In Simply Meeting, Egyptian and Saudi Leaders Open New Era
CAIRO — In his first foreign visit as Egypt’s newly elected president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood met Thursday with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, a signal that the two intended to set aside their profound ideological enmity in favor of pragmatic mutual interests.
It was a meeting freighted with symbolism. The Saudi Arabian monarchy is the conservative anchor at the center of the authoritarian order that prevailed across the Middle East. It was a close ally of the former Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak, and in both Washington and Cairo, Saudi envoys pushed hard to rally support for his government and then to protect him from trial, Western and Egyptian diplomats say.
Mr. Morsi owes his election to the popular uprising that finally cracked the old order, which the Brotherhood struggled for decades to overturn. The Islamist movement has long opposed the Saudi monarchy as a decadent, hypocritical and undemocratic tool of Western interests in the region. Though founded in Egypt, the Brotherhood has a sizable underground franchise in Saudi Arabia, despite a legal ban on its existence and deep animosity from the kingdom’s rulers.
But Egypt desperately needs Saudi Arabian financial support to weather an economic crisis brought on by its 18 months of turmoil. In May, Saudi Arabia reportedly deposited $1 billion in Egypt’s central bank to help the country stay afloat until it can work out a proposed $3.2 billion loan package from the International Monetary Fund, and it has pledged still more. Egypt is believed to need about $9 billion to avoid an economic calamity.
Saudi Arabia also employs hundreds of thousands of Egyptians — including one of Mr. Morsi’s sons, a urologist — whose remittances home are a major support for the Egyptian economy.
Various points of friction complicate the relationship. At the moment, Saudi Arabia is holding in jail an Egyptian lawyer, Ahmed el-Gizawi, whose detention has become a major cause here. He was arrested three months ago on charges of smuggling antidepressants in Saudi Arabia, but he had come to the attention of the authorities because he filed a lawsuit demanding that the kingdom release other Egyptians held without charges.
Mr. Gizawi’s arrest set off protests outside Saudi consulates here, which prompted the brief recall of the Saudi ambassador. Securing Mr. Gizawi’s release would be a major boost to Mr. Morsi’s popularity.
For its part, Saudi Arabia needs Egypt, the most populous Arab state and home to the most formidable Arab army. Both countries are anxious to counter Iranian influence in the region, and the Saudi-dominated Gulf Cooperation Council has even floated the idea of enlisting Egypt as some sort of auxiliary member to help firm up its military alliance.
What is more, the Saudi monarchy may fear that the Islamists in Cairo could potentially exercise a subversive influence in support of Brotherhood allies inside Saudi Arabia.
But Mr. Morsi made clear in his inaugural address that he shared Saudi Arabia’s opposition to the situation in Syria, where the Iranian-backed government of Bashar al-Assad has been crushing his opponents in what is nearing civil war.
Rayed Krimly, an official with the Saudi Arabian Foreign Ministry, said Mr. Morsi had made clear “that he doesn’t interfere in the internal politics of another country.” Mr. Morsi had made the same point in his inaugural address, reassuring neighbors that Egypt had no intention to export revolution.
As for Mr. Morsi’s history with the Brotherhood, Mr. Krimly said, “We deal with Egypt as a state and with the institutions of Egypt, not its internal politics, so it doesn’t affect us.”
Mr. Krimly said there had been “attempts by other countries” to raise tensions in the relationship. He might have been referring to bogus reports recently circulated by a semiofficial Iranian news agency that Mr. Morsi or others in Egypt sought close ties to Iran. Such a development would unnerve both Saudi Arabia and Israel.
But Mr. Krimly said the meeting reinforced “the strong and solid relationship” between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as well as “the importance of each country to the other one.”
He said that Saudi Arabia was now Egypt’s most important source of critical financial support. “And we will continue to support Egypt,” he said. “Egypt is important.”