On the first state visit of an Iranian leader to the nation of Egypt since 1979, during a visit that alarmed many, a shoe has been thrown.
In 1979, the then secularist government of Anwar Sadat allowed the then ousted Shah of Iran to land in Egypt and take respite from a hostile world that wouldn't take him in, even for medical care. Since then the turban bound, clergy run government of Iran had broken ties with Egypt, and slighted it as a puppet of the West. Today, however, Egypt's revolution has installed at its helm a similarly Islamist government, though with better visuals, who largely believe in the same defunct manner of running a country as the Iranians do -- that is by the rule of political Islam. The separation of religious belief and political will are relics of a language that is no ally to the new ruling class in Egypt, and the people's will is as petty to the new rulers as it was a nuisance to the old. Against this back-drop arrives President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran.
This week Egypt is hosting the Organization of Islamic Cooperation conference in Cairo, and Mr. Ahmadinejad is there to participate, while also being the first Iranian leader to hold talks with his Egyptian counterpart in more than 30 years. He was greeted at the airport by his (similarly stubble faced as a show of solidarity with Islam) counterpart, Mohammed Morsi, and the two embraced and kissed cheeks in front of the cameras. Both have run for "elections" in their respective countries, and both have "won." Both also have vocal dissenters trying to be heard, but both are adept at stifling them.
The problem for Mr. Ahmadinejad is that back at home, his allies are being arrested almost as quickly as protesters had been when they disputed his dubious reelection in 2009. Nearing the end of his constitutional term, Ahmadinejad is looking at his legacy and would like to shape it more as a transformational figure than a brutal blip in history. With recent speeches espousing human rights and his unforgettable offer to sacrifice himself for science as part of Iran's quest for space flight, he is attempting to carve his legacy as more a man of peace and inspiration, a man of science and the arts, a man of diplomacy rather than war, instead of a man who led a violent crackdown on his own people in 2009 in order to retain power. But as the shoe was hurled toward his head while he spoke in Cairo today, he looked like an ideologue under siege, much the same way George W. Bush did when he had a shoe hurled at him at a Baghdad press conference in 2008. President Bush went down as a "has been" in history, remembered more for his misguided policies than for his accomplishments. Mr. Ahmadinejad looks perilously close to the same end.
On this side of the world, almost on cue, the White House announced a springtime trip to Israel by President Obama. The trip no doubt seeks to fortify the alliance between these two newly elected leaders, who carry with them a mandate from their people to stand strong against an Islamist onslaught -- from an Arab Spring. The same onslaught represented most prominently by the new face of Egypt, led by Morsi.
A protester in Cairo wanted the world to know that not all the people of Egypt are proponents of Mr. Morsi's brand of governing, just as not all Iranians are aligned with the ruling clergy. But as is often the case in a politically stifling Middle East where opinions are cause for death and speaking them can bring on a fate even worse, most ordinary people will just have to wait and see where the shoe drops. Protests and protesters have only so much power to implement change. At some point, those who assume power also will have to assume the responsibility of improving people's lives -- and that transformation has yet to be made in the Middle East.