Tensions are running high between Cairo and Teheran, all because of the Iranian film ‘Assassination of a Pharaoh’ that recounts the assassination of former Egyptian president Anwar el-Sadat in 1981. In the film, the assassin, Khaled Islambouli, is treated as a martyr whereas the ex-head of state is portrayed as a traitor for having signed the Camp David Agreements in 1978 – a document whereby Egypt officially recognised Israel.
The Egyptian reaction was swift. On July 9, the government summoned an Iranian representative to Cairo demanding information about the film.
The Egyptian press – especially the official press – fell on the issue, calling it a scandal and threatening to make a film to destroy the image of the late Imam Khomeini, leader of the Iranian revolution. “I don’t think they’ll go through with it,” declared Egyptian journalist Tarek Mounir.
Astonishingly, Egypt chose to act in response to the film by way of sport. Through its president Samir Zaher, the Egyptian Federation of Football announced that it was cancelling the friendly game between the Egyptian and Iranian teams, due to be held in the United Arab Emirates on August 20. The International Federation of Football (Fifa) has not yet passed judgment. “What we are seeing today is what I would call a syndrome of ‘diplomacy in football.’ Given the popularity of this sport in the Arab world, cancelling a match is a way of showing you’re unhappy with something,” concludes Tarek Mounir.
“Iran broke off its diplomatic relations with Egypt in 1980 to protest against the signature of the Camp David Agreements. Relations between the two worsened when Iranian authorities named a street in Teheran after Khaled Istambouli,” says Bernard Hourcade, director of research at CNRS and specialist on Iran. “There was, however, a more relaxed period in 2004 when Iran declared that it wanted to change the name and call the street Intifada, in homage to Palestinians. But it wasn’t done officially enough because today people call the street Intifada or Istambouli depending on the relationship between the two countries at the time,” clarifies the researcher.
In the last few months, the two countries were working towards getting their diplomatic relations back on track. Egyptian President Hosni Moubarak and his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arranged a telephone conversation to discuss the crisis in the Middle East.
Hussein Darar, deputy Egyptian minister for Foreign Affairs, also visited Teheran at the beginning of 2008 where he meet Iranian officials. “The two parties found the talks constructive and have decided to continue with them,” said a statement published after the meetings. The balance between the countries is still fragile, say specialists. According to François Géré, president of the French Institute of Strategic Analysis (Ifas): “The film shows the extraordinary fragility of the recent improvements between the two countries.” But is this fragile balance really that threatened?
“Broadcasting the film risks ruining recent efforts to heighten diplomatic representation between the two countries,” Bernard Hourcade suggests. “While there are no major political interests at heart, the situation will stay blocked since there are a group of people, even on the Iranian side, who want to keep the country separate from the Arab world. Showing that film is anything but neutral,” concludes Bernard Hourcade.