Ahmadinejad–Azhar Row Escalates
Iranian presidential aide claims press conference was 'orchestrated'
Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—Statements by Ahmed Mousavi, Iranian presidential adviser and Director of the Haj and Pilgrimage Organization (HMO), on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent visit to Cairo provoked serious controversy in Egypt earlier this week. Mousavi was talking about the contentious meeting that took place between Iranian President Ahmadinejad and Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb against the backdrop of the 12th Organization of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Conference in Cairo.
Mousavi’s statements were published on Iran’s Fars News Agency’s Arabic language website on Wednesday under the headline “Unpublished details on the president’s discussions with Al-Azhar professors.” It contained a different account of the contentious meeting to the one reported in the Egyptian press between the Iranian president and Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh, and the equally difficult press conference that followed this closed-door meeting.
Fars News Agency quoted Mousavi as saying, “Following the end of the Iranian delegation’s meeting with the Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh, the Iranian president had not been scheduled to hold a press conference.”
The Iranian presidential adviser, who accompanied Ahmadinejad on the Cairo trip, revealed, “When we left the meeting we were confronted by a crowd of journalists. I was standing next to the president during the press conference in case he needed any translation . . . During the press conference I felt that everything was orchestrated and there were those who wanted to reveal what was discussed during the Al-Azhar meeting in order to embarrass the president.”
Al-Azhar issued an official statement yesterday responding to Mousavi’s allegations. The statement read, “Al-Azhar has a single viewpoint and discourse and transparency is our guide. The allegation that this press conference was a surprise is not correct, and the Iranian chief protocol office or ambassador could have acted to clarify the nature of this press conference to the journalists. This is the business of the Iranian delegation, and Al-Azhar, which is well aware of the rights of guests and Islamic manners, has nothing to do with this.”
Iranian complaints regarding the press conference seem to focus on the person of Al-Azhar spokesman Sheikh Hassan El-Shafei, who represented Grand Sheikh Al-Tayeb. However, the Al-Azhar statement stressed that “The meeting took place with absolute sincerity and transparency and the press conference took place in the same spirit and President Ahmadinejad shook Dr. Hassan El-Shafei’s hand.”
However Mousavi opined that this press conference was an attempt to raise the issue of Sunni—Shiite problems and the Syrian crisis, adding “this led us to threaten to walk out of the press conference if contentious issues were raised in public.”
The Al-Azhar statement revealed, “The Iranian president expressed a desire to visit Al-Azhar and meet with Grand Sheikh Dr. Ahmed Al-Tayeb and a group of senior scholars. Following the meeting the visiting president and his entourage, including the chief protocol officer, were told that the Grand Sheikh does not take part in press conferences and that his senior adviser, Hassan El-Shafei, would be representing him. Both the chief protocol officer and the president accepted this and they—the Iranian delegation and El-Shafei—went to the press conference together.”
Asharq Al-Awsat attempted to contact members of Al-Azhar’s Senior Scholars committee, but they refused to comment on Mousavi’s allegations.
A source within Al-Azhar, speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat on the condition of anonymity, revealed the real reason behind the Iranian delegation’s anger. The source said, “The Iranian President resented Dr. Hassan El-Shafei’s criticism of Iran’s desire to spread Shiism in Egypt.”
He added, “Ahmadinejad and El-Shafei entered a private conversation and the Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh’s adviser spoke candidly, saying: We feel sadness about what we always hear regarding insults towards the Companions of the Prophet and the mothers of the believers and this is something that we completely reject.’”
The source revealed that El-Shafei criticized Tehran’s desire to promote Shiism in Egypt, characterizing Egypt as a historical “bastion of Sunni Islam.”
The Al-Azhar source also informed Asharq Al-Awsat, “El-Shafei continued his strong words until Ahmadinejad interrupted him in Arabic, saying: We agreed on unity and fraternity.”
He said, “The real reason for the Iranian president’s anger is his objection to the statement issued by Al-Azhar which was published in local and international media outlets . . . this is the same statement that was read out by El-Shafei and which included the points of contention raised by the Grand Sheikh during his meeting with Ahmadinejad.”
The Al-Azhar source added, “This should have been a closed-door meeting with nobody knowing what was discussed. Some have described these points of contention as the ‘four no’s', namely non-interference in Gulf affairs, including respecting Bahrain as a sisterly Arab state, rejecting Shiite expansionism in Sunni states, putting an end to the bloodshed in Syria and ensuring that it becomes safe and secure, and granting the Sunnis in Iran their complete rights.”
The source also revealed that Ahmadinejad was angered by the number of satellite television channels present immediately after his meeting with the Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh, adding that the Iranian delegation was not expecting to hold such a large press conference. The Al-Azhar source claimed that Ahmadinejad thought that his meeting with Al-Tayeb would be followed by a small-scale press conference where the talk would focus on Egyptian – Iranian relations.
Following this contentious meeting and press conference at Al-Azhar, Ahmadinejad visited Cairo’s Al-Hussein mosque where he was confronted by a number of Egyptian and Syrian protesters, of of whom attempting to hit him with a shoe.
However Mousavi told Fars News, “I and other members of the delegation did not see anybody trying to throw a shoe (at Ahmadinejad), but we enjoyed a standing ovation from the Egyptians during our visit of some districts such as the Ras Al Hussein district.”
He added, “The only protester we saw was one reporter at a gathering at the Iranian embassy where Ahmadinejad was present, however this is normal.”
The Iranian presidential adviser stressed, “In any case, the Iranian delegation’s visit to Egypt was very useful and constructive.” He emphasized, “In my point of view, the message of the Islamic Republic of Iran reached the ears of the Egyptian people during our visit.”