22 June 2014

Egypt: El-Sissi Courts Saudi King

There were great expectations as Saudi King Abdulllah made a stopover in Egypt. And while he was only briefly in Cairo, his visit was highly important for Egypt - but few are sure how.

His last official visit to a foreign country was more than four years ago - and that has led to plenty of speculation.

Egyptians expected Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah to take up serious subjects with the newly elected Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah el-Sissi: Egypt's economic recovery, mutual anti-terror operations and a pan-Arabic alliance to combat the West and Israel.

Some Egyptian commentators went further, welcoming that Egypt might "finally return to the cradle of its mother nation" - or suggesting with more restraint that it represented rapprochement between the countries of the Gulf and the Nile.

Even if that conjecture was a bit overblown - the Saudi stopped for an in-plane photo-op on Cairo's tarmac on his way back home from vacation in Morocco - the talk remains significant.

It was the first real meeting for Egypt's new president with a foreign head of state; el-Sissi had originally expected to travel to Saudi Arabia himself. Egypt's economy, without financial assistance from the Gulf states - specifically Saudia Arabia - would have been driven to ruin. Since the revolution in 2011, the country has been dependent on international aid. The EU, US and Qatar have all sent funds to Cairo.

Egyptians place great hope in el-Sissi

Previously, it was the emirate of Qatar that played an active role. When the Muslim Brotherhood came to power under former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, the emirate's financial contributions were used by Morsi as a shield against his critics. Because it was clear to everyone at that time that subsidies from abroad were needed urgently. Only Morsi was able to loosen the Qatari's purse strings.

The Saudis were more reserved at the time due to differences between their own Wahhabism and the Brotherhood.

The EU and US promised aid once the Muslim Brotherhood fell from power - funds that, to this day, have yet to arrive.

Falling out of favor

Here, the small desert state on the Gulf is unrelenting in its pursuit of its interests in Egypt. These are directed against its big neighbor Saudi Arabia. The entire Qatari foreign policy, with its only 200,000 indigenous Qatari citizens, is driven by the fear of one day becoming swallowed by the Saudis.

But after the Muslim Brothers fell from grace on June 30, 2013 in Egypt and later in Saudi Arabia, and classified as a terrorist organization in both countries, the tide has turned.

The Qataris are considered enemies of the state because of their support for the Muslim Brotherhood. The Cairo offices of the Qatari channel Al-Jazeera were closed and its reporters arrested. Again and again in the streets of Cairo there are pictures of the Emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani spray-painted with the Star of David. The message: The Qataris have betrayed the Arab brothers and have taken up with the Israelis. Their common enemy: Egypt, the largest Arab country.

Qatar is eyed with suspicion in Egypt

Fraternal assistance

Europe and the US would rather wait and see what happens next. That means the Egyptians can only turn to the Gulf states. So el-Sissi is playing the same game as his predecessor Morsi. Only he can make billions from the Gulf states flow - and his critics know it. This is why his visit appears all the more significant. It is a gesture, an acknowledgment that the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain are on the side of Egypt, and that they support el-Sissi's policies.

How el-Sissi will deal with his critics is still unclear. He repeatedly stressed that rebuilding the economy and restoring security are top priorities - even at the expense of human rights. The mass death sentences in Minya, the repressive law on demonstrations that is still in effect and the harsh sentences against secular political activists are a foretaste of his rule.

Above all, the activists who were instrumental in the 2011 revolution see in these policies a return to the police state under Hosni Mubarak, the ousted president, against whom they had taken to the streets. The Muslim Brotherhood, however, is continuing to lose support among the population, and has suffered severe setbacks over the last twelve months, even abroad.

Children of the revolution skeptical

The secular-minded young people who took part in the revolution cast a skeptical gaze on the advances towards the conservative Gulf states. In social networks they warn that Egypt could become a vassal of Saudi Arabia, which actively tried to prevent the Arab Spring, pointing out that former Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali took refuge with the Saudi royal family.

Before Abdullah's visit to Cairo, they even speculated that the Saudi king was only coming to visit his old friend Mubarak in the hospital, after he broke a thigh bone earlier in the week.

El-Sissi still enjoys strong support among the population, who place tremendous hopes in him. This popularity is an opportunity for him to lead the country out of crisis. But this must not come at the expense of other political forces, whether revolution youth or Muslim brothers, who are currently forced into silence. For they will not be silent forever.

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