Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—Egyptians are growing wary of the potential increased activities of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in their country, and the spread of the Shi’a doctrine there, through the door of tourism. These fears are mounting in light of Cairo and Tehran’s recent resumption of charter flights between the two countries, heralding the arrival of thousands of Iranians to visit Egypt for the first time in 30 years.
Alaa Hadidi, a spokesperson for the Egyptian government, told Asharq Al-Awsat that his government will meet with some of the political forces concerned about Iranian tourism, in order to allay their fears. He added, “There are no sectarian or political purposes behind Iranian tourism. Those coming here will mainly visit the beaches, especially on the Red Sea coast.”
Since 1979, Egypt’s strategy has contrasted with that of Iran with regards to the Middle East peace process and the security of the Gulf region, which led to the severance of relations between the two countries for nearly three decades. According to diplomatic sources in Cairo, although an agreement was signed in 2010 to resume charter flights between the two countries, the former Mubarak regime did not implement it at the time because of “pressure from his Western allies.”
Following the overthrow of the Mubarak regime, security unrest in the country dealt a devastating blow to tourism, which Egypt had relied on as a major source of foreign currency income. Esteemed five-star hotels which used to receive affluent Western tourists remained dark and deserted. The hotels were attacked several times by unknown assailants, and on some occasions burned and looted, prompting the owners to close their doors and leave the Egyptian market temporarily.
The 2013 World Economic Forum Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report now ranks Egypt as 85th out of 140 countries, a drop of ten places from 2011. As a result, the Egyptian government is seeking to bring in tourists from Iran and other places such as India and North Africa. A few days ago, Hisham Zazou, Egyptian minister of tourism, met with a number of senior Iranian officials, in order to open the door for Iranian tourists to visit Egypt, in an attempt to compensate for the vast numbers that used to pour into the country from Europe, America, and Japan.
Many Egyptians already harbor unfavorable impressions of the Iranian tourists who will flock to Cairo in the coming weeks. A local taxi driver, passing by the front of the Hussein Mosque in the heart of the Egyptian capital—which has been abandoned by so many Western tourists—remarked, “Iranians do not spend money like European tourists. For Iranians it is enough just to visit, and to spend the day without paying a penny more.”
Meanwhile Ahmed, who manages a hotel in downtown Cairo, says “Iranian tourists are characterized by their lack of spending. When I was in Iraq they were content with visiting one of the Shi’ite shrines. After that, they did not think of visiting any other monuments or going on a sightseeing tour. Therefore I expect the same thing to happen in Egypt. I’m afraid I’ll find Iranian tourists crowding out cheap restaurants and sleeping in the courtyards in front of the mosques.”
Yet the Egyptians’ concerns run deeper than miserly stereotypes. According to a senior security official, Iranian tourism could facilitate the IRGC’s infiltration into Egypt, as happened in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. The source, speaking under condition of anonymity, added, “This increases our security burden . . . We are already suffering from shortcomings in the area of security.” He pointed out that the Egyptian authorities already expelled an Iranian diplomat from Cairo. The accused was charged with being affiliated to the IRGC, attempting to recruit Egyptians to carry out operations against Israel, and exploiting the events of 25 January 2011.
Iranian tourism could also portend further problems in light of the Egyptian Salafi movement’s warnings, claiming that opening the door to Iranian tourism will cause the spread of Shi’ism in a country known for its moderate, Al-Azhar Sunni doctrine.
Prominent Salafist Yasser Brhamme, in remarks to the local media, warned of what he called “the danger of the Shi’ite tide” coming to Egypt. He called for any such contact with the Shi’ites to be prevented, claiming that the Shi’ite tide’s gateway to Egypt is through Iranian tourism.
Furthermore, a source in the Egyptian ministry of aviation cites an internal study claiming that 60 percent of Iranians who want to come to Egypt are seeking to visit for “religious purposes”.
In Egypt there are a number of mosques that some believe Iranian tourists will try to appropriate as exclusive to the Shi’a sect. These include mosques in Cairo and Upper Egypt, such as Hussein Mosque, Sayyidah Nafisa Mosque, Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque, Sayyidah Aisha Mosque, Sayyida Ruqayya Mosque, and others.
However, Alaa Hadidi confirms that the Egyptian government will work to encourage Iranian arrivals to go and visit the pharaonic monuments, as per a prior agreement between Hisham Zazou and Iranian officials. Hadidi said, “We are encouraging all tourism in general, and this includes Iranian tourism.” He added, “Iranian tourists will only come to specific areas and therefore there is nothing to fear; there are no political objectives . . . In the context of encouraging tourist traffic between the two countries, the Iranians are welcome.”
Hadidi went on to address those who fear opening the door to Iranian tourists. He said, “In order to prevent some political forces exploiting the subject, we will communicate with them and explain that these tourists have no sectarian or political objectives, and that ultimately they serve Egyptian interests.”
Asked whether there was a mechanism in place to direct tourists to specific sites or whether this was still under discussion, Hadidi said, “The system will be to charter aircraft to the Red Sea resorts, so that tourists can come to these areas and then go home.” He added that flights between the two countries are still in the process of being regulated.