It is agreed almost unanimously that Saudi-Egyptian relations are dominated by ambiguity of the type that serves neither party. Each tells the other what it wants to hear, yet when it comes to action they only do what they see fit. Egypt is anxious about anything to do with the Muslim Brotherhood; Saudi Arabia is a lot less anxious. Ambiguity prevails over the two regional powers of the Arab world despite the many mutual interests they share and the positive remarks they both make. Why the ambiguity? Is Saudi Arabia the cause of this or Egypt?
I believe that Egypt is the cause. It is the one which wants to keep the relationship with Saudi Arabia rather vague, potentially encompassing one position and its exact opposite. The reason is a role which Egypt has lost and is dreaming about regaining, but cannot find a way to achieve it. Cairo says that its security is an integral part of Gulf security. That is true, but it is adopting stances that contradict this interest. The security of the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf is Egypt’s security too. That’s how things were in the past and that’s how they still are, especially during this period of turmoil, the likes of which the Arab world has never experienced before. When Saudi Arabia stood by Egypt immediately before and after the 2013 coup, it only did so out of profound realisation of the danger of instability and lack of security in Egypt in the aftermath of the fall of Iraq and Syria. The Saudis cannot afford to see Egypt slide into instability. Should this happen, the burden would fall principally on the shoulders of the government in Riyadh. This is a responsibility that no one single state can bear on its own.
Nearly all Egyptian writers on this matter also attribute the ambiguous relationship with Saudi Arabia to Cairo’s stance; not because they believe the Saudi position to be sound, but because they blame the Egyptian leadership for diminishing their country’s role. Here is where the predicament lies amid the current regional circumstances. The cultured elite would like to see Egypt regain its leading role in the region, as it had in the early 20th century.
The official Egyptian position vis-a-vis the crises that shake the region express the same vision. Yet, its vagueness also expresses a sense of frustration that the potential for regaining that leading role is no longer available. Egypt under President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, as it was during the brief rule of his predecessor Mohamed Morsi, is not the same Egypt that existed during the monarchy or when Gamal Abdel Nasser was president. The region is also moving further away from the Arab world that existed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is obvious that Egypt’s restoration of its leading role requires a change within Egypt itself before anywhere else.
No one objects to Egypt’s restoration of its leading role, but political ambitions and leadership cannot be accomplished through mere wishful thinking and nostalgia. Egypt is lagging behind in economics, politics, development and science. The age of Egypt’s giants is over. The state in Egypt is suffering from what many other Arab states are suffering. It acknowledges that it has changed (as has the region and, indeed, the rest of the world), yet it is expecting this change to adapt to Egypt rather than taking the initiative to adapt Egypt to suit the changes and their requirements. The amazing thing is that it is still in denial that the situation is pushing it further away from the role it wants to regain.
What is even more astonishing is that Egypt realises that in the aftermath of the collapse of Iraq and Syria the region cannot be salvaged except through cooperation with Saudi Arabia. Such cooperation requires a common vision of the solutions and means of deliverance from the current predicament. However, it would seem that Egypt in its current difficult political and economic situation fears reaching a common vision with Riyadh and doing what it takes in terms of cooperation that may result in regional recognition of a Saudi leadership role at its own expense. It may also end up bolstering the magnitude and extent of the change that has befallen Egypt and the region. This is a probability. Egypt’s anxiety vis-a-vis such a probability expresses the change that has touched it before touching anyone else.
Egypt wants financial support from Saudi and the Gulf but does not want to have to do anything in return as part of the quid pro quo equation of exchanged Arab interests. For example, in the aftermath of all the destruction he has unleashed upon Syria, does keeping Assad in power constitute a Syrian interest or an Arab interest? Egypt fears that the fall of Assad might lead to a Muslim Brotherhood takeover in Syria which, in turn, would weaken the Syrian army in favour of a civilian state. Such an eventuality would place the Egyptian army, and its central role in the country, in an embarrassing position.
In contrast, the Egyptian leadership does not seem to realise that the establishment of an inclusive civil and secular (rather than military or religious) state will put pressure on Saudi Arabia and that the ramifications of such a development may compel it to adapt and effect reforms that will not be easy to avert. Hence, the price tag will not be borne by Egypt alone. Why, I wonder, does Saudi Arabia seem more prepared — despite being the most conservative by virtue of its Wahhabi legacy — to accept such a possibility and what it might entail politically and intellectually, than Egypt, out of which the enlightenment in the Arab world is supposed to have sprung more than a century ago? This question embodies the magnitude of change and what this enlightenment has led to.
Is it in the Arab interest to allow, or to be tolerant toward, Iran’s policy of spreading the idea of a sect-based militia as a rival to the state in the Arab world under the fake slogan of “resistance”? This is what Iran has been doing in Iraq and in Syria, and what it did in Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain. Isn’t it an Arab interest before being a Saudi interest to confront this destructive Iranian role? Some writers in Egypt don’t see things that way. The most prominent testimony to this is what the renowned journalist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal told Lebanon’s Al-Safir newspaper about why Hezbollah is fighting in Syria. “It is doing this for its own survival and in defence of itself and of what it is doing in Lebanon,” the veteran writer asserted. By doing so, he added, it is asserting its legitimacy as a resistance group and not as a component within the Iranian project. “Iran may benefit from this and so does Egypt, although we do not acknowledge that. We do indeed benefit from every suspended resistance point in favour of a comprehensive settlement at a moment when the Arab world is so weak and in a state of collapse.”
I do not think I would be exaggerating if I were to say that this is old and irrelevant rhetoric. It is rather strange that it should come from someone like Heikal. The man is too clever and too knowledgeable to need to say something like this. Furthermore, he is supposed to be an Arab nationalist and a Nasserist. Nationalism in its very foundations hinges on the concept of the state, one that is national and nationalistic, and it gives it utmost priority. Would Heikal accept the emergence of a similar militia in Egypt?
What is still more astonishing is his assertion that Hezbollah is fighting in Syria in order to assert its legitimacy and that it is not part of an Iranian project. In saying so, he contradicts himself. The party is religious, its leaders and cadres are religious and its frame of reference, both religious and political, is in Iran and not even in Lebanon or in Syria. Moreover, Hezbollah is funded and its cadres are trained and armed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. Is Iran doing all of this like a charitable society as a favour to the Arab resistance? The reality is that the party is fighting in defence of a bloody regime that has been murdering its people for decades, long before the eruption of the Syrian revolution. It is doing this only because the head of the regime is a Shia and an Alawite and because his presence is needed as a barrier to hinder the rise of the Sunni majority to power in Syria. This is because the ascendance to power of this majority might force Iran out of Syria; Heikal was among the first people to point this out. How then does the party’s involvement in the fighting inside Syria become an expression of its independence and legitimacy?
Heikal’s position does not necessarily represent the vision of those who govern in Egypt. However, the vagueness of their stance vis-a-vis such vital matters gives the impression that the two positions somehow concur without necessarily being identical. This confirms, first, that the clash of political visions with acknowledged interests end up engaging certain mutual interests with others and producing grey policies that serve no one. It also confirms the inability of the Arab states to form a coalition among themselves on the basis of a common strategic vision. It is through this gap that foreign interventions penetrate in order to undermine the region’s capabilities. Egypt demands that we wait for it to regain its leadership role. Can it ever achieve this while failing to escape the cloak of the military for more than a century?
Translated from Alhayat, 29 November 2015.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.