Egyptian leaders are attempting to appease the government of Saudi Arabia after the diplomatic relations between the two states plunged following the arrest of an Egyptian lawyer in the Saudi city of Jeddah.
On Saturday, Saudi Arabia shut its embassy in Cairo and its consulates in Alexandria and Suez, recalling its ambassador Ahmad Qattan. The move came after hundreds of Egyptians protested for days across from the embassy, accusing Saudi Arabia of wrongfully arresting Egyptian human rights lawyer Ahmed Al-Gezawi for insulting the Saudi king and possessing illegal drugs.
But on Sunday and Monday, Egyptian officials were engaged in intense damage control with Saudi Arabia. Field Marshal Muhammad Hussein Tantawi called Saudi King Abdullah and asked him to reconsider the decision to close the embassy. Egyptian parliament speaker Saad Katatni also phoned his Saudi counterpart and apologized for the behavior of the Egyptian protesters, hoping the matter “would not affect the relations between the two countries.”
Egyptian Foreign Minister Muhammad Kamel Amr voiced confidence Monday that the relations between Saudi Arabia and Egypt would remain strong despite the crisis.
“The relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia are strategic,” Amr told Egypt’s Middle East News Agency (MENA). “They are too deep to be affected by passing events or disputes.”
But Egypt has good reason for concern. Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia pledged $2.7 billion in aid to Egypt, the first installment of which was meant to enter state coffers by the end of April. Some 1 million Egyptians are believed to work in Saudi Arabia as foreign laborers; their remittances are essential for Egypt’s faltering economy.
On Monday, Saudi Arabia seamed unmoved by the Egyptian overtures. Government mouthpiece Al-Watan reported the Egyptian apology, referring to the detained Egyptian lawyer simply as “an Egyptian drug smuggler.” No Saudi official would say whether the embassy in Egypt would re-open in the near future, but Egyptian foreign minister Amr was confident that the Saudi aid to Egypt would continue and the Saudi ambassador would return to Cairo soon.
One cannot help but compare the conciliatory Egyptian response to the “Saudi embassy crisis” to its comportment in the “Israeli embassy crisis” in September 2011. At the time, thousands of Egyptian demonstrators besieged the Israeli embassy for days, demanding the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador following a shooting incident at the border in which five Egyptian soldiers were killed in an exchange with IDF troops in pursuit of terrorists who had attacked Israeli motorists on the road to Eilat.
In September, Egyptian forces allowed demonstrators to invade the Israeli embassy, ransack it, and replace the Israeli flag with an Egyptian one. No Egyptian official condemned the attack. One can only speculate about the Saudi reaction were its embassy attacked in such a manner.
“Saudis and others… must understand that Egypt is a ship in a stormy sea without a captain,” explained Abd Al-Rahman Rashed, a columnist for the Saudi-owned daily A-Sharq Al-Awsat, on Monday. “They must await the results of the long Egyptian marathon.”