Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—The Egyptian minister of tourism, Hisham Zazou, called on Sunday for Iranian tourists to return to Egypt. This call comes after a sudden reversal of Iranian–Egyptian tourism cooperation.
On March 30, the Egyptian government decided to allow the resumption of commercial flights from Iran. Dr. Zazou told Asharq Al-Awsat at the time that Egypt and Iran had agreed that tourism programs between the two countries would be based on recreational trips only.
Roughly 50 Iranian tourists have visited Egypt recently. Egyptian Salafists reacted by attacking the house of an Iranian diplomat in Cairo. This incident led to the suspension of commercial flights between the two countries until mid-June, to “re-evaluate and review the experience,” Zazou said.
There have not been full diplomatic ties between Cairo and Tehran since 1979 due to key differences in strategic outlook, especially with regards to the Israeli–Palestinian peace process and security in the Gulf. Since the deposition of former President Hosni Mubarak in 2011—under whose rule Iran was considered a main adversary of Egypt—there have been attempts at rapprochement between the two countries, with various state visits by senior officials.
The recent attempts to normalize relations between the two countries have resulted in concerns about Iran’s position towards Arab and Islamic issues, as expressed by various groups within Egypt, including the Al-Azhar mosque and Salafist factions.
Egypt’s tourism industry has deteriorated significantly as a result of the security issues and unrest that Egypt has suffered since the revolution. In light of this, Zazou visited Iran roughly two months ago to sign a deal that would bring Iranian tourists to Egypt.
In his second interview of the week with the Fars News Agency, Zazou said that he is working to appease those who oppose the idea of Iranian tourism in Egypt.
He explained that he will meet with members of the Salafist movement before the end of the month. He believes the Salafists fear that “an influx of Iranian tourists would be the death of Egypt.”
“I personally think that is an exaggeration,” Zazou said.
Zazou went on to express his fascination with Iran, offering a flattering analysis of Iranian society. “I would like to see my city [Cairo] with the same level of hygiene and cleanliness” as Tehran, he said. He added that “women have an active role in all walks of life—with a particularly active presence in ministerial sectors—and people are educated.”
The Egyptian minister also observed that Iranians are keen on health and exercise, pointing out that the Iranian state provides “places for sports in public parks free of charge.”
“I did not notice the ‘potbelly’ phenomenon amongst Iranians, and have not seen obesity in either men or women,” he said.
However, Bassam Al-Zarqa, a former aide of Mohammed Mursi, responded critically to the minister’s statements, saying that while the minister is interested in rapprochement with Iran and bringing its tourists to Egypt, Iran is participating in killing Syrian citizens, interfering in the affairs of Gulf States, and fighting the Sunni community in Ahvaz.
“How can we, as Muslims, welcome those who kill other Muslims? And if we are Arabs, how can we welcome those who kill Arabs? As human beings, how do we accept those who kill other humans?” the former presidential consultant asked.
Al-Zarqa also spoke about the tourism minister’s insistence on bringing Iranian tourists to Egypt: “Instead of being disappointed over the security issues that led to Iranian tourists leaving the country, it would be better for the government to improve security so that we can have tourists who do not themselves pose a threat to Egypt’s national security…. Tourism from Arab and Gulf countries is better for us, because they are our brothers. And on a financial level, they are better than tourists who come from countries that suppress others’ revolutions, such as Iran.”
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, Ramin Mehmanparast, said that the resumption of relations between Cairo and Tehran requires “time and patience.”
“If we want the ties between Iran and Egypt to officially reach a favorable level, which is expected by the people of both countries, we should be patient,” said Ramin Mehmanparast, according to the Iranian state-owned Press TV. He added that “we are in a transition from a very low level of ties to a favorable condition, and to achieve this we should pass through the stages gradually and in consideration of Egypt’s internal situation.”