Cairo and Riyadh finessing differences over Syria policy
WASHINGTON - Egypt and Saudi Arabia have developed close relations since the ouster of Muhammad Morsi as president of Egypt in July 2013, witnessed by substantial Saudi financial aid to Abdel Fattah al- Sisi’s Egypt and Egyptian military assistance to the Saudi-led effort against the Houthis in Yemen.
But Riyadh and Cairo seem to have sharp differences over Syria policy. While both have tried to paper over these publicly, deep divisions remain.
Saudi Arabia was pleased to see Morsi ousted by Sisi, who was once Morsi’s defence minister, in 2013 because it saw the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat not only to Egyptian stability but also to the kingdom. It lavished the new Egyptian regime with billions of dollars in economic aid and had no compunctions about Sisi’s subsequent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood apparatus.
But while Cairo and Riyadh saw eye-to-eye on the Muslim Brotherhood, differences surfaced over the Syrian civil war. Although Sisi regime had no great affection for Bashar Assad, Cairo saw Assad as preferable to a Syria ruled by an Islamist coalition whose elements not only include the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood but also more radical groups such as the al-Nusra Front.
Qatar and Turkey — which have given safe haven to Egyptian Brotherhood leaders who escaped the Sisi regime’s dragnet — have been active in supporting the Syrian Islamist rebels.
From Cairo’s perspective, this is part of a nefarious cabal that seeks to destabilise the region. What is especially troubling to Cairo is that its Saudi patron has joined this group — at least on the Syria issue — witnessed by Saudi-Turkish cooperation to aid the rebels.
From the Saudi perspective, Assad is the main problem. He has insulted Saudi leaders and waged a bloody war against Syria’s Sunni population. And the Saudis see the assistance of Iran and Hezbollah to the Assad regime as part of a Shia scheme, making the Saudi leadership adamant that Syrian regime must be defeated at all costs, even if that means putting the struggle against the Islamic State (ISIS) on the back burner.
These differences came to the surface at the Arab summit in Sharm el-Sheikh in March. Reportedly, Sisi proudly read out loud a letter from Russian President Putin who advocated a political solution to the Syrian crisis, thus implying that Egypt shared this goal. In response, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal stated, with television cameras taping, that the Russians “are a main part of the miseries that affect the Syrian people”.
Not wanting to get into a public spat with Saudi officials, Sisi thanked the Saudi foreign minister for his remarks and quickly changed the topic.
In the aftermath, an Egyptian television talk show host who is reportedly close to Sisi said “Arab oil money from Saudi Arabia and Qatar is also killing the Syrian people”. A Saudi journalist entered the fray, tweeting that the Egyptian talk show host’s “excesses” required action. He implied that such talk must have the Egyptian regime’s approval because “it is the regime’s media”.
Two months later, the new Saudi foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, flew to Cairo to meet with his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukry. The two foreign ministers did their best to downplay their differences in public.
Jubeir said he did not know where “impressions” of discord between the two countries came from and Shoukry said their policies “complement” each other.
Jubeir emphasised that “we are all seeking to remove Bashar Assad from power”, restore “peace and stability in Syria” and “protect government and military institutions” there “to be able to deal with the challenges after the Assad regime”.
Shoukry said Egypt was working with the Russians to convince the Syrian government to take part in a political process involving various factions while Jubeir said contacts with Russia are geared to convince Moscow to “give up on Bashar” or convince him “to give up power”.
Cairo is undoubtedly concerned that radical Islamists could fill a power vacuum in a post-Assad Syria and is trying to find a compromise solution, with the aid of the Russians, that would include elements of the Assad government. The Saudis, on the other hand, want the Assad regime to go and seem to believe they can manage a process that would ensure that more moderate Islamist rebels come out on top.
Either policy includes a lot of wishful thinking on the part of Riyadh and Cairo, but for the time being they will continue to disagree while glossing over their differences in public.