Saturday, April 21, 2018

Irked by Egyptian protests, Saudis close embassy in Cairo

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Saudi Arabia closed its Cairo embassy Saturday and recalled its ambassador following protests over a detained Egyptian human rights lawyer in a sharp escalation of tension between two regional powerhouses already on shaky terms due to uprisings in the Arab world.

The unexpected Saudi diplomatic break followed days of protests by hundreds of Egyptians outside the Saudi Embassy in Cairo and consulates in other cities to demand the release of Ahmed al-Gezawi. Relatives and human rights groups say he was detained in Saudi Arabia for allegedly insulting the kingdom's monarch.

Saudi authorities denied that and said he was arrested for trying to smuggle anti-anxiety drugs into the conservative oil-rich kingdom.

The collapse of Hosni Mubarak's regime last year in Egypt stunned Saudi Arabia's monarchy, which saw it as a sign of its own potential vulnerabilities and how Western backing can suddenly shift away from longtime allies.

Saudi officials have increasingly viewed Egypt's post-revolution trajectory — particularly the political gains by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood — as worrisome trends that could encourage greater opposition in the Gulf.

A full break in ties between Cairo and Riyadh appears unlikely as the Arab League deals with the complicated showdown between protesters and the regime in Syria. But the deepening rifts underscore profound changes in the region's hierarchy with Gulf states using their influence and relative stability to exert more leverage over wider Mideast affairs.

Egypt swiftly tried to contain the Saudi snub.

Egypt's military ruler, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, was in touch with the Saudis to "heal the rift following the sudden decision," the Egyptian official news agency said.

Tantawi asked King Abdullah to reconsider the decision, the Saudi news agency reported. The news agency said the king would look into the matter in the coming days and cited the two countries' "long history of friendly relations."

The Egyptian government issued a statement expressing its "regret" for the behavior of some of the protesters, and noted that the government and Egyptian people hold Saudi Arabia in "great esteem."

The Egyptian news agency also published a copy of what it said was a signed confession by Gezawi admitting to drug possession, in a clear attempt to mute Egyptian public anger.

The political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is jockeying with Egypt's military rulers for power, supported the demonstrators.

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