Egypt’s new President, the Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, arrives in Saudi Arabia, Wednesday on his first international foray. It is a symbolic visit intended to signal the restoration of the grand regional alliance between Cairo and Riyadh and to reassure Egypt’s military that the country’s Muslim Brothers will play by the established rules.
Indeed, Mr. Morsi, a former engineering professor and the Brotherhood’s second choice as a presidential candidate, may be more adept at politics than many give him credit for. His surprise decree this week, calling parliament back into session and seemingly ignoring the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ recent dismissal of the legislature, stunned many observers, as it suggested a brazen attack on the military’s authority.
But, accompanied by an equally surprising announcement that Mr. Morsi would call on Saudi King Abdullah on Wednesday – a gesture that appeals to Egypt’s military leadership – as well as a number of public gestures showing Mr. Morsi as respectful of that leadership, suggests a carefully choreographed diplomatic dance rather than a frontal political assault.
The rookie President’s gambit of summoning parliament to meet Tuesday, over the objections of the SCAF and a ruling by the country’s constitutional court that as many as a third of the parliamentarians were elected improperly, went off painlessly.
The MPs were allowed freely to enter the legislature after military forces that had ringed the buildings for days were withdrawn overnight. Then, somewhat unexpectedly, the parliament was called to order for only about 15 minutes, just long enough to decide to refer to another court the question of the members’ right to assemble.
“We are gathered today to review the court rulings, the ruling of the Supreme Constitutional Court” that ordered the house invalid, speaker Saad al-Katatni said.
“I want to stress, we are not contradicting the ruling, but looking at a mechanism for the implementation of the ruling of the respected court,” he added, in an unexpectedly conciliatory way. “There is no other agenda today.”
As for a march that had been called for Tuesday afternoon by the Muslim Brothers to underscore their determination not to relinquish parliamentary powers, it was called off.
The Brothers’ point of parliamentary privilege was made, but the two sides clearly showed they want to avoid a confrontation.
Indeed, from his first day in office, Mr. Morsi has shown deference to Egypt’s military leadership. The new President chose to call on Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, the supreme commander and Minister of Defence, rather than having the field marshal call on him, a more normal expression of fealty.
That seeming breach of protocol left some to conclude that Mr. Morsi was a mere puppet of the field marshal.
More likely, the two sides have worked out a modus vivendi – both sides realizing they need the other if they’re to get what they want out of the new political situation.
As far as the military leaders are concerned, they realize the Brotherhood continues to be the most powerful, best organized political force in the nation. Its capacity to bring millions into the streets, and to bring the country to a standstill if needed, cannot be ignored.
And, whether the Muslim Brothers like it or not, the army remains the best loved, most respected institution in the country.
As well, its hold over “the many surviving members of the previous regime in the public administrations, the judiciary and the police” cannot easily be circumvented, said Francesco Aloisi de Larderel, former Italian ambassador to Egypt.
All this undoubtedly figured in the surprise decision to pay an official visit on Saudi Arabia ahead of all other places.
There is no love lost here.
Tensions have long existed between the House of Saud, where the strict Wahhabi doctrine of Sunni Islam applies, and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, relatively moderate Islamists who came to power via last year’s popular uprising. Indeed, the Saudis were cheering for Mr. Mubarak against the Brotherhood in that uprising.
The Morsi visit to Riyadh soothes the Egyptian military’s concerns that Saudi Arabia, one of their greatest backers – politically and financially – might hold a grudge over the political turn of events. The visit also should alleviate Saudi concerns that the Brothers might want to align themselves with Iran, Riyadh’s great regional rival.
“The Saudi kingdom has no reservations about the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Saudi analyst Jamal Khashoggi, despite friction between the two parties.
“There are many signs that the Egyptians are prioritizing their relations with the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, over their relations with Iran,” Mr. Khashoggi noted. “Egypt is now focusing on alliances with Turkey and Saudi,” both Sunni Muslim countries with significant economic potential, he said.
In an interview with the Saudi daily Okaz on Tuesday, Mr. Morsi was unequivocal in his attitude toward Egypt’s traditional ally.
“We in Egypt cannot forget that Saudi Arabia has always stood by the Arabs,” he said, adding that “Gulf security is a red line” that must not be crossed.
“The choice of Saudi Arabia for his first visit reflects the priorities of both Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood, for whom the Egyptian economy is the top concern and Saudi Arabia is a very important economic partner,” said Nader Habibi, a professor of the economics of the Middle East at Brandeis University.
Saudi Arabia plays host to some 1.65 million Egyptian expatriates and could “increase its investments in Egypt soon,” Saudi ambassador to Cairo, Ahmad Kattan, said last week.
Riyadh has deposited $1-billion into the Egyptian Central Bank as a loan guarantee, and Cairo, which is battling a severe economic crisis, received a $1-billion pledge of assistance from the Saudi-based Islamic Development Bank earlier this month.