Attending an Ahmadinejad press conference in Cairo recently, I bumped into a rather unusual character from North Korea
The 12th Islamic Summit ostensibly served as backdrop for President Ahmadinejad’s visit to Cairo earlier this year, the first by an Iranian leader to Egypt since the 1979 revolution. Yet, following the conclusion of the summit the Iranian delegation had one more task: throw a party.
Or more precisely their goal was to throw a garden reception for the media and notables at a diplomatic residence not far from the Fairmont Hotel where Ahmadinejad had appeared.
The entry hall to the reception was decorated with a host of overtly political images. One wall featured the obligatory image of the late Grand Ayatollah Khomeini. Another included famous images from Egypt’s 2011 Revolution juxtaposed with similar images from the Iranian revolution of 1979. Another display featured Iranian scientific achievements including what appeared to be images from the Iranian space programme – which sadly did not include images of the monkey Iran recently sent into space.
The gathering did, however, include ministers, important judges, Islamic scholars, figures from the Coptic Church, and several diplomats, including some from European Union member states. One face I recognized was Ayman Nour who I interviewed in 2011 – a former dissident who faced persecution under Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and whose case was once specifically mentioned by then U.S President George W. Bush.
The authoritarian Iranian leader greeted several Egyptian notables in a private meeting upstairs before heading down to take his place at the front of the audience. Here, before a carefully selected group, the Iranian leader was to make a significant media appearance in Egypt. The press conference was in part to make up for a kerfuffle the day before at Al-Azhar, the world’s oldest university, where the Iranian leader was greeted with a shoe and frosty comments from Sunni Muslim scholars.
The stage was set replete with a large portrait of the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini and a few other banners declaring Egyptian-Iranian friendship. With cameras rolling and a sudden shout, a shoe was thrown that hit Ahmadenijad squarely on the chin. The Iranian bodyguards surprisingly failed to react for a minute before grabbing the clean-shaven Egyptian man who lobbed the shoe. At least Ahmadinejad now had a pair.
But, the show must go on and someone on the microphone asked people to take their seats as the crowd jockeyed to see what was happening. Suddenly, the Iranian national anthem began and Ahmadinejad snapped out of his chair. He soon took the stage to give his speech about Iranian-Egyptian relations. He was interrupted again – this time by an Iranian diplomat who wanted to congratulate Ahmadinejad on his skillful leadership. Thankfully
the translator declined to translate this outburst. Ahmadinejad’s ended his speech by switching to Arabic: “Long live Egypt! Long live Iran! Long live Egypt and Iran forever!”
With that the President’s speech was over and he was hustled away lest another Egyptian brandish a Bruno Magli loafer. Meanwhile the guests were invited to a sprawling buffet on a nearby lawn. Some Egyptian TV reporters I had met while waiting for Ahmadinejad’s speech to begin insisted I join them as they walked towards the buffet.
As we took our place in line I asked them what they thought of the man with the world’s most controversial nuclear energy programme. “I don’t like him; he wants to use Egypt to build Iran’s influence in the Middle East,” one replied.
Suddenly the lights went out and all pleasantries were thrown aside. A chaotic scramble ensued for morsels of flat bread, yellow rice, grilled kebab, baba ganouch and hummus. Journalists, civil society leaders, politicians and diplomats began looking after their own interests in the shadows. Mutterings in English, Arabic and Persian could be heard. For a moment it appeared Middle East politics centered on a buffet line.