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A disturbing Egyptian concern

June 8, 2015 at 10:32 am

A noteworthy development in Saudi-Egypt relations occurred last Sunday, when newspapers in both countries published similar reports that concurred in stressing one thing, namely that there is no disagreement between Riyadh and Cairo concerning Yemen and Syria. On the contrary, stressed Al-Hayat, Al-Misry Al-Youm and Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, there is complete agreement in the vision and stance of each country on regional issues. Egypt’s Al-Ahram newspaper waited until the following day before publishing a similar report. Despite the slight variation in the wording, the source was the same for all; the press conference held in Cairo by Saudi Foreign Minister Adil Al-Jubair and his Egyptian counterpart and host Samih Shukri.

Although there appeared to be nothing out of the ordinary in terms of Arab norms and customs, Egyptian newspaper Al-Shurooq did deviate and published a completely different report that seemed to contradict the aforementioned newspapers. The main thrust of Al-Shurooq‘s report, from the headline down, was that there is tension between Egypt and Saudi Arabia “over the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen and Syria.” Saudi Arabia, it claimed, is paving the way “for the Muslim Brotherhood to ascend to power in Yemen… and Egypt considers this a red line.”

“Official Egyptian sources,” claims Al-Shurooq, “are saying that Cairo informed Riyadh about its concern over what Egypt considers to be going too far in opening up to the branches of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab states and the attempt to rely on the group in resolving the crisis in Yemen or to contain the situation in Syria.” The paper warned that this would lead to “grave repercussions with regard to regional stability because once the Muslim Brotherhood reach power in some Arab countries with Saudi support, it would never rest and will endeavour to seize control in all the Arab capitals.”

We have to ask who is telling the truth: the Saudi and Egyptian foreign ministers in their press conference or Al-Shurooq and “official Egyptian sources”? When looked at closely, there is a gap between what Al-Jubair said and what Shukri said about the same issue. For example, Al-Hayat quotes the Saudi foreign minister speaking about the closeness of the Saudi and Egyptian visions regarding Syria and saying, “The two countries endeavour to exclude Bashar Al-Assad after having lost his legitimacy.” Then he adds, according to Al-Hayat, that Saudi-Russia communications concur with Egypt-Russia communications in that they are all aimed at persuading Moscow to relinquish Al-Assad. These are clear and direct signals. Their importance emanates from the fact that they happen to come following direct talks between the two ministers and in a joint press conference. The Egyptian minister did not address the position or future of the Syrian president. And when he talked about Russia nothing in what he said suggested that Egypt was asking Russia for more than to persuade the Syrian regime to join the political process together with the opposition. At the same time, the Egyptian minister did not comment on what his Saudi counterpart said in this regard.

Perhaps there is concurrence in the assessment of Riyadh and Cairo to the effect that developments have already sealed the fate of the Syrian president and that his exit is now inevitable. However, the two countries disagree on how to drive matters in this direction as well as on the political alternative for a post-Assad era. Riyadh is clear that the fall of Assad has become the first step to putting an end to the Syrian tragedy. Cairo, though, seems hesitant and has not yet decided what it wants. It is no wonder that Cairo’s diplomatic discourse is generalised, vague and indirect. This begs the question as to whether such vagueness implies a vision that is contrary to that of the Saudis and ambiguity is nothing but courtesy toward Saudi Arabia, whose support Egypt still needs. The fact is that in as much as Egypt needs Saudi Arabia, the latter also needs Egypt. Why then is direct language used here but not there? Could this be an expression of deep Egyptian anxiety that Saudi Arabia might make gains in the Levant and Yemen deemed to be contrary to Egyptian interests? Or is this an expression of a chronic phenomenon as a result of which the Arab states do not have the ability to agree among themselves and form alliances that may serve their mutual interests?

We are confronted by the same Egyptian ambiguity with regard to another subject addressed by the two ministers in their press conference, namely foreign interventions in the Arab world. Al-Jubair named Iran as the only country making these interventions. Shukri, on the other hand, stressed “Egypt’s rejection of any foreign interventions from outside the region in Arab affairs or Arab security.” He also rejected “any attempt to penetrate or impose hegemony or dictates on the Arab Ummah”, warning that any such interventions would be confronted firmly within the framework of defending Arab national security. However, he avoided mentioning Iran or what Iraq, Syria and Lebanon are doing, particularly with regard to employing militias as tools for proxy war in the Arab world.

By adopting such a stance, Egypt may be trying to distinguish itself from Saudi Arabia by giving itself room for manoeuvre in the hope of reaching some understanding with Iran. This is a recognised and acceptable tradition. However, it is quite obvious that Iran has, by virtue of the size of its interventions, surpassed the limit of such aspired understanding. It is seeking to turn its intervention into a status quo that should just be accepted by everybody else and that should be lived with. Its aim is to turn whatever it grabs into permanent gains and part of new and different regional arrangements that have nothing to do with the Arab identity of this or that state. Iran considers its own Supreme Guide to be a guide for all Muslims and treats the Arab states as an open Islamic space available to service its own interests. Furthermore, Iran has not made such huge financial, military and political investments in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon only to reach some sort of an understanding and relinquish them in favour of this or that Arab country. Ironically, Egypt under Nasser considered Iran (under the Shah) to be an enemy just next to Israel although the level of its interventions and hostilities toward the Arab world was nothing like that attained after Iran had become an “Islamic Republic” and severed its relations with Israel.

What has changed? This question takes us back to the issue of the Muslim Brotherhood, which – according to Al-Shurooq – happens to be the main bone of contention between Riyadh and Cairo. What is most striking in the statement attributed by the newspaper to official Egyptian sources is the claim of “going too far” in opening up to branches of the Muslim Brotherhood that may “lead them” to seize power in all the Arab capitals. It may be inferred from such talk that the manner in which Egypt has dealt with the problem of the movement domestically has not resulted in resolving it but has, on the contrary, turned it into a disturbing Egyptian predicament that shackles Cairo’s strategic options in the region at a critical time. The strategic option is a Saudi-Egypt pact to fight extremism and to revive the spirit and credibility of the concept of the state in the face of the proliferation of the phenomenon of militias, of all types, that are spreading across the Arab world and that are threatening states at their very foundations. Since Iran is the one which is fuelling this phenomenon, there should be a united Arab stance against its destructive role.

Does this necessitate banning the Muslim Brotherhood from political participation or from ascending to power in any Arab country? Once participation is accomplished in accordance with the agreed upon vision, that is with regard to the spirit of the state and within a constitutional political process that includes everyone and puts an end to destructive crises such as those in Syria and Yemen, why should the movement be banned? In this instance, the issue will become a domestic affair, neither Egyptian nor Saudi. It will just be like in Morocco or in Tunis, for instance.

On the other hand, how can it be right to ban the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen when everyone agrees that the solution to the crisis there should not exclude anyone? If Saudi Arabia does not object to the Houthis, as an unarmed political party, why should it then object to the Brotherhood-affiliated Islah movement? The same logic applies, to a larger extent, to the Syrian situation. It would not be possible to fight the extremist militias there, Sunni and Shia alike, without forging a coalition that speaks for moderation, and that simply cannot be achieved without the Muslim Brotherhood. As such, the only alternative would be a regional alliance similar to that which carried out Operation Decisive Storm. Will this be acceptable to Cairo?

It would seem that what Al-Shurooq newspaper published is more representative of the truth than what was published in the other press reports. Egypt is anxious about the Saudi options. It is, however, an anxiety without vision and without an offer of alternatives; a disturbing form of anxiety. In the past, Saudi Arabia used to be anxious about Egyptian options. Now, the two countries have swapped positions. This is clearly an indication of the lack of a joint vision. And this is a breach through which Iran, the militias and terrorism will creep into the region.

Khalid Al-Dakhil is a Saudi writer and academic. Translated from Alhayat newspaper, 7 June, 2015.