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Unlikely circumstances came together in the past few days to mend ties between Saudi Arabia and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Since the fall of Hosni Mubarak and the rise of the Brotherhood in Egypt, relations between the two states stagnated before spiraling following the arrest in Saudi Arabia of an Egyptian human rights lawyer, Ahmed al-Gizawy.
The charges against him are rather ambiguous. The official Saudi narrative indicates he is charged with drug smuggling, while other sources, including the defendant’s family, claim he was initially arrested for defaming the Saudi monarch. The Saudi ambassador to Egypt was withdrawn following angry protests in front of the Saudi Embassy in Cairo, and a “citizens' delegation” led by the Muslim Brotherhood was quickly formed to visit Saudi Arabia and contain the situation. Even though Gizawy remains in Saudi custody and the future of his detention is unknown, the mission for which the Egyptian delegation was formed was a major success for the Brotherhood. The visit succeeded in securing the return of the Saudi ambassador, and more importantly for the Brotherhood, the visit broke the ice between it and the Arab state most skeptical of its rise.
Saad al-Katatny, the current speaker of Egypt’s parliament, led the high-level delegation to Riyadh and was filmed sitting prominently next to the Saudi king. Katatny is a major Brotherhood leader, having been a member of its Guidance Bureau and the secretary general of its Freedom and Justice Party, which this year won 47 percent of seats in Egypt's lower house of Parliament. Katatny was also elected head of the now-defunct constitution writing panel in March. The delegation also included Ahmed Fahmy, the speaker of Egypt’s upper house, also a Brotherhood member, as well as senior officials from various Egyptian parties including the Wafd and Nour parties, in addition to politicians, media personalities and academics (an extensive list of the delegates can be found here).
Attendees from the Saudi side were King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, Defense Minister Prince Salman and Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, as well as the speaker of the Saudi Shura Council. The Saudi information minister and the withdrawn ambassador also attended.
Significantly, the Saudi Crown Prince and Interior Minister Nayef who is known for his animosity toward and distrust of the Brotherhood sat next to El Katatny. He is known to have said “without any hesitation I say it, that our problems, all of them, came from the direction of the Muslim Brotherhood." Prince Nayef publically received the Brotherhood's arch enemy, former Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, last November.
It is also worth mentioning that Egypt was not represented in this visit by any Cabinet members, such as Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri or Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr. The Brotherhood has made its displeasure with the Ganzouri cabinet very clear, demanding its dismissal over and over again.
Such an opportunity to meet with the Saudi king would likely not have arisen in the short to medium term had Gizawy's case not been escalated by Egyptian activists. During the visit, Katatny clearly stated, “We will not interfere in Gizawy's case,” adding that “the Saudi justice system is fair.” Katatny stressed the “historic relations” between Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and said that Saudi has “white hands” (Arabic for “a shining track record”) in backing Egypt. Katatny again remarked that Egypt and Saudi Arabia, “the two greatest powers in the region,” could lead the region into a bright future.
In an exclusive interview with Saudi paper Okaz, Katatny recounted how the visit of 113 Egyptian officials to Saudi Arabia came about: “As soon as the news broke that Saudi Arabia had withdrawn its ambassador, I called Dr. Abdullah al-Sheikh, head of the Saudi Shura Council. At the same time there was a phone call from Al-Sayed al-Badawy, chairman of the Wafd Party, to the Saudi ambassador to Egypt, Ahmed al-Qattan, and we decided to form a delegation of parliamentarians and citizens to visit Saudi Arabia to express our pride in the kingdom and its mission.” Katatny predicted that relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia would go back to normal and “maybe even improve.”
In reply to a statement by the Saudi foreign minister that “foreign elements” (in reference to Iran) may have been behind the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Katany told Okaz that “the Egyptian people are loyal and proud of their Arabism, and even though I don’t have any proof, I will not rule out the possibility that regional foreign hands were involved in these events, parties that do not want an Arab-Arab rapprochement.” Shortly before the Egyptian delegation's visit, Al-Hayat, a London-based Saudi newspaper owned by the sons of Prince Salman (the defense minister, present at the delegation's meeting), reported that “Egyptian security services foiled an Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Cairo several months ago.” Egypt’s state news agency quoted an official dismissing this allegation as “totally divorced from reality.”
The Brotherhood's message from this “successful” visit was clear: It now represents the new face of Egypt and can lead a delegation of Islamists, liberals, businessmen and academics. It also wanted to reiterate that it is a stable partner that traditional allies, especially Saudi Arabia, can rely on and work with in the future.
It is quite ironic that a protest by Egyptian activists against the Saudi government resulted in a rapprochement between that very government and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. However, based on the public statement on the Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia’s next King may take a lot more than sweet talk or a broad-based delegation to win over the Brotherhood's most skeptical adversary
Sultan al-Qassemi is a UAE-based commentator on Arab affairs.
Correction: A previous version of this op-ed misstated that Prince Nayef was absent from the meeting.