SAUDI ARABIA TODAY closed its Cairo embassy and recalled its ambassador following protests over a detained Egyptian human rights lawyer.
The unexpected escalation 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 el-Gezawi. Relatives and human rights groups say he was detained 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 oil-rich kingdom.
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.
It was the worst diplomatic tiff between the two regional powerhouses since Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries broke off diplomatic ties with Egypt after it signed a peace deal with Israel in 1979. Diplomatic relations were restored in 1987.
El-Gezawi’s case has revived long-standing resentment over the treatment of Egyptians working in Saudi, which is a destination for more than a million Egyptians searching for better jobs.
The lawyer flew to Jiddah on his way to perform a minor pilgrimage, called umrah, to Islam’s holy shrines in the Saudi cities of Mecca and Medina, said his sister Shereen el-Gezawi. The fact that he was arrested on his way to perform a religious rite further enflamed Egyptian sentiment.
His family said he had been convicted in absentia and sentenced to a year in prison and 20 lashes by a Saudi court for insulting the king. However he was not notified of the court’s ruling ahead of his Saudi trip. El-Gezawi had earlier filed a lawsuit in Egypt against King Abdullah over the alleged arbitrary detention of hundreds of Egyptians.
“Screw you, your majesty”
As Arab uprisings have toppled four longtime Middle Eastern rulers, Saudi Arabia has been worried about signs of rebellion within its borders. Authorities have met attempts to advocate for more rights, as el-Gezawi has done, or question the authority of the monarchy in any way with strong opposition.
Many Egyptians suspect the drug case against el-Gezawi was forced to cover up his human rights work.
Outside the Cairo embassy earlier this week, protesters chanted, “Down, down with Al-Saud!” referring to the Saudi royal family and “Screw you, your majesty!” in reference to King Abdullah, the aging Saudi monarch.
The demonstrators called for the expulsion of the Saudi ambassador in Cairo, and some raised their shoes alongside a picture of Abdullah, a sign of deep contempt in the Arab world. Others climbed over the walls of the embassy in Cairo. In the consulate in the port city of Suez, protesters blocked staff from leaving Thursday, prompting the military to evacuate them.
The Saudi news agency, quoting a foreign ministry official, said the protests were “unjustified” and attempts to storm the missions threatened the safety of diplomatic staff, in a violation of international conventions. The protests, the official statement said, were a violation of the “sanctity and sovereignty of diplomatic missions.”
The agency also said the ambassador was recalled for “consultation.”
Egyptian protesters also were resentful of their government’s reaction to the case, raising questions about whether it does enough to protect its citizens. Many activists also claim Egypt curbs its criticism so as not to alienate the wealthy kingdom or endanger Egyptian jobs there. Egyptians also held rallies outside the Foreign Ministry in Cairo, demanding the Egyptian ambassador in Saudi Arabia be questioned over his handling of el-Gezawi’s case.
The diplomatic dispute also underscored the inherent tensions in the region between Gulf Arab states and Egypt since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak last year in the face of popular protests.
At one point, the Egyptian government said Arab donors have been reluctant to come up with promised money to help the local economy as it suffered following the uprising.
Gulf nations, led by Saudi Arabia, remained publicly supportive of Mubarak even as Western allies called for him to step down. His downfall — and the swift policy shifts in Washington and elsewhere — deeply stunned the Gulf monarchs and sheiks who considered Western backing as an unshakable pillar for their regimes. In response, Gulf states have increasingly banded together to try to stamp out Arab Spring-inspired opposition and build independent strategies to control key regional rival Iran.