses to call for Assad’s removal and has been passively supporting the Syrian regime in allowing flow of arms from Iran.
In contrast, Jordan, which like Iraq has concerns about general “spillover,” has almost certainly been facilitating a Saudi-led initiative to supply better weaponry to Syrian rebels not deemed extremist.
In short, the lesson is that however much the countries of the Middle East might view developments such as the Syrian civil war through a sectarian lens, the prospects for economic cooperation can quite easily transcend sectarian boundaries if circumstances require, as the case of Cairo’s outreach to Tehran and Baghdad illustrates.
Granted, suspicion of these government initiatives within Egypt takes a sectarian angle, but it seems unlikely that the Brotherhood-led government -- eager to secure its grip on power -- will cave into ideologically-driven domestic pressure.
For Morsi’s government, the need to secure fast relief from the economic crisis is becoming ever greater, and there is no doubt that it feels at this stage that outreach is the only option when even securing the IMF loan is in doubt. If it means forging ties with Shia-led countries so hated by Salafists who also oppose the IMF loan on strict Islamic principles, then so be it.