print
memri
October 18, 2016 No.
1274

The Egypt-Saudi Dispute Over A Resolution To The Syria Crisis Goes Public

By: N. Mozes*

Introduction

In recent weeks there has been severe tension between Egypt and Saudi Arabia due to disagreements on the Syrian crisis. These disagreements, which are long-standing, recently deepened and became public, especially after on October 8, 2016, Egypt voted at the UN Security Council in favor of a Russian draft resolution on the situation in Aleppo, a draft resolution that Saudi Arabia opposed.[1]

Egypt's support for the Russian draft resolution was a blatant expression of its dispute with Saudi Arabia over the Syrian crisis and constitutes an independent Egyptian step that placed this country squarely outside the Saudi camp. In fact, Egypt's position on resolving the Syrian crisis is clearly closer to that of Russia, the ally of Bashar Al-Assad, than to the Saudi position.

In the weeks prior to the vote at the UN, Egyptian senior officials, headed by President 'Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi and Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri, began voicing in public their position on the Syrian crisis and clarifying the points of contention with Saudi Arabia in this matter. Their statements, as well as articles published in the Egyptian press, described Saudi Arabia as advocating a military solution in Syria and supporting the armed factions there, in contrast to Egypt, which advocates a political solution, seeks to end the bloodshed in the country and preserve its unity and stability, and also seeks to halt the spread of terrorism from Syria to other countries. It was claimed further that, while Saudi Arabia insists on the ouster of Bashar Al-Assad as a condition for a solution in Syria, Egypt does not endorse this view. Some of the articles stressed Syria's importance to Egypt and the security and strategic ties between the two countries, stating that Egypt's position on Syria stemmed from Egyptian interests that take precedence over Arab ones.

Saudi Arabia, for its part, was enraged by Egypt's support of the Russian draft resolution. Saudi Representative to the UN 'Abdallah Yahya Al-Mouallimi wondered how it could be that some non-Arab countries were closer to the Arab positions than Egypt was. Furthermore, Saudi Ambassador to Egypt Ahmed Al-Kattan was recalled to Riyadh for consultations. In addition, Saudi Arabia has begun taking economic steps, apparently in response to Egypt's significant divergence from the Saudi position. For example, two days after the vote at the UN Security Council, it was reported that the largest Saudi oil company, Saudi Aramco, had suspended the supply of oil to Egypt, and that Saudia Airlines, the Saudi national carrier, had not approved EgyptAir flights to Saudi Arabia. These moves were seen in Egypt as Saudi economic sanctions against Egypt. 

The Saudi anger at Egypt was also expressed in numerous Saudi press articles that described the Al-Sisi's regime as ungrateful, given the significant material and political support Saudi Arabia has extended to Al-Sisi. At the same time, other articles called to understand Egypt's considerations, especially in light of its complicated political situation.

It should be noted that Egyptian-Saudi relations since Al-Sisi's rise to power have seen ups and downs. Both countries have been trying to keep up a front of unity and close relations. Saudi Arabia supported Al-Sisi and his ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) regime headed by Muhammad Mursi; the Saudi support for the current Egyptian regime was also manifested in significant economic aid extended to Egypt. Egyptian president Al-Sisi, for his part, declared on several occasions that the Egyptian army is on full alert, ready to defend Egypt's sister-countries in the Gulf, should they be directly threatened. In April 2016 Saudi King Salman made a historic visit to Egypt, during which the latter acknowledged Saudi Arabia's sovereignty over the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir, which had been under Egyptian sovereignty for years, and agreed to transfer them back to the kingdom. A series of economic agreements were also made during the visit.[2] However, despite their efforts to appear united, significant disagreements have surfaced between the two countries on various issues - chiefly Saudi Arabia's openness towards Turkey and the MB, which Egypt regards as its enemies, and, conversely, indications of possible rapprochement between Egypt and Iran, as well as Egypt's position on Syria. Saudi Arabia is also severely disappointed with the limited extent of Egypt's cooperation with it in the war against the Houthis in Yemen, and with Egypt's failure so far to implement the agreement on the transfer of the two islands.

The Saudi ire was also sparked by the participation of a senior Egyptian delegation, headed by Egyptian Mufti Shawki 'Allam, the Sheikh of Al-Azhar Ahmad Al-Tayeb, and Al-Sisi's advisor Osama Al-Azhari, in a conference of Muslim clerics in Grozny in late August 2016, under the title "Who Are The Sunnis?" Saudi clerics were not invited to this conference, and its closing statement, which defined the term "Sunni," made no mention of Wahhabiyya and Salafiyya. Saudi Arabia saw this conference as a plot against its status as the leader of the Sunni world and leveled harsh criticism at Egypt for participating in it.[3]              

This report reviews the current tension between the two countries over the solution of the Syrian crisis.

Egyptian Foreign Minister: Saudi Arabia Advocates A Military Solution; We Advocate A Political Solution

As noted above, in recent weeks Egyptian officials, chiefly President Al-Sisi and Foreign Minister Shukri, publicly discussed the Egypt-Saudi rift over a resolution to the Syria crisis.

On August 22, 2016, President Al-Sisi gave an interview to the editors of Egypt's three main newspapers, Al-Ahram, Al-Gumhouriyya, and Al-Akhbar, in which he stressed that "Egypt's position regarding the Syria crisis is based on a number of principles: honoring the contiguousness of Syrian lands and the will of the Syrian people; reaching a political solution; disarming the militias and extremist groups; and restoring and reopening Syrian state institutions."[4]

In his September 2016 speech to the UN General Assembly, Al-Sisi stressed that the solution for Syria was political, not military. He called for disarming the militias and extremist groups, but did not address what was to happen to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. He also refrained from blaming the Assad regime and Russia for the ongoing crisis. He said: "The ongoing bloodshed in Syria and the lack of a political horizon are no longer acceptable. It is clear what needs to be done - an immediate and total halt of all aggression across Syria, which will pave the way for a political solution that ends the bloodshed and prevents the ongoing chaos, the only result of which is the spread of terrorism. We welcome the cessation of hostilities agreement achieved through [much] effort by Russia and the U.S., and anticipate an acceleration of serious international moves to renew negotiations as soon as possible, in order to arrive at a comprehensive solution for the crisis."[5]

In contrast, Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Naif bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz Al-Sa'ud called, in his speech to the UN General Assembly, to facilitate a transitional process in Syria by supporting the moderate opposition, and accused President Assad of being responsible for the massacre of and crimes against the Syrian people.[6]

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri expressed himself more forthrightly and decisively regarding the points of contention with Saudi Arabia. Two days after Al-Sisi's speech to the UN General Assembly, Shukri told the editors of Egypt's three main newspapers, in an interview, that Saudi Arabia is promoting an unviable solution to the Syria crisis, and described Egypt's role as "the voice of reason." While Shukri did emphasize the extensive Egypt-Syria relationship and coordination, he added: "The disagreement surrounds the question of whether or not armed struggle can decide the situation in Syria. Our position since the start has been that armed struggle will decide nothing, and that there is no place for terrorist organizations in the new Syria. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia believes that armed struggle will [indeed] decide the situation in Syria, and will lead to change. But this will not happen."

Additionally, Shukri argued that "there is no need for a ceasefire to launch a political process, because the tragic situation in Syria, and its ramifications, are compelling us to formulate guidelines for political negotiations, so that we can work in accordance with them as opposed to waiting for a ceasefire..."[7] This position vis-à-vis a ceasefire contrasts with that of the Syrian armed resistance, which is supported by Saudi Arabia, according to which negotiations are conditional upon a ceasefire. It also contrasts with Al-Sisi's statements at the UN General Assembly.

In its reporting, the Egyptian independent Islamic daily Al-Misriyyoun, which was not represented at the interview, highlighted additional points of Egyptian-Saudi contention that it claimed were raised during the interview. The newspaper reported that Shukri said, when asked whether a departure by President Assad could bring Syria to the same situation as Iraq's and Libya's following the ouster of their leaders: "That is the affair of the Syrian people, and we should not discuss specific individuals or waste time on questions regarding the post-war phase." He stressed that, unlike Saudi Arabia, whose "position highlights the need for regime or leadership change in Syria, Egypt does not support this..."[8] It should be noted that while none of the three newspapers whose editors interviewed Shukri reported on these statements, they were widely cited in the Arab media and were not denied by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry.

Articles In Official Egyptian Press: The Choice Is Between Bashar Al-Assad And Jabhat Al-Nusra

Following Shukri's and Al-Sisi's statements, the official Egyptian press further examined, in a number of articles, the Egypt-Saudi schism, specifically regarding the fate of Bashar Al-Assad and the two countries' divergent priorities for dealing with the crisis. The Egyptian positions reflected in these articles are in line with those of Russia and the Syrian regime.

'Abd Al-Hadi 'Allam, the editor of the Egyptian government daily Al-Ahram, characterized Egypt's position as follows: "Assad has no place in Egypt's future, but now is not the time [to remove him]. In other words, Assad is not part of the future but he is part of the [immediate] solution." He added:  "Egypt presented the elements [who support the Syrian opposition] with a question: 'Who will fill the vacuum after Bashar [Al-Assad] is gone?' The answer was: 'Terrorism and the extremists, of course. That's a certainty'... If Bashar [Al-Assad] is removed from the scene right now, what will happen next? Syria will surely suffer the same fate as Iraq and Libya! Are the region and the world prepared [to face] another Somalia? Everyone will pay the price. This terror will spread to Europe, the U.S. and the [entire] region..."[9]

Makram Muhammad Ahmad, the former head of Egypt's journalists' union, likewise warned in an Al-Ahram article that the alternative to Assad could be the extremist terrorists. He wrote that Egypt's stance is "based on a correct Arab position that is attempting to restore a minimal [degree of] Arab solidarity, and which demands to put an immediate stop to the civil war in Syria and save the Syrian people and state from certain catastrophe that will weigh on the Arab consciousness for decades. The loss of Syria will mean the loss of the entire Middle East, because the victory of extremist organizations in Syria will accelerate the collapse of the entire Arab nation, and [in this context] there is no difference between Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria and Jordan - all of them are targets for attack!"

Ahmad urged Saudi Arabia to endorse the Egyptian position and allow the Syrian people to decide Assad's fate, and even proposed an Arab-Iranian reconciliation to avoid sectarian war: "The only way to avoid [this scenario of an accelerated collapse] is for Egypt and Saudi Arabia to formulate a joint position vis-à-vis the Syria crisis, so as to unite the Arab efforts to save the Syrian people and state. This position must oppose supporting extremist organization and arming them, especially Jabhat Al-Nusra. [It must also] demand that the [international] powers keep their hands off the Syrian people, support its independent [decisions], and leave the question of Bashar Al-Assad's fate for [the Syrian] people to decide via parliamentary and presidential elections that will end the reign of the Assad family after 42 years of division, rift and hopeless wars. No matter how intense the conflict with Bashar Al-Assad and his family, Jabhat Al-Nusra is [surely] not fit to replace them, because allowing it to head the regime or be a part of it will mean perpetuating the Syrian civil war. We can [even] open a new path towards Arab-Iranian reconciliation, in order to save the Muslims, both Shi'ite and Sunni, from an all-out sectarian war and reduce the danger of foreign intervention seeking to widen this rift and turn it into a big civil war that will destroy the Arab and Muslim world."[10]

In his column in Al-Masri Al-Yawm, 'Abd Al-Nasser Salama, the former editor of the daily of Al-Ahram, stressed the points of contention between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and stated that Al-Sisi's statements at the UN "reflected a clear Egyptian position that has never been expressed so firmly... The value of this position," he added, "cannot be understated... for it is different from the position of many others in the region... chiefly from the position of Saudi Arabia, which has always advocated a military solution and constantly threatened Assad via official statements... [to the effect] that he must step down voluntarily or else be removed by force. This position has not changed one whit so far. It seems that Egypt is moving towards adopting an independent position on the regional level... Some might think that we are headed towards an open crisis with Riyadh, and that the signs of its impending outbreak are clear,  for Egypt and Saudi Arabia are divided on many issues, certainly about what is happening in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and even in Gaza. They also differ in the nature of their relations with Qatar, Turkey and Russia."[11]

Saudis Enraged By Egypt's Vote In Favor Of Russian Resolution In UN Security Council

These statements were a prelude to Egypt's adopting an independent policy on the Syria crisis, opposed to the Saudi position. This policy was manifested in Egypt's voting in favor of an October 8, 2016 Russian draft proposal in the UN Security Council concerning the situation in Aleppo, a move that enraged the Saudis.

In effect, Egypt supported two UN draft proposals on a ceasefire in Aleppo that contradicted one another. One, submitted by France, also on October 8, called for a no-fly zone over the city, and the other, submitted by Russia after it vetoed the French proposal, stated that one of the main conditions for a ceasefire was for the Syrian opposition factions to distance themselves from Jabhat Fath Al-Sham, formerly called Jabhat Al-Nusra. 

Egypt's representative to the UN, 'Amr Abu Al-Atta, explained why his country had supported the two conflicting draft proposals, noting that Egypt "is supporting all efforts to end the suffering of the Syrian people. It voted based on the content of the proposals, not as part of political sloganeering that thwarts the activity of the Security Council." According to him, Egypt supported points that were included in both drafts, among them halting the targeting of Syrian civilians, delivering humanitarian aid, halting aggressive actions in accordance with Security Council resolutions, and decisively addressing "some armed groups' flagrant disregard of calls by the international community not to collaborate with terrorist organizations." He said that both drafts prioritized the cessation of aggression in Aleppo and called for renewing the political process and negotiations on the transitional phase in Syria.[12]

As stated, Egypt's vote in favor of the Russian draft proposal infuriated the Saudis. Permanent Saudi Representative to the UN 'Abdallah Yahya Al-Mouallimi called the Egyptian vote "unfortunate" and said: "Egypt's vote in the Security Council and its support for the Russian draft resolution express [only] the Egyptian position. Arab coordination is carried out via the Arab League's Council of [Foreign] Ministers... It was absurd [of Russia] to submit this counter-proposal [to the French draft] that received only four votes. I feel sorry for the elements that voted for the [Russian draft] resolution, since it was strongly and harshly opposed."[13] He added: "It was unfortunate to see that Senegal and Malaysia's position was closer to the agreed-upon Arab stance than the position of the [Egyptian] Arab representative."[14]

Khaled Al-Tuwaijri, former chief of the Saudi Royal Court, addressed Al-Sisi on Twitter under the hashtag "Egypt voted in favor of the Russian proposal." He wrote: "Mr. President, I am very sorry for this position of yours regarding Saudi Arabia. You have forgotten our positions that support you like brothers!!"[15]


Khaled Al-Tuwaijri's tweet

The Saudis' rage also took the form of practical steps: Saudi Ambassador to Egypt Ahmed Al-Kattan was recalled to Riyadh for deliberations on bilateral ties between the countries.[16]

Additionally, several Saudi companies took steps that could negatively impact Egypt's economy. For example, several days after the Security Council vote, Egyptian sources reported that the largest Saudi oil company, Saudi Aramco, had informed Egypt that during October it would not supply the monthly quantity of oil that had been agreed upon during King Salman's April 2016 visit to Egypt. However, it should be mentioned that Saudi Aramco had actually delivered this message in early October, prior to the Security Council vote, and the spokesman of Egypt's Oil Ministry said that the move was economic, not political.[17] Also, the director of the Egyptian Civil Aviation Agency said that Saudia Airlines, the Saudi national carrier, had not approved EgyptAir flights to Saudi Arabia. This, he said, was also unrelated to developments in Egypt-Saudi relations, and happened prior to the Security Council vote.[18]

Despite the claims that these two moves had nothing to do with Egypt-Saudi relations, they were viewed in Egypt as the Saudis' signal of their intention to economically penalize Egypt.

Saudi Journalists: Egypt Is No Longer Fit To Lead The Arab World - And Could Forfeit Its Alliance With The Gulf States

Saudi journalists also harshly condemned the Egyptian vote.

Sa'ud Al-Rayes, a columnist for the Al-Hayat daily, wrote that Egypt's position under Al-Sisi is vague, and that Egypt deludes itself that it is the leader of the Arab world when in fact it is unable to fulfill this role. He wondered: "What does Egypt want with respect to Syria? Does it want to support the regime? If so, why does it not declare this [explicitly] or at least hold a dialogue with the regime about stopping the massacre of the Syrian people? If Egypt's president does not want to support the [Syrian] regime and is concerned for the safety of the Syrian people - as we hope he is - why doesn't the Egyptian regime support the Syrian people instead of adopting vague positions in its decisions regarding it? Perhaps the Egyptian president does not support either the Syrian regime or the Syrian people, but rather the contiguousness of Syrian [land], and that is also fine. But if the world, with its two poles - American and Russian - wants to see Syria divided, what can the Egyptian president do [about it]? The problem is that Egypt does not tell us what it wants, nor do its positions indicate the answer [to this question]. This begs [another] question: does Egypt even know what it wants regarding Syria?"

Al-Rayes went on to accuse Egypt of being ungrateful: "The Gulf countries worked to protect Egypt and its people, and supported its president both before and after he rose to power, on the material and political levels. They pressured the world, especially the U.S. and Europe, to hold ties with him. Despite this, the Gulf countries do not feel that this investment had a positive effect on the Arab and Muslim world... [for] the other side [Egypt] did not do what was needed in order to support the Arab and Muslim world... Egypt's problem today is that it still labors under the illusion that it is the leader of the Arab world and that nobody else is fit to lead it. [But] the big problem is that Egypt is no longer fit to lead, either politically or economically... It has no presence [in addressing] Arab issues. Even in the neighboring countries [its influence] is completely absent, so what [can be said] about distant countries?..."[19]     

Saudi Journalist Muhammad Al-'Osaimi warned in an article in 'Okaz that the Gulf states may drop Egypt as an ally. These states, he said, rely on Egypt's help in confronting the Iranian threat. "But if Egypt chooses to take a different path and to [strike] alliances that are at odds with the Gulf position on Syria and with the Iranian threats, then it [effectively] chooses to give up its allies, [namely] Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. Nobody can force Egypt to maintain [the alliance] with them, but at the same time, nobody can blame Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states if they drop Egypt and work to form other alliances to protect their security and that of their peoples.

"However, no matter how saddening [the recent developments] are, there is hope that Egypt still understands how its national security, and the national security of all Arabs, might be adversely affected if it dismantles its alliance with the Gulf states in favor of other alliances..."[20]     

Fury In Egypt Over Saudi Criticism, Economic Measures - President Al-Sisi: Egypt Will Bow Down Only Before Allah, Will Not Abandon Syria, Which Is Crucial For Its National Security

Egypt, for its part, was enraged by the Saudi criticism over its vote in the UN Security Council, and also over the economic measures taken by Saudi companies which were perceived as a threat of economic sanctions. President Al-Sisi stressed that his country would not submit to anyone and would adhere to its independent policy. At the same time, he wished to downplay the significance of reports on Egyptian-Saudi tensions and about Aramco's decision to suspend the supply of oil to Egypt, stating that nothing could harm the relations between his country and the "sister" Gulf states.

In a conference held by the Egyptian army on the anniversary of the October War (the 1973 war with Israel), Al-Sisi said: "In the recent weeks, there have been unwelcome debates [expressing] hostility towards Egypt in the Gulf media. I wish to remind you... that I said nobody can come between us and our brothers in the Arab Gulf states. However, we pursue an independent policy in protecting Arab national security... The Egyptian vote in favor of the [French and Russian] draft resolutions was one [vote], and there was no contradiction, because it was [a vote] in favor of ceasefire and delivering humanitarian aid. Some observers claimed that [Aramco's] suspension of the oil supply to Egypt had been a response to the vote, but this is an economic agreement [with no political dimensions]... Immediately [following the reports about the vote] we took the required measures. We have no problem with oil... If Egypt wants to make independent decisions, the Egyptian people has to bear the consequences... Our relations with the peoples of the Gulf are solid and well-established. What is happening now is an attempt to destroy these relations, similar to [attempts being] made inside Egypt by spreading rumors meant to isolate it. Egypt will bow down only before Allah. We have no problem meeting the challenges, as long as we are united... We are intensely committed to our relations with the Gulf states and to the [Arab] national security, which is indivisible, [but only] within the confines of the independence of Egypt's courts. Egypt will not harm anyone, even one who harmed it."[21]           

A few days later, in another interview with Egypt's three main newspapers, Al-Ahram, Al-Gumhouriyya, and Al-Akhbar, President Al-Sisi called to increase the cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Egypt in order to clarify the policy, but denied the reports about significant tension between the two countries, saying that it was a fiction spread by the media and social networks. He said: "There is need for closer coordination with our brothers in Saudi Arabia, in order to clarify things. As for the [issue of] the oil supply, after the decision was made [to suspend it], we approved the agreements necessary to meet our needs. We do not want things to get out of proportion, because nothing affects the strategic ties of brotherhood between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and nothing must be allowed to harm this historic connection or to create a rift [between us].  We express to our Saudi brothers our full thanks and appreciation for the help they extended to Egypt during the [difficult] times it experienced... It is the handling of [this affair] in the media and the talk on social media that created the impression [of a rift between the countries], but there is no cloud over Egyptian-Saudi relations."[22]

Responding to the criticism voiced by Saudi Arabia's representative to the UN 'Abdallah Yahya Al-Mouallimi, Egyptian MP 'Imad Gad,  the deputy director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said that "Riyadh created a problem and started openly criticizing Egypt." He added that this could deepen the disagreements between the two countries "on handling crises in the Middle East, especially since Saudi Arabia is cooperating with the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen, Iraq and other countries in order to realize its interests and impose its perception of the solution [to the crises]."[23]      

Al-Masri Al-Yawm editor Muhammad Amin took a more moderate tone, stressing the depth and importance of Egypt's relations with Saudi Arabia, but also the depth of its commitment to Syria, and urged the Saudis to understand that "[Egypt's] vote at the Security Council was not [a vote] against Saudi Arabia but [rather a vote] for Syria." He wrote: "We are at a historical moment, and it is inconceivable that we should be on one side and Saudi Arabia on another, nor is it conceivable that we should leave Saudi Arabia alone in the fray. But this does not prevent us from having our own positions on Syria. I am sure that Egypt's position on Syria comes as no surprise to Saudi Arabia. Our position is constant, declared and known, even if Saudi Arabia does not like it. Syria is [like a] norther province of Egypt, and [it is crucial for Egypt's] national security. We cannot sacrifice it - either for Saudi Arabia's sake or anyone else's... Let's be logical. Did Egypt [ever] promise to adopt Saudi Arabia's position on Syria and Lebanon? [Our relations] do not depend on sharing [all our] positions and interests."

Seeking to reassure Saudi Arabia, Amin added: "Egypt will by no means manipulate its sister [country]. If that happened, it is wrong - [especially] at a time when Saudi Arabia is facing a threat of partition on the one hand and JASTA on the other. Egypt does not do [things like that]. [Both] its morals, its status and its interests forbid it. That is why no [Saudi] is entitled to condemn [Egypt] or threaten us with painful measures... Egypt has no interest in losing [the friendship of] Saudi Arabia, even for a moment. But neither is it an Egyptian interest to see Syria partitioned..." Amin stated that "no disagreement, hidden or overt, exists between us and Saudi Arabia,"  but stressed that "Saudi Arabia's concern is Bashar [Al-Assad], whereas Egypt's concern is the Syrian state. When Egypt cast its vote, it was thinking of the [Syrian] state, and when Saudi Arabia cast its vote it was thinking of Bashar [Al-Assad]. I hope Saudi Arabia forgets Bashar [Al-Assad] and concentrates on its own affairs. That would be better for us and for them."[24]      

Reports that the Saudi oil company Aramco had decided to suspend the supply of oil to Egypt for a month likewise sparked harsh criticism in the Egyptian press, which declared that Egypt would not capitulate to economic pressures and that it had alternative sources of aid. Al-Ahram editor Muhammad 'Abd Al-Hadi 'Allam wrote: "Those who do not read Egypt's history do not realize how much patience and fortitude its people are blessed with. Thanks to [this patience and fortitude] Egypt will never alter its firm principles on issues concerning the countries of the Middle East. Egypt cannot be pressured, and the delusions of those who think they can trigger, or help trigger, internal problems [in Egypt] are incompatible with Egypt's status.

"I think that all the foreign aid that Egypt receives, in all its forms, must be reexamined, in order to determine what can be replaced in the short term and what can be negotiated in light of common interests with certain countries. The language of subjugation and [exploiting] interests will not avail [anyone] when it comes to Egypt, whose honor and whose people's honor must not be demeaned. We must face the situation squarely and declare that we are rethinking everything that burdens [our] decision-makers...

"[Protecting] Egypt's interests does not mean harming the interests of others, [but] Egypt's interests take precedence over Arab ones..."[25]     

The owner of the Al-Yawm Al-Masri daily, Salah Diab, who writes under the pen-name Newton, wrote in a similar vein. While assuring Saudi Arabia that Egypt harbors it no ill will, he stressed the depth of Egypt's relations with Syria, calling the two countries "twins," and stated that no economic pressures or economic siege would cause Egypt to change its position: "This is not the first time we have been under siege or had friends boycott us or enemies rejoice at our misfortune. We have experienced much hardship and distress in the course of our history... but we [always] knew how to withstand the hardship with fortitude... We do not fear trials and hardship. We are not alarmed by siege. We have unusual powers of adaptation." Mentioning the disagreements between Egypt and Saudi Arabia over Yemen in the 1960s, Newton added: "I hope that our Saudi brothers in the past and the future... [understood then] and understand [now] that Egypt has no evil intentions towards any Arab state. Just as our position on the Yemen revolution [in the 1960s] was not directed against our Saudi brothers, Egypt's current position on Syria is not directed at Saudi Arabia. Egypt is [merely] fulfilling its obligation. It has always been close to Syria - geographically, historically and culturally. Egypt and Syria are twins. They have always had an existential, security and strategic connection... This eternal Egyptian position does not in any way entail hostility towards Saudi Arabia and is not directed against Saudi Arabia... Egypt and Saudi Arabia are the central pillars of the Arab tent. Without them the Arabs will continue to deteriorate..." He concluded: "No matter how dire Egypt's economic situation, it can withstand any boycott. But the Arab world cannot withstand a misunderstanding between the two great sisters, Egypt and Saudi Arabia."[26]  

Egyptian television presenter Lamis El-Hadidy said in her program on the CBC channel: "Egypt's hand cannot be forced by means of the oil aid. We will not accept that. Egyptians must put their [powers of endurance] to the test.  If [the Saudis] pressure us, we will be forced by buy Israeli gas, which is closer and cheaper." Senior Egyptian journalist and television presenter Wael Al-Abrashi called on Saudi Arabia to apologize, warning that if it doesn't, Egypt may withhold military aid from Saudi Arabia, should the latter require it. [27]

Mutual Attempts To Alleviate Tension

On the other hand, figures in both countries tried to downplay the recent developments and alleviate the tensions between them, although this was more the case in Saudi Arabia than in Egypt. Saudi Arabia's Al-Arabiya TV reported that a delegation of Egyptian officials was expected in Saudi Arabia in the next few days to discuss the recent events.[28]

Egyptian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid said: "There is no Egypt-Saudi schism. Reports that the Saudi representative [to the UN] attacked Egypt are neither correct nor accurate, and are in contrast to the truth... Egypt has not deviated from the Arab position vis-à-vis the Syrian crisis, and supports an end to the bloodshed and a ceasefire."[29]

Egyptian MP Mustafa Bakri stressed that Egypt's relationship with Saudi Arabia is "strong" and that no one could separate the two. It is the Muslim Brotherhood, he said, that is attempting to drive a wedge between the countries and spread misinformation that the Saudis aim to stop the transfer of oil to Egypt. Bakri called on Egyptian journalists to "stop attacking Saudi Arabia, because it has always stood alongside us, and it stands with us now as well."[30]

In Saudi Arabia too there were those who tried to put out the fire. 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed, former editor-in-chief of the London based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat and former general manager of Al-Arabiya TV, tweeted in response to Saudi anti-Egypt commentary: "Egypt's position is not strange. We must treat Egypt like Turkey. [We must understand it just as] we understand why Turkey conducts massive deals with Iran while at the same time maintaining a political position that is opposed to it." Al-Rashed also accused the Muslim Brotherhood of attempting to incite Saudi Arabia to fight the Egyptian government in its stead, and assured his readers: "This will not happen. Egypt is [Saudi Arabia's] most important ally, regardless of who heads [Egypt]."[31]


Al-Rashed's tweet

Ali Sa'd Al-Moussa, a columnist for the official Saudi daily Al-Watan, criticized the Saudi "intelligentsia and public opinion leaders" for being "dragged along" with the reaction of the Saudi street, and for directing condemnation at Egypt just because it voted in favor of the Russian draft resolution "that would have certainly been vetoed anyway."  He wrote: "First of all, expecting the other, whoever it is, to adopt your position and examine events solely from your perspective is a cultural flaw in the political perception. Egypt has complex political interests. It is currently rebuilding itself after being abandoned by weak and hesitant American positions... We [Saudis] are currently dealing with the same U.S., and undergoing the same test of abandonment [i.e. the passage of JASTA]. Second, in politics you must give the friendly brother whom you trust a chance to follow a parallel or even an opposite path, because the day may come when... you need him to convey your political messages, or as a mediator. Third, and this could be the main point: Let us clearly and objectively examine the political positions on the issues that are shared by both sister countries, in an intellectual and not an emotional way: Why, for instance, did the Egyptian intelligentsia and official Egypt not rebuke us... when we had official relations with Iran, at a time when Egypt was the only Arab state that opposed [Iran]?... Why did Egypt never ask why we have an ambassador in Tehran when [Iran] named one of its main thoroughfares after the assassin of historic [Egyptian] leader Anwar Sadat...? Why did official Egypt never say a word or express suspicions or fears regarding our open alliance with Turkey, despite [Turkey's] flagrant interference in Egypt's internal affairs...? The only answer is that the politically astute in both countries' leaderships know that historic relations are far more important than a vote on a [single] resolution or the opening of an embassy..."

Al-Moussa added that in light of the danger of the spread of Iranian influence, and in light of the situation in the Arab world, there was a need to examine "what is left of the Arab and Islamic world, and what will remain if we drive a hot spike into the heart of Saudi-Egypt relations just because of a valueless vote in the Security Council?"[32]

Likewise, Muhammad Al-Sa'd, a columnist for the Saudi daily 'Okaz, wondered whether disagreement over a political issue was reason enough to sever relations between two sister countries: "Undoubtedly, Egypt has its own strategic interests and so does Saudi Arabia... In the difficult days that the Arab world is facing in the wake of 'the autumn of protests' [i.e., the Arab Spring] the two major capitals, Riyadh and Cairo, which are the final remaining cornerstone [of the Arab world], must not succumb to political disagreements, because Saudi Arabia's security and political depth is in Cairo, and Egypt's Arab and security depth is in Riyadh."[33]

 

* N. Mozes is a research fellow at MEMRI.

 

Endnotes:

[1] In fact, Egypt supported two UN draft proposals on a ceasefire in Aleppo that contradicted one another, both of them on October 8, 2016. One, submitted by France, called for a no-fly zone over the city, and the other, submitted by Russia after it vetoed the French proposal, stated that one of the main conditions for a ceasefire was for the Syrian opposition factions to distance themselves from Jabhat Fath Al-Sham, formerly called Jabhat Al-Nusra. 

[2] Arabic.cnn.com, February 18, 2016.

[3] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), September 12, 2016.

[4] Al-Ahram (Egypt), August 22, 2016.

[5] Al-Misriyyoun (Egypt), September 21, 2016.

[6] Un.org, September 21, 2016.

[7] Al-Ahram (Egypt), September 23, 2016.

[8] Al- Misriyyoun (Egypt), September 23, 2016.

[9] Al-Ahram (Egypt), September 23, 2016.

[10] Al-Ahram (Egypt), September 26, 2016.

[11] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), September 23, 2016.

[12] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), October 9, 2016.

[13] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 10, 2016.

[14] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), October 10, 2016.

[15] Twitter.com/kt_tuwaijri, October 9, 2016.

[16] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), October 12, 2106.

[17] Al-Shurouq (Egypt), October 10, 2016.

[18] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), October 12, 2016.

[19] Al-Hayat (London), October 11, 2016.

[20] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), October 11, 2016.

[21] Al-Ahram (Egypt), October 14, 2016.

[22] Al-Ahram (Egypt), October 16, 2016.

[23] Al-Shurouq (Egypt), October 10, 2016.

[24] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), October 10, 2016.

[25] Al-Ahram (Egypt), October 13, 2016.

[26] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), October 11, 2016.

[27] Rassd.com, October 11, 2016.

[28] Alarabiya.net, October 12, 2016.

[29] Al-Shurouq (Egypt), October 10, 2016.

[30] Al-Watan (Egypt), October 11, 2016.

[31] Twitter.com/jkhashoggi, October 9, 2016.

[32] Al-Watan (Egypt), October 13, 2016.

[33] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), October 12, 2016.