For the first time in 34 years, a commercial airplane departed Cairo Saturday on a direct flight to Tehran. The Air Memphis aircraft reportedly carried eight Iranian tourists. The flight, operated by an Egyptian charter company, was scheduled to return carrying additional Iranian nationals to the Egyptian city of Aswan.
Egypt, which is predominately Sunni, has been working to normalize relations with the Shiite dominated Iran, after a long freeze that began after Egypt signed its 1979 peace treaty with Israel and Iran underwent its Islamic revolution. Relations began to improve after former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down in the 2011 popular uprising.
Egypt’s new Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have exchanged visits, which have opened new avenues of cooperation between the former foes.
Egypt’s Tourism Minister Hesham Zaazoua said Thursday that allowing Iranian tourists to visit Egypt after being banned for more than three decades would pose no threat and could help shore up the nation’s struggling tourism industry.
Zaazoua, who visited Tehran nearly a month ago and signed a memorandum of understanding to promote tourism, told reporters that Iranians were not going to visit Egypt to export an Islamic revolution. He said Iranian visitors, who would be restricted in their movements, would not be visiting religious sites.
“We have not received Iranians for 35 years,” Zaazoua said in his office. “They are pure tourists. They are not coming to create a revolution as far as I am concerned.”
“They are coming to visit tourist sites within Egypt,” he said referring to the ancient cities of Luxor and Aswan. “They are coming for vacationing.”
He said if problems surface, “we can stop it, as simple as that.”
Egyptians have mixed feelings toward Iran. Some believe in Iranian plots aimed at destabilizing the country while others sympathize with Iran’s Islamic revolution and admire Tehran’s defiance of the United States.
Zaazoua’s visit to Tehran sparked anger of ultraconservative Islamists like Al Nour party. The party issued a statement warning Morsi’s government that opening the country up to Iranians risked plunging the country, which “enjoys a Sunni unity,” into sectarian strife.
When Ahmadinejad visited Egypt on Feb. 5, he too got a cold shoulder from some. He was given a harsh reception by Egypt’s top Sunni cleric of Al-Azhar and the Iranian leader was attacked by shoe-throwing Syrian protesters upset about Iran’s alliance with the embattled Syrian regime.
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