Ahmadinejad’s awkward Cairo moment
Arabic media review

Ahmadinejad’s awkward Cairo moment

Embarrassing press conference exposes Sunni-Shiite rift; Tunisian political assassination sparks fear of renewed turmoil

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Cairo, Egypt, February 6, 2013 (AP/Amr Nabil)
Former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Cairo, Egypt, February 6, 2013 (AP/Amr Nabil)

The visit to Cairo of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad leads the news in Arab media on Wednesday, highlighting both its historic significance and the deep disagreements it has exposed.

“Ahmadinejad is a ‘tourist’ in ancient Cairo and Sheikh Al-Azhar raises the ‘Sunni’ issue,” reads the headline in the Saudi-owned daily A-Sharq Al-Awsat, featuring a photo of Ahmadinejad being greeted by Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi as he steps out of his plane.

The staunchly anti-Iranian daily highlights “differences” between Iran and Arab states on the eve of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation summit in Cairo, which began Wednesday.

The daily reports harsh words between Egypt’s top cleric, the sheikh of Al-Azhar University Ahmad Tayyeb, and Ahmadinejad. Tayyeb reportedly rebuked the Iranian president for assisting Shiite expansionism in Sunni states and for Iran’s intervention in Bahrain. Ahmadinejad, in return, called for Sunni-Shiite cooperation, saying he saw “no reason for disunity.”

“Ahmadinejad in Cairo: Presidential hospitality and criticism from Al-Azhar,” reads the headline of the London-based daily Al-Hayat, which displays a photo of Ahmadinejad shaking hands with the sheikh.

Ahmadinejad’s visit, writes reporter Ahmad Salah, “highlights the extent of difficulties President Mohammed Morsi may face if he wishes to improve relations with Tehran.”

Al-Quds Al-Arabi, with an unusually neutral headline, writes “Ahmadinejad in historic visit to Cairo to participate in the Islamic conference.” Referring to the conference Ahmadinejad came to attend, the daily says that “the Gulf is worried, Syria is absent, the Emirates send low-level representation, and security concerns overshadow it.”

Al-Ahram, an Egyptian establishment daily, dedicates an article to an embarrassing clip taken from a joint press conference of a Sunni cleric with Ahmadinejad, broadcast by Sky News Arabia.

A visibly perturbed Ahmadinejad listens to the cleric and whispers something in the ear of his aide, words interpreted by the paper as “I am leaving.” The aide then interrupts the cleric’s speech, saying, “We did not agree on this. We spoke about unity.” Ahmadinejad then left the press gathering without answering questions, a clear sign of his frustration.

Is Ahmadinejad’s visit to Cairo a “strategic breakthrough?” asks Al-Quds Al-Arabi editor-in-chief Abdul Bari Atwan in an op-ed. The answer he gives is not clear-cut, but he claims that Morsi and the Iranian leader are now interdependent.

“The Egyptian and Iranian presidents need each other,” writes Atwan.

“The former wants to send a strong message to most Gulf states whereby he may forge an alliance with Iran if they continue to intervene financially and politically in supporting his opposition and members of the previous regime, in a bid to topple his Islamically-tinted government.

“The latter, i.e., President Ahmadinejad, wants to send a message to the West, and particularly to the United States, that Iran is breaking the isolation imposed on it by America and is still a strong regional player. The meeting in Munich between [Iranian Foreign Minister] Ali Akbar Salehi and Sheikh Moaz Al-Khatib, head of Syria’s opposition coalition, has strengthened that message.”

A-Sharq Al-Awsat columnist Tareq Homayed lambastes the “outstretched hand policy” of President Barack Obama toward Iran.  Emphasizing the insolence of Salehi when saying that Iran didn’t trust America on nuclear negotiations, Homayed claims that Obama’s leadership has been consistently weak when it should have been strongest.

“Strangely, the ‘outstretched hand policy’ is always activated when a domestic election takes place in Iran. In 2009, when the Green Revolution erupted… Obama employed the ‘outstretched hand policy’ and today — despite everything Iran is doing and the approaching Iranian elections, and amid Ahmadinejad’s clash with opponents in his regime — Washington is again returning to the ‘outstretched hand policy.'”

To weaken Iran, economic sanctions will not suffice, argues Homayed. Obama now has “the opportunity of a lifetime” to deal a death blow to the Tehran regime by toppling its Syrian ally, Bashar Assad.

>”Naturally, the US administration is not required to wage war against Iran, but to display a clear and serious vision,” writes Homayed.

Tunisian political assassination may cause turmoil

The assassination on Wednesday morning of Tunisian oppositionist Chokri Belaid may throw the North African country into turmoil, warns the Qatar-based news channel Al-Jazeera.

Belaid, a left-wing political leader, was shot four or five times while exiting his home in the capital Tunis.

Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jabali issued a statement condemning the assassination and calling it “an assassination of the revolution.” Jabali called on Tunisians, especially in the opposition, to show restraint and refrain from “pointless accusations.”

Meanwhile, the Duabi-based news channel Al-Arabiya reports that thousands of Tunisians took to the streets following the assassination for a spontaneous demonstration across from the Interior Ministry, also setting fire to the headquarters of the ruling Ennahda party.

Protesters chanted “shame, shame, Chokri died in flames,” and called for the resignation of the government.

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