This month’s Middle East Policy Council brief focuses on Saudi-Egyptian relations in the post-Mubarak era. In short: expats, economics, and identity are pushing Riyadh and Cairo closer together. Bilateral relations are improving in spite of the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood is a rising power in Egypt, one the Saudis have long held in suspicion. Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi—a long-time Muslim Brother—visited the Kingdom on July 11-12 in his first trip abroad as head of state.
Egypt’s new president hit all the right notes in meetings, statements, and interviews last week. He emphasized Gulf security in particular, as well as Saudi Arabia’s good standing with Arab causes. More quotes from Egypt’s new president can be found in the brief. But it’s worth noting here that Mursi’s trip also has a domestic dimension if we’re talking about Egypt.
The president is powerless at the moment. There is no constitution in place that defines his authority. Just before the election, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) undercut Mursi’s office, insisted on the dissolution of a parliament stacked with his supporters, and snatched up legislative authority for itself. No one thinks this is a permanent solution. And Mursi, for his part, has proven wise enough to appeal to public outrage. But he cannot push Egyptian foreign policy when he’s not even sitting in the driver’s seat. SCAF maintains that privilege.
So why does the Mursi meeting even matter if the president holds no power? Three reasons stand out. First, Mursi most certainly had the blessing of Field Marshall Tantawi and SCAF. We can assume Egypt’s self-appointed military rulers and its democratically elected leadership agree that Saudi-Egyptian relations are essential. That’s a good start for improving relations. Also, if Mursi is able to convince SCAF that he can improve Egypt’s international standing and maintain Mubarak-era alliances, the relationship between the barracks and the president’s office could improve as well.
Second, the meeting shows the Muslim Brotherhood and the Kingdom can do business. This will probably still surprise some observers. After Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador from Cairo following demonstrations in late April, the Brotherhood sent a huge delegation to meet with King Abdullah in early May. The Brotherhood approached the crisis with surprising deftness for a political movement focused on domestic issues above all else. As a result, the episode passed in a matter of days. (More details can be found in the brief.)
Finally, Mursi’s remarks are consistent with Mubarak when talking about the integrity of the Gulf. Saudi leaders must be relieved to some degree. Mutual interests and a sense of Arab identity also drive relations, at least if we judge by the language used by leaders on both sides of the Red Sea.
Regarding Iran, the bulletin highlights the absence of coverage inside the Islamic Republic. As far as I can tell, quotes regarding Mursi’s “red lines” in the Gulf, and the enduring nature of the relationship between Egypt and Saudi Arabia have not appeared in Iranian media. In the past few days, however, some editorials have addressed the visit, albeit after it was really newsworthy. Iranian commentary has since emphasized the “silver lining” of Mursi’s trip.
Mansur Faramarzi wrote about Iranian-Egyptian relations in the July 15 edition of Jomhuri-ye Eslami. “It would be an unforgivable mistake if we imagine that everybody should follow us [i.e. the Islamic Republic of Iran] and agree with us in all issues,” Faramarzi began. “Consequently, if [Saudi] Arabia has been the first country for Mursi to visit we should not get hurt, although we should follow up their talks,” he continued. “We should regard this as something quite natural, although Egypt should know that, if not today, definitely tomorrow Iran would be more influential on the world stage than [Saudi] Arabia.” “We cannot force them to be like us,” he concluded, “but we must try to make sure that they will be with us, rather than against us.”
Translation: Tehran will eclipse Riyadh inevitably. The Egyptians will come to their senses.
Hojatollah Jowdaki took a sharper tone in an article titled “Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran,” also printed on July 15 by E’temad. Jowdaki starts by accusing the Saudis of underreporting the arrest of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr and overstating the importance of Mursi’s trip to Riyadh. By his account, “Mursi had very few achievements” during his trip. “However, he was reassured that for the time being [Saudi] Arabia would not put too much economic pressure on Egypt.” Any serious observer knows Saudi Arabia is not pressuring Egypt economically. Mursi’s talks focused on relations generally and joint development projects specifically. The article continues:
At the moment, [Saudi] Arabia is facing its greatest domestic challenge. That challenge is not due to the Shi’i uprising, because Arabian leaders are able to easily suppress such uprisings by accusing them of “being agents of foreigners or Iran”. The main challenge that should be taken into account concerns the profound identity contradictions inside the Arabian society. For the past few decades, Saudi nobles, whose number is very large and who enjoy power, wealth and a special position in Arabia, have not been able to put up with the old [conservative] system in Arabia. Their children have tasted the sweet taste of education and freedom in the West, and now they expect to enjoy the same freedoms, even to a limited degree, in their own country.
Translation: The House of Saud is doomed. Cairo and Tehran will grow closer once the Kingdom falls.