Iranian tour raises fears of Shiite rise in Egypt

The first direct flight from Tehran to Cairo in 30 years has conservative Sunnis in Egypt protesting any growing Shiite influence. Bradley Hope reports from Cairo

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CAIRO // The easing of travel restrictions for Iranian tourists visiting Egypt has raised fears among Salafists that the move will lead to a spread of Shiism in Egypt.

Egypt and Iran last month removed visa requirements for tourists as part of a bilateral deal to boost revenues. On Sunday, about 50 Iranian tourists arrived to begin a tour of historic sites in Egypt. Some of them arrived on Saturday, flying in on the first direct flight from Tehran to Cairo in more than three decades.

Ahmed Mawlana, the head of the Salafist Al Shaab party, said the arrival of Iranian tourists would be acceptable only if they observed Egyptian cultural and religious norms.

"Ordinary touristic activities are welcomed," he told the Daily News Egypt newspaper, "but conducts related to the Shia doctrine would be completely unacceptable. We would wait and see".

The tour group that arrived on Sunday was given a security detail because of fears of attacks on them in the south, where conservative Sunni Islamists hold sway.

The group toured Aswan on Sunday and were expected to travel to Luxor on a Nile cruise yesterday, a security official told the Associated Press.

Relations between Egypt and Iran have thawed since the uprising that toppled the regime of Hosni Mubarak two years ago.

Diplomatic relations between the countries had been frozen since Egypt signed the 1979 peace treaty with Israel and Egypt allowed the deposed shah to take haven in Cairo after the Iranian revolution.

President Mohammed Morsi visited Iran last summer and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to Cairo in February.

Analysts say the increased interactions were more about each country trying to gain a stronger footing in regional foreign policy than a full rapprochement.

Egypt is eager to show it can find a solution to the Syrian civil war, while Iran wants to portray Egypt's rising Islamists as the regional continuation of Iran's 1979 revolution that saw Shiite Islamists take power.

Salafis, conservative Sunnis who have become a formidable political force in the past two years, have held regular protests against Shiism in Egypt and visits by Iranian officials to Cairo.

Members of Egypt's small Shiite community have also reported a rise in threats and attacks from Salafis since the 2011 uprising.

Typical of the protests was the demonstration on Friday where several dozen Salafis protested in front of Al Azhar University, the seat of Sunni Islam in the Arab world, against a visit of an Iranian official to a Sufi conference commemorating the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed's wife, Aisha.

They raised black flags with messages such as "There is no god but God", "We reject the existence of Iranian Shias in Egypt", "No to Iranian tourism in Egypt", and "Islam is innocent of Shias".

Local newspapers reported that a group of Salafis later stormed the conference, forcing it to end early.

Egyptian officials and members of the Muslim Brotherhood have defended the bilateral tourism deal with Iran, saying that Shiite tourists would not convert Sunnis in Egypt simply by visiting.

Essam El Erian, a top Brotherhood official, said on his Facebook page on Sunday that "Egypt is greater than to be penetrated by any thought or current ... Egypt has refused all forms of secularism and welcomed nationalism mixed with Islamism", according to a translation by the state-run Al Ahram newspaper.

Last month, the tourism minister Hisham Zaazou told Al Ahram that the tourism agreement was purely economic and had no political dimensions.

"We were keen to protect Egypt's national security and sovereignty during the negotiations, and all security risks were taken into consideration before signing the agreement," he said.

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