Mohamed Morsi’s strange gamble on Iran and Ahmadinejad

February 5, 2013

We all feel a little like that befuddled Egyptian guard on the left. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (left) and Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi (right). (EPA/handout)

Egypt-watchers have worried for months that newly-elected President Mohamed Morsi, barely more than six months into his tenure, might not be the savviest politician. His decision to host Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the first visit by an Iranian leader in 34 tense years, might fuel those fears.

The Iranian leader is deeply unpopular with Egyptian citizens and political players alike. Morsi's decision to host him anyway risks political capital that he just doesn't have to spend right now.

Two weeks of protests in Egypt have highlighted Morsi's inability to bring the country together, a growing crisis of disorder and public mistrust that is threatening the country's economy and revolutionary democratic experiment. (Read the Washington Post's Abigail Hauslohner from Cairo for more on the crisis.) The country has been politically divided since the Islamist Morsi won his election, something his administration has worsened through such missteps as appearing to ram through a Muslim Brotherhood-friendly constitution.

The Ahmadinejad visit would seem to risk exacerbating this division, which is perhaps the single largest crisis that Egypt faces today. The Iranian government is reviled by Egyptian secularists and liberals, who worry about Egypt's revolution mimicking Iran's from 1979, when Iranian Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini called on Egyptians to rise up against President Anwar Sadat.

Some Egyptian Islamists also mistrust Tehran; a group linked to the Salafist Al-Nour political party released a statement calling on Morsi to challenge Iran for its support of Syria's government, "Egypt is committed to the protection of all Sunni nations." Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the leader of Egypt's powerful al-Azhar mosque, publicly rebuked Ahmadinejad.

It's not just Egyptian politicians who don't like Iran; regular Egyptians seem to share their view. According to a Pew poll, a staggering 76 percent of Egyptians report an unfavorable view of Iran. For comparison, that number is only 68 percent among Americans.

The point is that Morsi is holding photo-ops with a foreign leader whom his people seem to loathe, at a time when Morsi himself is facing a potential legitimacy crisis and dangerously fractured polity. There is a case to be made that the meeting could be good foreign policy: Egypt has offered to restore diplomatic relations to Tehran if it drops its support for the Syrian regime, a potentially important step in addressing one of the world's bloodiest conflicts today. But it is much harder to see it as good politics for Morsi.

It's still early in Morsi's tenure, but his habit of political missteps, of which this could be one, is a worrying sign for his ability to put Egypt together again.

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Max Fisher · February 5, 2013