The Saudi Foreign Ministry issued an unprecedented official statement this week: It announced that three Saudi journalists don’t represent the Saudi government’s views and have no connection with any government agencies.
Jamal Khashoggi, Nawaf Obaid and Anwar Eshki are three of the country’s foremost columnists. Their work is also published in the international Arab press. But for months now, they’ve been infuriating both the Egyptian government and Egypt’s state-run media with their cutting commentary on Egypt.
The peak of this “attack” occurred two weeks ago, when Khashoggi published a column in the well-regarded international Arab paper Al-Hayat titled, “Could anything be worse than this?” The article mainly attacked Russia’s involvement in Syria. What outraged Egypt, however, was his assertion that “the Egyptian government is enthusiastic over this involvement and the Egyptian media doesn’t hide it ... But Saudi Arabia won’t allow its ally to adopt such an unprecedentedly pro-Russian stance.”
This isn’t the first time Saudi and Egyptian journalists have flung stones at each other. Back in March, shortly after Saudi King Salman was crowned, Egyptian journalist Ibrahim Eissa wrote that Riyadh was planning to change its policy toward Egypt and would henceforth support the Muslim Brotherhood, which Cairo deems a terrorist organization. Khashoggi retorted on his Twitter account that “if Egypt had a free press, Eissa’s words would never have been written, but the Egyptian media belongs to the government” — the clear implication being that Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi was behind the Egyptian criticism of Riyadh.
Soon afterward, when Saudi Arabia began airstrikes in Yemen, Egyptian journalist Tawfik Okasha described the Saudis’ Operation Resolute Storm as “a dust storm that won’t bring down the enemies” and warned against Egyptian military involvement in the Yemen conflict.
Nor did the venom stop there. In October, Saudi columnist Abdul-Aziz Qassim wrote that “if it weren’t for the bit of breathing room Saudi Arabia gives Egypt, it would have collapsed. The Gulf States are the ones buying arms and airplanes for Egypt, aside from all the grants and deposits of billions of dollars in Egyptian banks.”
And when Egypt held parliamentary elections in November, Lebanese presenter Nicole Tannoury, who works for the Saudi television network Al-Arabiya, mocked the low turnout and the interior minister’s threat to fine anyone who didn’t vote. "Now 85 percent of eligible voters will need the largest defendant’s table in history,” she gibed.
Though the furious Egyptian response was directed at Al-Arabiya, Egyptian critics had no doubt that Saudi officials were behind the station’s attitude.
A few days ago, after King Salman announced his plan to establish a coalition of Muslim states against terror, Eissa, the Egyptian journalist, assailed the plan on his television show. He asked “whether it’s logical for the extremist Wahhabi school” of Islam — which dominates Saudi Arabia, and whose adherents regularly accuse other Muslims of being heretics — “to lead a coalition against those who themselves hurl accusations of heresy ... This coalition will support terror rather than fighting it.”
Now, the Saudi government is trying to put an end to these clashes. In contrast, the Egyptian government has yet to do the same.
Despite Egypt’s gratitude for Riyadh’s economic support, which has totaled more than $15 billion since 2013, and its pledge to invest another desperately needed $8 billion over the next five years, the two countries don’t have the same foreign policy agendas.
Egypt has made some contribution to the Saudi war in Yemen, but isn’t sending its soldiers to fight alongside those of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Riyadh still insists that Syrian President Bashar Assad must go before a transitional government can be formed in Syria, while al-Sissi thinks that at least for now, no solution to the Syrian crisis is possible without Assad’s participation. Saudi Arabia is setting up a Muslim coalition against terror whose real goal is more to block Iran’s influence than to fight the Islamic State, and it has thereby thwarted Egypt’s plan to set up an Arab coalition against terror that would fight Islamic State in Libya and Sinai.
But the heart of the dispute between Cairo and Riyadh lies in their attitudes toward Russia’s involvement in Syria. Cairo and Moscow are developing an economic and strategic relationship; Egypt is buying warplanes from Russia and talking about having it build a nuclear power plant near Alexandria.
The plans for the reactor have been buried deep in some Egyptian government drawer for decades, mainly due to lack of financing and professional manpower, and even now, the talk may be running well ahead of the action. Nevertheless, all that talk is bringing Egypt and Russia closer, and causing gnashing of teeth in Saudi Arabia.
Russia is considered Iran’s closest ally in the Syrian conflict. And since any diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis will require Russia’s consent, Riyadh fears that any such solution will come at its expense.
Granted, neither Cairo nor Riyadh objects to the diplomatic plan approved by the UN this month. The plan calls for establishing a transitional government in Syria within six months, which would write a constitution and then hold elections. But Saudi Arabia fears what will happen once the transitional government is formed.
Therefore, it needs its own Arab coalition to counter the Moscow-Tehran axis, and Egypt is supposed to be a leading member of this coalition. The Saudis are perfectly willing to pad their coalition with wads of cash, but the emerging Egyptian-Russian alliance could disrupt their plans.
Meanwhile, al-Sissi’s government is preparing for its next domestic test, which will take place on January 25, the fifth anniversary of the Egyptian revolution. For the last two weeks, various Egyptian groups have been holding demonstrations in Cairo and other cities, chanting slogans like “We haven’t tired, freedom isn’t free” and “The people want the ouster of the regime.” The protest leaders are now calling for a mass demonstration in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on January 25, to be titled “The second revolution.”
“You don’t need to have a revolution; if the people want me to go, I won’t remain in government for a second, even without demonstrations,” al-Sissi promised in a speech this week. “But I won’t let Egypt be destroyed.”
Yet the war on terror and the demonstrations aren’t the government’s only worries. Last week, about 1,000 fans of the Al Ahly soccer team barricaded the players in the hotel where they were staying, causing a two-hour delay of the game. They did so to protest an order barring fans from attending soccer games, which was issued following a deadly riot at a game in Port Said in 2012. The riot happened because the security services had no intelligence about the fans’ plans and the police weren’t prepared to disperse the crowd.
Caught between a foreign policy dictated by Saudi Arabia, serious budget problems that have drained its foreign currency reserves, a lengthy war on terror and growing domestic criticism, Egypt is still far from stable. And the biggest concern is that the barometer on the government’s wall is once again showing the same pressure readings that it did at the end of former President Hosni Mubarak’s reign.
A new revolution won’t happen tomorrow. But the symptoms look threatening.
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