CAIRO — A Syrian exile threw a shoe at visiting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Egypt on Tuesday, opponents spat at his motorcade, and Egypt’s most prominent Muslim cleric, the sheik of al-Azhar, warned the Iranian leader against interfering in Arab Gulf countries or trying to spread Shiite influence.
The shoe-throwing exile failed to reach his target, but did manage to shout out that Ahmadinejad had “ruined Syria.” The Iranian leader was outside the Al-Hussein mosque in Cairo when the incident occurred. Egyptian security took man into custody. Opponents of Ahmadinejad also spat at his motorcade.
Ahmadinejad, on a landmark visit, received an uneasy reception earlier from Ahmed el-Tayeb at al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world’s foremost Islamic institution.
El-Tayeb particularly warned mainly Shiite Iran against interference in Bahrain and said Egypt rejects any spread of Shiism in the Sunni world. El-Tayeb did not join Ahmadinejad at a press conference afterward the two held talks.
The iciness reflected deep Sunni supiscions of Shiites and worries over Iranian power in the mainly Sunni Mideast. Islam split into the two sects after the death of the Prophet Muhammed in the 7th Century.
Ahmadinejad’s arrival in Cairo marks the first visit by an Iranian leader since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Egypt’s Islamist President Mohammed Morsi welcomed Ahmadinejad at the Cairo International airport.
Egypt’s foreign minister Mohammed Kamel Amr described Ahmadinejad’s visit as routine, since he will be attending a summit of the Organization of Islamic Conference in Cairo.
Morsi gave Ahmadinejad a red-carpet welcome on the tarmac at Cairo airport, shaking the Iranian’s hand and exchanging a kiss on each cheek as a military honor guard stood at attention.
The two leaders then held a 20-minute talk that focused on the civil war in Syria, security officials said. Iran is a close ally of the regime in Damascus, while Egypt is among those that have called on Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down. The discussions were attended by the Egyptian president’s adviser, Essam al-Haddad, his spokesman Yasser Ali and a high level diplomat, the officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
Ahmadinejad’s three-day visit is the latest sign of improved relations between Sunni power Egypt and the Shiite power since the 2011 uprising that ousted longtime Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and brought an Islamist-run government to power in Cairo.
The trip is likely to be closely watched by Sunni Gulf nations, chief among them Saudi Arabia, who is staunchly opposed to Iran’s regional policies and deeply wary of the Shiite nation.
Egypt’s fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, from which Morsi hails, has signaled that relations with Iran could one day be upgraded to full diplomatic ties. The president himself, however, has stressed that the security of the Sunni Gulf nations — of which Egypt has relied upon for financial aid to help prop up its faltering economy — is directly linked to Cairo’s own.
During his visit to Egypt, Ahmadinejad is scheduled to attend the summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Cairo, which starts Wednesday.
Security officials said Ahmadinejad is also going to tour the pyramids in Giza. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to release the information.
Iran and Egypt, both regional heavyweights, once had strong ties. Diplomatic relations deteriorated after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. Relations remained cold until Egypt’s 2011 uprising.
“I will try to pave the ground for developing co-operation between Iran and Egypt,” Ahmadinejad said before the trip, according to an Al Jazeera report, adding that his visit would “definitely influence the bilateral ties” between the two countries.
“If Tehran and Cairo see more eye-to-eye on regional and international issues, many [issues] will change,” Ahmadinejad said.
Speaking to Iran’s Al Meyadeen TV Monday night, the Iranian leader said he would also visit Jerusalem to pray there, once it is completely liberated, Israel’s Channel 10 news reported. Ahmadinejad said he also hoped to visit the Gaza Strip.
He also said Israel’s recent airstrike on Syria was a sign of Israeli weakness, saying that if there will be a war, Iran will support Damascus.
Iran is seen as one of Syria’s staunchest backers, though it reportedly refused to retaliate against Israel for its reported strike against military targets in Syria last week.
Iranian officials have threatened to hit back at Israel for the strike, which Israel has not admitted to, and to back up Syria in any confrontation with the West.
Though Egypt and Iran are not especially friendly, Ahmadinejad’s trip to Egypt could signal a thaw in relations.
Egypt does not have an embassy in Tehran, and bilateral relations were severed in 1980 following the Islamic revolution and Egypt’s signing of the Camp David Accords with Israel.
However, there have been signs of closer ties since deposed Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak’s rule gave way to a more Islamist government in Cairo in 2011.
In 2012, Iran dispatched its first diplomat to the Egyptian capital in three decades. That summer, Morsi traveled to Tehran to deliver an address to a major meeting of the UN’s Non-Aligned Movement, though he ruffled some feathers by criticizing Syria. He also met with Ahmadinejad during that visit.
In her daily press briefing on Monday, US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called Ahmadinejad’s visit “an opportunity for the Egyptian government to give him the same strong messages that the international community’s been giving about their nuclear behavior, about their terrorist behavior, et cetera.”