Egypt’s Brotherhood attempts to calm S. Arabia spat

Resentment bubbles over after Riyadh sentences Egyptian for drug smuggling; Protesters in Cairo spray-paint star of David on Saudi Embassy.

Mohamed Mursi, head of  Brotherhood's political party 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Mohamed Mursi, head of Brotherhood's political party 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Lawmakers from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood traveled to Saudi Arabia on Thursday in a bid to lower the flames of a simmering dispute that is the biggest rift in decades between the two most powerful Arab states.
The speakers of Egypt’s upper and lower houses of parliament, both senior members of the Brotherhood, joined a delegation meeting Saudi King Abdullah over the crisis triggered by Riyadh’s arrest of an Egyptian lawyer and a wave of protests that it generated. This weekend the Saudis withdrew their ambassador from Egypt, citing security concerns following the demonstrations over Ahmed el-Gizawi’s detention on April 17.
The Saudi government has been the focus of public anger triggered by the arrest, with Egyptians pouring criticism on what they say is the poor treatment their compatriots often receive in the kingdom. Egyptian activists said Gizawi had been detained for speaking out against such ill-treatment.
The Saudi authorities said he had been smuggling the anti-anxiety drug Xanax, which is banned in the kingdom. Gizawi has reportedly been sentenced to 20 lashes and a year in jail for “defaming the Saudi king.”
Prof. Joshua Teitelbaum, an expert on Saudi Arabia at Bar-Ilan University and the BESA Center for Strategic Studies, said each side has deep-seated grievances against the other.
“From the Egyptian side, there have always been complaints about how Egyptian workers are treated in Saudi Arabia. Egyptians resent Saudi wealth and the arrogant ways of Saudi visitors to Egypt,” Teitelbaum said. The 1.5 million Egyptians living in the kingdom form Egypt’s largest expatriate community anywhere in the world.
“From the Saudi side, they distrust the Muslim Brotherhood. They are disappointed at the treatment of Mubarak, and don’t know what to make of the SCAF [the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces],” he said. “For the Saudis, the SCAF should not have let those demonstrations take place in front of the Saudi Embassy. They want to count on Egypt against Iran, but they don’t know if they can.”
Riyadh frets that Egypt, its strongest Arab ally and a major recipient of Saudi funding, is falling under the extremist influence of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Egyptian state media quoted Ali Fath el- Bab, who heads the Brotherhood’s majority bloc in the upper chamber of the legislature, as saying the delegation would “focus on affirming the depth of the historical and brotherly ties between the two countries... and the need to work to remove any misunderstanding.”
Bab said delegates would discuss “the conditions and problems of Egyptians in the kingdom in a framework that preserves the dignity of Egyptians.”
Amateur footage uploaded to YouTube this week showed protesters in Cairo shouting anti-Saudi slogans at the Saudi Embassy. The clip, uploaded by the Middle East Media Research Institute, showed protesters defacing the embassy with stars of David and the word “Israel.” In the background dozens of protesters chanted, “Raise your head high, you’re Egyptian,” and “freedom to Gizawi.”
“Oh Saudi ambassador, we will give you 100 lashes for each one you deserve,” protesters chanted. “Oh servant of the Americans, Egyptian will never be humiliated.”
Protesters also shouted slogans against Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of the SCAF, chanting, “The people want the execution of the field marshal.”
The Cairo-Riyadh spat has also played out in the pages of Arabic media. Writing in the Saudi-owned, London-based newspaper Asharq Alawsat, Abdul Rahman Al- Rashed, placed blame for the crisis squarely on Egypt.
“The most popular word in the Egyptian arena is ‘no,’” wrote Rashed, a former editor of the pan-Arab daily who now heads Al- Arabiya television. “No to borrowing from the World Bank, no to US aid, no to exporting gas to Israel, no to preventing civil society organizations.
“Saudi-Egyptian relations have remained for nearly three-quarters of a century, and they have withstood the most trying of circumstances,” he wrote. “The late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat was enraged when Saudi Arabia refused to support him in his agreement with Israel in 1979, but relations were then restored, as happened previously with the late president Gamal Abdul Nasser.
“The truth is that the new Egypt... will grow increasingly interconnected with Saudi Arabia given the circumstances,” he added. “Those who threw bricks at the Saudi Embassy in Cairo were actually throwing them at the Egyptians in Saudi Arabia.”
But writing in the Egyptian daily Al- Masry Al-Youm, columnist Sultan al-Qassemi said the crisis was solely the Saudis’ fault.
“Gizawi’s case it not unique in Saudi Arabia.
The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights published this month a list of 35 political prisoners imprisoned in Saudi jails without trial among a total of 1,401 Egyptians imprisoned in the kingdom,” he wrote.
“For Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states, the importance of Egypt cannot be over-estimated. Saudi and the Gulf states realize that Egypt is the only Arab state capable of balancing Iran’s threat to their nations,” he wrote. “The sooner Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states realize that the ‘new Egypt’ is here to stay and that the Mubarak days are long gone, and adjust their policies accordingly, the sooner they will be able to rebuild their bonds – this time not with the regime, but with the people.”
Reuters contributed to this report.