Egypt’s El-Sisi Falls out with Saudis over Syria’s Assad

Saudi Arabia has forked out $27 billion in financial assistance to Egypt in the last few years in loans, grants and subsidies. But the well appears to be running dry, as major controversies mar relations between Egyptian President Abdel Fatteh El-Sisi and the royal rulers of Saudi Arabia.
Cairo was therefore pushed into turning to the International Monetary Fund for a $13 billion loan, in spite of its tough terms. And, last month, although El-Sisi and Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef both attended the UN General Assembly in New York, they conspicuously avoided meeting.
Saudi King Salman’s visit to Cairo last April appears to have touched off the downturn in their relations. In the subsequent eight months, the discord was further exacerbated by a string of negative events:
1. While avoiding the Saudi prince at the UN assembly, Egyptian Foreign Minister Samah Shoukri sat down on the sidelines with Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif to discuss Syria among other issues, and arranged to get together his Syrian opposite number, Walid Moalem.
2. Riyadh was further incensed by a speech the Egyptian president delivered at the annual UN Assembly at which he asserted for the first time at any world forum that there should be “no place for terrorist groups in Syria’s future.”
Since this locution, heard also from other Egyptian officials, is used by Bashar Assad to brand any opposition groups fighting his regime, El Sisi affronted Riyadh both by indirectly backing the Syrian dictator and by implicitly castigating Saudi-backed rebel groups as “terrorist.”
3. The highly controversial King Salman Bridge project for linking Egypt and the kingdom by a mammoth causeway spanning the Gulf of Aqaba is never mentioned any more and seems to have been quietly abandoned.
4. The agreement, which dismayed Egyptians, for their government to cede the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi sovereignty, is still hanging fire over parliament’s procrastination in ratifying it.
5. The bi-national free trade zone is off.
6. Four of Egypt’s most eminent religious clerics attended an international conference of Sunni religious scholars held in the Chechen capital of Grozny in August, to which Saudi clerics were not invited. It was called to reach a consensus on the definition of Sunni Islam and to affirm that jihadi and takfiri precepts have no place in Sunni mainstream ideology.
The scholars decided to exclude Saudi Arabia’s state Wahhabi brand of Islam from the Sunni religious mainstream. The Saudis were outraged and slammed Egypt for adding its voce to this dictate.
At the heart of the dispute between Cairo and Riyadh are their conflicting attitudes towards the Assad regime.
While the Saudis are unshakably determined to get rid of Bashar Assad in Damascus, come what may, and are sponsoring Islamic rebel militias fighting to oust him, the Egyptian ruler finds Assad preferable to his possible replacement by his arch foe, the Muslim Brotherhood, which El-Sisi sees as a dire menace to his rule and to Egyptian stability.
Out of this consideration, he is opting at this time to foster Egyptian relations with Russia and line up with Vladimir Putin’s policies on Syria while pulling away from Riyadh and Saudi plans for Syria.

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