For Saudi Arabia, better a secular Egyptian president than a religious one
Saudi media endorses Mubarak-loyalist Ahmed Shafiq while warning of the perils in electing Islamist Mohammed Morsi
Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel
Saudi Arabia, the most religiously conservative country in the Arab Middle East, paradoxically favors a secular Egyptian president to a religious one, Saudi media indicates.
In a series of editorials published over the past few weeks, a clear bias can be discerned for Ahmed Shafiq, a secular independent and former Mubarak-era prime minister. Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, is presented by Saudi opinion makers as a menace to Egypt’s civil character and political stability.
The Egyptian revolution spelled crisis for Saudi-Egyptian relations. The arrest of an Egyptian human rights lawyer in Jeddah in April — coupled with the alleged mistreatment of Egyptian migrant workers in Saudi Arabia — sent hundreds of angry Egyptian protesters to demonstrate across from the Saudi embassy in Cairo, chanting anti-Kingdom slogans. The Saudis withdrew their ambassador in protest, but returned him soon after following feverish Egyptian overtures.
The Saudi editorials take a double-pronged approach: on the one hand, they warn of the perils posed by the Muslim Brotherhood to Egypt’s secular character; and on the other, they subdue Egyptian fears that the election of Shafiq would return the loathed Mubarak era.
‘The Saudis were greatly disappointed at the loss of their ally Mubarak.’
“Day by day, Egyptians feel the Muslim Brotherhood is repeating the story of [Mubarak’s] National Democratic Party prior to the revolution,” Egyptian columnist Suleiman Judah wrote in Saudi-owned daily A-Sharq Al-Awsat Sunday. “They do so in a way devoid of all sense or logic, acting as though they will not rest until the entire country is in their grasp.”
For Cairo-based journalist and blogger Issandr El Amrani, Saudi antipathy towards the Muslim Brotherhood stems from their vastly divergent ideologies.
“The Muslim Brotherhood represents a movement based on a different kind of religious legitimacy than the Saudi regime,” Amrani told The Times of Israel. “The Muslim Brotherhood are not monarchists and they believe at least partially in democracy and rotation of power. The Saudi opposition is ideologically analogous to the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Mubarak was politically aligned with the house of Saud, Amrani notes, whereas the relatively moderate Muslim Brotherhood represents an ideological alternative to the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia.
“The Saudis were greatly disappointed at the loss of their ally Mubarak,” says Joshua Teitelbaum, an expert on Saudi Arabia at the Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University, near Tel Aviv. “They prefer the military and members of the old regime who they view as part of the anti-Iranian alliance.”
Indeed, Arab fears of Iranian influence feature high in Saudi editorials that discredit Mohammed Morsi. Tariq Homayed, editor-in-chief of A-Sharq Al-Awsat, warned that voting for the Muslim Brotherhood would strengthen Iran’s hegemony in the region.
‘The Muslim Brotherhood represents a movement based on a different kind of religious legitimacy than the Saudi regime.’
“Egyptians must think carefully about the prospect of Ahmadinejad in Egypt when voting for the new president,” Homayed wrote on June 12. “They must consider what kind of state they want in Egypt – a civil or religious one. A civil state may resume relations with Iran based on interests, but a religious state will throw itself into the arms of the supreme [Iranian] religious leader.”
A Muslim Brotherhood victory in the elections is viewed by Saudi Arabia as “taking Egypt in an anti-Western and, by implication, anti-Saudi direction,” Teitelbaum tells the Times of Israel.
According to Saudi columnist Abd Al-Aziz A-Samari, a political party predicated on religious tenants, answering to a higher religious authority, is fundamentally non-democratic. Therefore, he argues, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt must disband now that it has established its Freedom and Justice Party.
“The existence of the Brotherhood as a religious-political authority angers civil society and contradicts the fundamentals of democracy,” he wrote in the Saudi daily Al-Jazirah Saturday.
“It is inappropriate for our noble religion to be used as the slogan of a political party. The coming generations will also refuse the male Brotherhood motto, depriving women of political rights in society,” he added.
But if the Brotherhood agenda is judged harshly by Saudi commentators, Ahmed Shafiq’s persona is viewed rather sympathetically.
“Shafiq is not ideologically secular,” says Issandr El Amrani. “He does not seek to export this ideology nor does he seek to revive the Egyptian-Saudi rivalry of the Nasser era.”
Seemingly devoid of ideology, Shafiq poses no threat to the Saudi worldview.
“Ahmed Shafiq used practical language, promising many things to the Egyptians,” wrote the editor of Saudi daily Okaz Saturday in his analysis of an Egyptian court decision dissolving the parliament. “He touched on all of their economic and social concerns, focusing on the honor of Egypt and the Egyptians.”
‘It is inappropriate for our noble religion to be used as the slogan of a political party.’
Homayed continuously attempted to dispel Egyptian fears that Shafiq will replicate the Mubarak regime.
“Shafiq cannot become another Mubarak,” he wrote on May 30. “If the Egyptians want to base their dreams on the fickleness of the Brotherhood … they should simply vote for them.”
If the Egyptian revolution has spelled uncertainty for the region; Saudi Arabia — like many Egyptians — yearns for the president most likely to secure Egypt’s stablity in the shortest possible time. With the clear backing of the military, that candidate is Shafiq.
“Saudi Arabia needs a strong and stable Egypt to regain a measure of balance in the region,” wrote Saudi columnist Kahled Dakhil in the London-based daily Al-Hayat May 27. “Saudi Arabia needs an ally in these disturbed times … or at least wants Egypt not to clash with Saudi interests.”