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Leaked cables underline not only the hostility felt in Saudi Arabia over the ascendency of the Muslim Brotherhood following Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, but the changes in Riyadh’s position following the accession of King Salman, writes Amira Howeidy
While the torrent of diplomatic cables from Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry released by WikiLeaks on Friday reflect continuity in Riyadh’s policy towards Iran, Syria and Yemen between 2009 and 2014 – under, King Salman who succeeded his half-brother earlier this year, Saudi Arabia may have taken bolder strides but always along the same path — the same cannot be said of the oil-rich state’s position towards Egypt.
By offering ample evidence of Saudi hostility to the 2011 Egyptian uprising, the subsequent ascendance of the Muslim Brotherhood and its support for the military’s ouster of Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, the leaked cables foreground the way Saudi Arabia’s position has changed. Today many Muslim Brotherhood figures in exile look towards the kingdom as a possible mediator with Al-Sisi’s Egypt, the one player capable of pushing for a settlement that will end the Egyptian government’s two-year crackdown on the group.
Indeed, so much has changed in Riyadh’s policy towards Egypt since King Abdullah’s death that the leaked cables often read as documents from some distant time rather than a year ago.
Cables from the Saudi embassy in Cairo and internal memos from the Saudi Foreign Ministry show Riyadh monitoring political developments in Egypt on a daily basis. While sounding alarm bells over the Muslim Brotherhood’s ascendency, the tone of the cables also reveal an obsession with the group.
One cable from the Saudi embassy in Cairo to foreign minister Saud Al-Faisal presents a detailed briefing – and resume of – Muslim Brotherhood businessman Hassan Malek after Morsi appointed him to liaise between the presidency and the business community in 2012. The document’s wording is notably cautious when it says that the Egyptian government “claimed” Malek was active in a 1992 plot to hack government computers systems.
The documents also reveal Riyadh’s interest in the Brotherhood’s strong man Khairat Al-Shater, whose resume is included in the cables. He is described as the group’s real leader, while the Muslim Brotherhood’s supreme guide is referred to as weak. A cable signed by Ahmed Qattan, the Saudi ambassador to Cairo, requests permission to open a dialogue with Al-Shater “who will be one of the most important players” in Egypt’s political scene. An incomplete document suggests that Al-Shater proposed a deal to the then ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to hand over power (as per the March 2011 constitutional declaration) while granting the generals immunity from prosecution.
According to the cables Al-Shater accepted a deal, proposed to him by an unnamed Egyptian official, to release Mubarak in return for $10 billion to be paid by Gulf states.
The Morsi-appointed Hisham Qandil cabinet, which was formed in August 2012, is referred to as “deficient” in one document which claims half of its 35 ministers are Brotherhood members. At the time only five were members of the group. It also claims four of the 10 ministers appointed in the January 2013 cabinet reshuffle came from the group when in fact the number is three.
It is unclear how a seven-page internal Muslim Brotherhood memo, written by young members of the group and addressed to the Brotherhood’s Shura Council, found its way to the Saudi Foreign Ministry. The document is incomplete. Undated, and lacking a covering letter, it is nonetheless a detailed summation of how rifts between the group’s leadership and its youth began to open up during the 2011 uprising. The gap between the leadership and scores of younger members widened following Mubarak’s ouster, leading to resignations and the suspension of members.
Other documents reveal contradictory assessments of the situation in Sinai. An email from 2014 claims links between Sinai’s jihadists and Gaza-based Salafists had been established and posed a challenge to “the Egyptian president’s regime”. The email notes what it terms “a new Egyptian-American rapprochement” in the war against terrorism.
A “highly classified” memo from the Saudi Embassy in Cairo addressed to Riyadh and which appears to date from 2012 describes Egyptian moves to prosecute NGO workers for receiving foreign funds as a ploy by the Egyptian authorities to press Washington into cutting its military aid to Egypt. Such a response by Washington, says the cable, could be presented by Cairo as the US violating the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement, allowing Egypt to “revoke” the treaty. The document explains this would give Cairo the opportunity to halt gas exports to Israel and rewrite peace agreement clauses that limit the Egyptian military presence in Sinai.
The document goes so far as to suggest repeated explosions along a gas pipeline in north Sinai were the doing of either “the Egyptian authorities or military.”
While Riyadh’s influence over Egypt’s media is hardly news, it is surprising that an official as busy as Al-Faisal made time to explain apparent misunderstandings over satirist Ahmed Ragab’s writings in the state-run Al-Akhbar newspaper. Marked as “classified”, one undateddocument by the Saudi Foreign Minister, addressed to his culture and media counterpart, explains in detail how he learned from ex-minister of antiquities Zahi Hawass that Ragab’s columns, which were critical of Gulf States for not providing financial support to Egypt, had targetted Riyadh but were intended only to allude to Doha. Al-Faisal’s appreciation of the men’s efforts was clearly reciprocated. Ragab, says the document, told Hawass he “would never” publish anything critical of the kingdom.
Al-Faisal ends the cable by advising the minister to waste no time in co-opting influential media figures like Ragab.
In a classified document dating from 2011, Al-Faisal explains how the Saudi ambassador to Cairo admonished ONTV owner Naguib Sawiris after the station hosted a Saudi opposition figure. Sawiris reportedly responded by berating the station’s director. He then invited the ambassador to appear on the station as a guest.
An email from 2014 offers a glimpse of the conflict between Riyadh and Doha over the latter’s support for the Brotherhood. Pro-Muslim Brotherhood coverage by Qatar’s Al-Jazeera was at the centre of a months-long rift in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) which appeared to have ended in November 2014 with private — reportedly written — Qatari pledges to GCC states that the station’s editorial line would change. When it didn’t the rift continued, though not in public.
The channel is “still interfering in the affairs of the Egyptian state,” says the email, “inciting against the regime, supporting the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood and attempting to picture them as dominating the street.” In response many Egyptian media personalities have “continued their media war against Al-Jazeera”.
The leaks have been embarrassing for journalist Mustafa Bakri, a regime loyalist who, according to one document addressed to the Saudi Minster of Culture, informed the Saudi ambassador in Cairo that the Iranians had contacted him and other Egyptian media figures in an attempt to court support. The document says Bakri proposed swift measures, with the kingdom’s financial support, that included transforming his weekly newspaper Al-Osbou to a daily, forming a political party and setting up a TV station that would be a “powerful voice against the shia and support the kingdom’s policies.” The cable describes Bakri as close to the then ruling SCAF and a member of parliament, suggesting that it dates from between the end of 2011 and the dissolution of parliament in 2012.
The Saudis don’t seem to have responded positively to Bakri’s request despite the kingdom’s concern about a thaw in Egyptian-Iranian relations. The leaks include a 2009 document, signed by Saud Al-Faisal and addressed to the Chief of the Royal Court Khaled Al-Tuwaijri, which advises closer monitoring of commercial relations between Cairo and Tehran following a visit to Egypt by the then Iranian parliament speaker Ali Larijani.
Al-Faisal notes that he visited Cairo following Larijani and was assured by the Egyptians that nothing had changed in Egypt’s policy towards Iran.
“They tried to downplay Larijani’s visit,” he noted.