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Egypt's Relationship with Saudi Arabia (Dispatch)

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Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi visits Saudi Arabia July 11. This will be the Muslim Brotherhood ex-leader's first state visit since assuming office in late June. The visit is both symbolic and geopolitically significant. Saudi Arabia and the rest of the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] are fearful of the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt because it could trigger a regional rise in power, prestige and influence of the Islamist movements interested in democratic elections. This, in turn, could lead to challenges of these regimes.

The Muslim Brotherhood already has roots in places like Jordan and Kuwait and Bahrain. The Kuwait Muslim Brotherhood, known locally as Hadas, has steadily gained seats in parliament in recent years and aligned with other Islamist groupings as part of the opposition to challenge the government. In nearby Jordan, the Islamic Action Front — essentially the Jordanian MB — has boycotted polls for years but has formed an alliance with other opposition groups to force the government to revise recently drafted new electoral laws. Meanwhile, in Bahrain, the MB group, Al Menbar, is a partner with Riyadh and Manama to curb the power of the Shia in the Bahraini Parliament. 

Saudi Arabia and the other GCC monarchies do not want to see a Brotherhood-led Egypt suddenly exporting its version of political Islam, nor more worrisome, supporting opposition movements around the region. The MB's version of Islamism also is in stark contrast to the Wahhabi strain of Islam.

There is another fear that Egypt may find a newfound friendship with Iran. Tehran severed ties with Cairo in 1979 following the signing of the Camp David Accords. But it has pushed quite publically in recent months for the normalization of relations. When Tehran asked only a few weeks after Mubarak's ouster to transit warships through the Suez Canal, Cairo consented — the first time in 33 years.

Saudi Arabia fears an Egypt-Iran alliance much more than just a Brotherhood-dominated Egypt. Alternatively, Egypt desperately needs Saudi cash. Riyadh deposited $1 billion in Egyptian banks to bolster the country's financial sector after the uprising that led to former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's ouster. Moreover, the Brotherhood is ideologically opposed to the Iranian revolutionary agenda. Cairo sees only limited potential in a relationship, mostly as leverage in dealings with the GCC.

Morsi's visit is intended to reassure Riyadh of two things. One, that any normalization of ties with Iran will be limited and will not pose a threat to the GCC and two, that Egypt and, specifically the Muslim Brotherhood, is not looking to export its Islamist agenda to opposition groups in the Gulf. Already, Saudi and other GCC states have backed Salafists in Egypt in a bid to contain the rise of the Brotherhood. In an interview with Saudi newspaper Okaz published Tuesday [July 10], Morsi reiterated Egypt's support for GCC security — a direct reference to fears over Iran.

Saudi Arabia, of course, is paying the visit as due homage. Saudi owned newspaper al Sharq al Awsat carried a story July 9 on the upcoming visit. The photo shows Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the MB, bowing and kissing the hand of King Abdulaziz. The implication is blatant. Egypt is no longer the regional power broker. Saudi Arabia is now the Arab world's undisputed leader. Morsi's visit signifies that Cairo — and the Muslim Brotherhood — recognizes Saudi Arabia's leadership role and is coming to pay tribute. 

 

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