When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in Cairo on Tuesday, Egypt’s president greeted him with a kiss. When the Iranian dictator visited a Cairo mosque on Wednesday, an angry protester greeted him with a raised shoe—a grave insult in the Arab world.
A cluster of bodyguards kept the protester from assaulting the Iranian leader, but the mixed reception underscored seething tension in Egypt: As Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi tries to deepen friendships with foreign Islamists, he continues to alienate Egyptian secularists and other minorities. And he leaves the U.S. and other Western powers wondering whether Egypt will remain an ally against Islamist threats across the region.
It’s a conflict that comes on the heels of another crisis: Protests during the last two weeks in Cairo and other Egyptian cities—including areas near the Suez Canal—grew violent and killed at least 50 people.
The demonstrations began on the second anniversary of the 2011 revolution that ousted former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Two years later, a growing number of secularists and minorities say the new president is taking the country in a decisively Islamist direction that could silence other voices and threaten already-vulnerable minorities.
A visit by the Iranian dictator won’t ease those fears. Ahmadinejad arrived in Cairo to meet with leaders from other Islamic nations in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, but his visit is historic: It marks the first time an Iranian president has visited Egypt since Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1979. Relations between the two nations collapsed after Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1980.
Ties revived after Egyptians elected Muslim Brotherhood member Morsi as president last June. Morsi visited Iran shortly after his election, and Iranian leaders praised Egypt’s revolution as reminiscent of their own.
The thawing ties raise red flags for Western countries—including the U.S.—that have seen Egypt as an important ally against Iran’s influence in the Middle East and its deep hatred of Israel. It’s unclear what a renewed alliance would mean for Middle Eastern relations.
The Obama administration has taken a decidedly hands-off approach to relations with Egypt, calling on renewed dialogue between battling Egyptian factions, but offering little clarity on U.S. policy in the region.
Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad seems to relish his new opportunity to turn a former foe into a potentially powerful ally. The Iranian leader greeted crowds in Cairo, said he would to visit Tahrir Square, and promised Iran would offer a generous line of credit to Egypt in its growing fiscal crisis. (It’s unclear how Iran would finance such aid since the country is facing U.S. sanctions and a severe economic crisis of its own.)
But the friendship isn’t tension-free: Many Egyptians in the predominantly Sunni Muslim nation resent Shia-dominated Iran over its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The raging conflict in Syria has killed at least 60,000 people.
On Wednesday, the top Muslim cleric in Egypt warned Ahmadinejad that he shouldn’t seek to expand Shia influence across the Middle East. Such tension could slow the burgeoning friendship between Iran and Egypt, but leaders from both countries seem determined to move forward.
On the streets of Cairo and other cities in Egypt, pro-democracy demonstrators seem more worried about internal conflicts than Ahmadinejad’s visit. Leaders of the National Salvation Front (NSF)—a secularist coalition opposed to Morsi’s Islamic rule—said they expected demonstrations to continue until the president and other leaders included secular and minority voices in Egyptian rule.
NSF leader Mohamed ElBaradei tweeted: “Writing on wall: violence & chaos will continue until Morsi & co. listen 2 ppl’s demands.”