What Does Riyadh Expect From Cairo?

Showing their support for the ouster of Egypt's former president, Gulf states have pledged billions in aid to the new government, but what do they expect in return?

al-monitor Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal attends the opening of an Arab League meeting in Cairo March 6, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany.

Topics covered

saudi, morsi, military coup, military, gulf

Jul 24, 2013

Egypt's stability and its escape from its troubled revolutionary condition has clearly become — from the point of view of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states — of regional interest, especially in light of what happened to Iraq and Syria. This explains why Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait support the army’s move to oust deposed president Mohammed Morsi and offered substantial and urgent financial assistance to the transitional government that emerged as a result.

Does this support reflect these countries' stance on the rule of the Brotherhood in Egypt? This is likely the case. But the most important question in light of what is going across the region is: What does Riyadh expect and hope for from Cairo, assuming that the transitional period imposed by the army will pass peacefully, that a new parliament will be elected, that there will be consensus on a new constitution and finally, that the ballot box will elect the second president of Egypt in its second republic?

This question can be seen from different angles. There are the Egyptian, the Saudi and the Gulf angles. Then there is the moral angle, or the angle of the Arab fraternity and the duties that accompany this. These angles, among others, are ultimately linked by one frame, namely the political framework. These states’ actions express their visions and interests in accordance with these visions. Arab fraternity is one of the expressions of these interests. Thus, this fraternity is common and mutual, or should be. It goes, or should go, in two or even more directions, not just one.

Based on this, if the assistance provided by the three Gulf States helps Egypt achieve a vital interest in this critical stage, knowing that it deserves it, then this must be accompanied by a return that goes in favor of the three Gulf countries’ interests as well — assuming that the interest of these Arab countries is reciprocal. And since Egyptian interests have started to materialize by the mere fact that the transfer of the promised funds has begun, questions arise about the possibility and the way of achieving the expectations of Saudi Arabia. There are no official reports about the motives behind the Saudi step, but it most likely would not have offered this immense support had it not received direct indications from Cairo.

There are those who say that the fact that Saudi Arabia rushed to congratulate interim President Adly Mansour, even before he took the presidential oath, was a message of support to the military establishment. It was also meant to show the military that it is not alone and that it has regional support amid reluctant American and European stances and given the Turkish and Iranian rejection of the Egyptian army’s step.

In this context, the position of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, which showed support for the Egyptian army, is interesting amid the regional and international rejection or reluctance. What is Riyadh expecting from all of this? We can say that Riyadh hopes Cairo will achieve four things at the domestic level. First, it will secure the transitional phase and safely move to agree on a stable and effective political system. Second, Egypt will return to playing a regional role as an Arab country that is involved in protecting the Arab arena from interventions on the part of non-Arab countries and against their Arab interests. Third, it will move the Egyptian position away from the reluctance that characterized it during the rule of Morsi regarding Iranian influence in Iraq and Syria, and have it resume supporting the need to end this influence as a condition for fruitful Arab-Iranian cooperation. Fourth, it will support a political solution in Syria through a transitional government with full powers, without President Bashar al-Assad — after all the massacres committed by his troops — as part of this solution.

In economic terms, it seems that the situation in Egypt has become catastrophic. Hassan Heikal, an Egyptian businessman, wrote that as a result of the current crisis, Egypt is losing a billion Egyptian pounds a day, which is worth $2 billion dollars a month. During the past two years, Egypt lost 500 billion Egyptian pounds, or $50 billion. The Egyptian government lost $40 billion from its cash reserves, thus adding a debt of $10 billion [500 billion Egyptian pounds]. The size of the debt reached $50 billion, while the poverty rate exceeds 40%. These exact figures confirm the extent of deterioration reached by the economic situation.*

According to Heikal’s estimates, (after the announcement of the Saudi-Gulf aid) Egypt is still in need of aid from the Arab (i.e. Gulf) states in the amount of $50 billion, along with international aid of $25 billion to get out of its suffocating crisis. This means that the recent Gulf aid, and the earlier Qatari deposits, are not up to Egyptian expectations. Given that the political solution is, in all cases, linked to the economic solution and since it overlaps with it, Riyadh expects a lot from Cairo and has many requirements.

The political scene is no more promising than the economic landscape. More than two years following the revolution, Egypt is left without a mature and professional political class capable of finding political solutions in critical moments. This class, which includes the Brotherhood and their opponents, failed to agree on anything.

This required military intervention to oust the Brotherhood in favor of its opponents. In other words, the army, more than 60 years after the July 1952 coup, is still the most powerful and the richest state institution that is most capable of imposing solutions on everyone.

In this context, will the army be able to ensure the needed consensus to cross the revolutionary phase and reach the phase of a steady state, knowing that this consensus has been sought by everyone for more than two years and has brought things to their current state? After everything that happened, where will the Brotherhood stand with regard to the needed political solution, knowing that it is the most popular group along with the army and the youth of the revolution? What if the situation required the military to take power in order to reach the needed political solution? And what is the size of the role played by the “deep state” in what happened and is happening after the fall of Mubarak?

Interestingly, it seems that the most popular powers in Egypt are the so-called revolution youth, who have no leadership; the Brotherhood, who lack experience in governance and the army, which has a coherent leadership, an old institutional hierarchy and experience in governance. Moreover, this army is almost the only power that has a good and solid relationship with Saudi Arabia, the other forces having mysterious and openly hostile positions toward Saudi Arabia. With the exception of Amr Moussa, for example, it is impossible to say that the members of the National Salvation Front (NSF) have a friendly relationship with Saudi Arabia. Some of them have even adopted an unfriendly attitude with Riyadh, albeit implicitly, given the current circumstances.

Hamdeen Sabahi, a member of the NSF, does not tend to be consistent in his position when it comes to Egypt's foreign relations. For instance, as he said in his long interview with Al-Hayat, he is ready to be tolerant regarding the crimes of Assad to preserve the unity of Syria. At the same time, he was not ready to be tolerant with Morsi. He accepted risking the future of Egypt in order to remove him from power. This position is of little comfort to Riyadh. Even more than that, a founder and spokesperson for the Tamarod movement, Mahmoud Badr, has an explicit and hostile position toward Saudi Arabia, particularly toward Saudi rulers. Badr was a representative for Tamarod in the meeting that was convened by the army to hold consultations before announcing that Morsi had been ousted from the presidency.

This meeting included the grand imam of Al-Azhar, the head of the Coptic Church, the head of the Nour party and the NSF’s representative. Badr delivered the statement of the Tamarod Movement, which supports the dismissal of Morsi. He delivered it from the same rostrum where General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced the president's ouster and the suspension of the constitution and appointed the interim president. This announcement was broadcast on state TV.

It is now clear that ties between Saudi Arabia and the Brotherhood are close to the breaking point. The data implies that what Riyadh is expecting from Cairo holds a lot of optimism, and probably requires more than providing financial aid. If we assume that the transition period brings a government from the NSF, independents, youth of the revolution and Islamic movements, the balances within this government will not enable its foreign policy to be close to Riyadh’s hopes.

The question that insistently imposes itself is: Why didn’t Riyadh assume the role of mediator in the Egyptian crisis months before it erupted? Why did it wait for the last moment to start dealing with the crisis? Then, when it did, why was that limited to financial aid? This aid has previously failed in achieving the rooted political interests of Riyadh. The reason is obvious. It is that financial aid — if not accompanied with an active regional political role, concrete military weight, and the aid’s institutional and constitutional framework and support from the domestic arena before the external one — will remain a simple financial aid that loses its value and influence over time. According to Egyptian figures, as we have seen, the aid that Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and earlier Qatar had provided is far less than what Egypt needs. This once again confirms that Saudi Arabia is required to review its foreign policy and the role of financial aid in it.

[*Editor’s Note: Currency exchange rates for EGP to USD used by the author of the original article are inconsistent with those actually seen in the market.]

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