It’s a pity that less than a thousand Egyptian demonstrators have succeeded in causing diplomatic fallout between two cornerstones of the Arab world.
They were threatening and should have been kept far away from the Saudi Embassy in Cairo by security forces that have a legal duty to protect embassies and their staff.
However, when the country is so unpredictably volatile, I can empathize with the reluctance of the "ruling" Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to order a crackdown that, judging by recent history, would have ignited an even greater angry turnout prompting a wider Saudi-Egyptian rift.
The fact is that Egypt is still recovering from a revolution which, in the minds of most, held the promise of freedom from 30 years of dictatorship without fear of a knock at the door during the early hours of the morning. Egyptians have spent decades dreaming of a better life that, for most living on the breadline, translates to increased job opportunities. They don’t aspire to a luxurious lifestyle. They simply want the ability to put food on the table, buy simple homes for their about-to-be-wed sons and conduct their business affairs without the need to pay-off corrupt bureaucrats.
Unfortunately, the revolution has been no panacea; as yet it hasn’t delivered on its promise. Jobs are scarcer than before. Food prices are soaring and even purchasing a bottle of gas for cooking is akin to climbing Everest, entailing hours of queuing due to the greed of small time get-rich-quick merchants. Moreover, they’re beset by insecurities. I can’t count the number of Egyptians I know who’ve had their cars, wallets or mobile phones stolen — or have been accosted outside banks by petty thieves. Women are scared to walk around after dark on their own.
At the same time, people with money are holding on to it fearing a collapse of the economy; bad news for store owners and the housing market. They feel leaderless, without direction. All their lives they’ve been used to a single captain but now there are hundreds all pulling in opposing ways. The Egyptian public is no monolith.
Right now, it’s hard to come across two Egyptians who agree on anything other than “El balad bize” (the country’s broken) — and hardly anyone I’ve talked with has any idea how to fix it. So, yes they’re upset, apprehensive and generally angry.
They have no idea who to trust amid burgeoning rumors and conspiracy theories. They have no single person or institution to which they can address their frustrations which may explain why pockets are lashing out at the military, the government, Parliament, Islamists, liberals, Copts — and, yes, even at friendly countries like Saudi Arabia.
You see, if there’s one promise the revolution has lived up to, it’s the ability of every single Egyptian, regardless of his station in life, to hold his head up high.
They might not have much but they are enjoying an increased sense of self-worth and self-dignity. Preserving the dignity of their fellow citizens abroad, often considered expendable by the Mubarak regime, was what fueled the outpouring of rage outside the Kingdom’s embassy in Cairo and consulate in Alexandria.
Their core message was ‘We’re proud Egyptians and we’ve had enough of being considered unimportant’. It would have been better expressed more politely allowing those it was meant for to hear it.
But no furious mob is rational. The individuals who hurled insults at the Kingdom and its rulers didn’t pause to think what the impact might be. Saudis are also proud people so it’s not surprising that the decision was taken to pull out Saudi diplomats and shut fast the doors of the embassy and consulate.
Those demonstrators didn’t reflect on the countries’ close historical ties or Saudi’s readiness to employ Egyptians and its open hand offering financial aid.
They didn’t think about the importance of Saudi and Gulf visitors to their nation’s tourist industry. They weren’t concerned with scaring-off Saudi investors or how any diplomatic schism resulting from their behavior might affect Egyptian pilgrims.
However, in a region that is fast splintering, Saudi Arabia and Egypt need each other. If Egypt’s old friends fall by the wayside, it will be obliged to find new ones. And right now there is one calling to it like the mythological sirens that used their charm to lure gullible sailors toward the rocks.
Tehran is calling out to Cairo and it’s evident that at least some prominent figures in the Muslim Brotherhood are listening.
Head of SCAF Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, the Egyptian Cabinet and several political parties are reaching out to King Abdullah with warm sentiments of love and respect for the Saudi nation.
As someone who knows how much Egyptians are suffering now, how much they have endured in the past — and just how much they need their friends during this crucial crossroads in history (even if they won’t always admit it) I would appeal to Saudis to soften their hearts and let bygones be bygones — at least until Egyptians can rally around a leadership empowered to get their country back on its feet.
Egypt’s Minister for International Cooperation suggests the Saudi ambassador will be winging his way back to Egypt very soon. If that’s so, I can only hope the Egyptian people will have enough wisdom and foresight to make him feel welcome.
The writer is a prominent columnist. The article was published in Arab News on May 1, 2012