Iranian film hits raw Egyptian nerve
By Sami Moubayed
DAMASCUS – A new film from Iran, Assassination of a Pharaoh , tells volumes about how strong indoctrination is in Tehran and how much it sometimes overpowers and blinds pragmatism. The movie, which recently aired on Iranian TV, is about former Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat. It labels him a “traitor” for signing the 1978 peace accords with Israel and praises his assassin, Khalid Islambouli, as a “martyr”.
It comes in the middle of an Iranian effort to win allies in the Arab and Muslim world, both to penetrate the array of pro-American states in the region, and use them to lobby against a possible
Israeli (or United States) attack on Tehran.
Television dramas, and cinema, have always caused controversy in the Arab and Muslim world. In the 1990s, for example, a Syrian drama stirred great tension between Syria and Turkey because it depicted the late years of the Ottoman Empire in Damascus in a very brutal manner. The Syrians used the series then (airing it over and over) to provoke the Turks during a low period in Syrian-Turkish relations.
They would have never tolerated such a work, however, while trying to improve relations with Ankara since 1999. The Iranians have always hated Sadat, partly for signing peace with Israel but mainly because he hosted and befriended the Shah of Iran after being toppled and exiled by the Islamic revolution of 1979. But to get involved in such a saga with the Egyptians, at a point when Iran needs more friends than enemies in the Arab world, sheds serious doubt about those organizing Iran’s public relations with the Arabs.
Sadat is no universal hero in the Arab world. Far from it, he is often seen as a complete contradiction of everything represented by Gamal Abdul-Nasser, the “godfather” of modern Arab nationalism. For years, Arabs have been taught to hate Sadat, who is often depicted as a selfish stooge of the United States who sold out for a separate peace treaty with Israel and betrayed the Arabs by visiting Jerusalem in 1978.
But its one thing for the Arabs when they criticize Sadat internally. It is completely different when this criticism comes from the Iranians, who although Muslims, are nevertheless non-Arabs. The fact that Sunni-Shi’ite tensions are on the rise makes it very unwise to defame the leader of a nation with 90% Sunni Muslims.
Mohammad Ali Ibrahim, editor of the Egyptian state-run al-Jumhuriyya newspaper, wrote that the film is a “flagrant aspect of Iranian insensitivity”. He added, “I was surprised by Iranian immorality. Who do they think they are to describe as a traitor the heroic Egyptian president who fought and retrieved Sinai [in 1973]?”
He vetoed Egypt restoring relations with Tehran and added, “We wonder at the Iranian duel position. On one hand, Iran calls for the immediate resumption of relations with Egypt and releases a movie that bashes the history of an Egyptian and Arab leader on the other. Do not expect Egypt to resume relations with you as long as you adopt this attitude.”
The state-owned Rose al-Youssef wrote, “Iran has committed insolence against Egypt and its leaders, which shows Iran’s persistent envy despite all its claims of goodwill towards the Egyptians. What Iran did is not acceptable at all and shows the reality of the Iranian intentions towards Egypt, its people, and leaders.”
This week, the Assistant Egyptian Foreign Minister Tamer Khalil summed Sayyed Hossein Rajabi, a senior Iranian diplomat in Cairo, and officially objected to Assassination of a Pharaoh. He said the film “insults relations between both countries” and shows that Tehran is unaware of “Egyptian sensitivities”.
Iran suspended relations with Egypt in 1980 and named a street in honor of Sadat’s assassin in 1981. Relations were good between both nations when they were governed by pro-Western monarchies, strengthened even further by the marriage of king Farouk’s sister princess Fawzia in 1939 to Shah Reza Pahlavi. Relations soured when the Egyptian monarchy was toppled in 1952 while Tehran remained under control of a pro-American regime.
In the 1950s, the two nations were at daggers, Nasser accusing the shah of being an agent of American “imperialism” in the Third World while the shah blasted him for being a puppet of the Soviet Union. Nasser threatened to conquer Iran’s Khuzestan province – which he called Arabistan – and popularized the term “Arab Gulf” instead of “Persian Gulf”. Relations improved, however, in terms of bilateral trade and political coordination under Sadat, only to come to an abrupt end after the Iranian revolution of 1979.
All of that history combined weighed heavily over the past 10 years on Egyptian-Iranian relations. In 2003, president Mohammad Khatami met with Hosni Mubarak in Geneva, inviting the Egyptian president to Tehran and calling for a new chapter in bilateral relations. The Egyptians said they would not make the trip and normalize with Tehran until all public tributes to Islambouli were “erased”.
To please the Egyptians, Iran changed the name of Islambouli Street, renaming it after the uprising that erupted in Palestine in 2000, Intifada. Ahmad Maher, the ex-Egyptian foreign minister, told the Iranians that Sadat’s peace treaty was “a thing of the past” that should not obstruct bilateral relations.
In 2007, senior Iranian leader Ali Larijani visited Cairo, meeting with Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu al-Gheit, intelligence chief Omar Suleiman and Mohammad Said Tintawi, the grand sheikh of al-Azhar, the highest authority in the Muslim Sunni community. In January this year, a groundbreaking meeting took place between Mubarak and Gholam Ali Hada, the then-speaker of the Iranian parliament.
This was followed by a phone call between Mubarak and Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and a meeting between the Egyptian president and Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki. Mubarak called bilateral relations “positive and appropriate”, while Mottaki said Egypt supported Iran’s right to develop peaceful nuclear technology. All of these confidence-building measures went down the drain this month with the screening of Assassination of a Pharaoh.
The ordeal of the Sadat film is puzzling, given Iran’s position in the international community and its dire needs for friends. There are many things the two countries disagree on, and adding a documentary about Sadat to the list of topics does not help improve relations.
The Egyptians are furious with Iran’s support for Shi’ite proxies in Iraq, wrestling for power with the proxies of Saudi Arabia. This also is true for Hezbollah in Lebanon. In 2006, during the Israeli war, the Egyptians argued that Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah was an adventurer who had done Lebanon a great disservice by going to war against Israel – words that echoed what had been said in Riyadh.
They are angry with Syria for strengthening ties with Tehran at the expense of its formerly strong relations with Cairo and Riyadh, and support Lebanese statesmen like Saad al-Hariri, who is anti-Iranian. Mubarak sent shockwaves throughout Iran when he appeared on al-Arabiyya TV in 2006 and said that the Shi’ites of the Arab world were more loyal to Iran than they were to their own countries, echoing what King Abdullah of Jordan had earlier described as a “Shi’ite crescent”.
This week, a group of nations (Russia, China, France, Britain, Germany and the United States) sent Javier Solana, the European Union’s chief negotiator, to Tehran for talks on an incentive package to get Iran to stop uranium-enrichment activities.
Minutes after the Solana trip was announced, Ahmadinejad repeated he was not interested, saying his country was not going to stop enriching uranium, but other sections in the country are known to be keen to talk. He also downplayed any possible war on Iran, saying it would be “political suicide” for President George W Bush, “Any finger that will trigger the bullet, the Iranian people will cut it.”
Meanwhile, Ali Shirazi, an aide to Iran’s Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned, “The Zionist regime is pushing the White House to prepare for a military strike on Iran. If such a stupidity is done by them, Tel Aviv and the US naval fleet in the Persian Gulf will be the first targets which will be set on fire in Iran’s crushing response.” He added, “The first bullet fired by America at Iran will be followed by Iran burning down its vital interests around the globe.”
Twenty-four hours later, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps test-fired nine different long-range missiles, incl
uding Shahab 3. These same missiles had sent shock waves throughout Israel when earlier this month the Iranians had directed them towards Israel.
Iran’s messages are contradictory. While it calls for a better understanding of Iran in the Arab world, it provokes the Egyptians with a film on Sadat. While Ahmadinejad comforts people, saying war will not happen, he nevertheless takes measures that spark fear in the hearts of Iranians, showing that the worst is yet to come in terms of a stand-off, either with the Americans or Israel.
Shirazi comes out and threatens to burn the US Navy in the Gulf, yet Iranian analysts appear on al-Jazeera TV and downplay his comments, saying that he is a “third-rank” personality in Tehran. While Ahmadinejad calls for doing no business whatsoever with the US, figures show that US exports to Iran have increased tenfold since 2001. The Iranians apparently import cosmetics, clothes, perfume – and US$158 million worth of cigarettes – from the United States.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst. http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/JG11Ak05.html