Regarding the current crisis in Egyptian – Saudi relations, and this is not the first crisis in the history of modern relations between the two countries over the past 5 or 6 decades, there is a new and more dangerous element that has not been seen before, namely the popular dimension. This coincides with the regrettable incidents that took place in front of the headquarters of Saudi diplomatic missions. The popular dimension is being fed by the new social networking media, which in some cases contributes to fanning the flames by publishing rumors or false news, not to mention the incitement that is provoked by television talk shows without any consideration for the mutual interests or links [between the two states] that are difficult to ignore.
It is strange that many were surprised – despite what happened – by Riyadh’s decision to recall the Saudi Ambassador from Cairo and to close its diplomatic missions in Egypt. Saudi foreign policy is characterized by its prudence and the fact that it does not take hasty, emotional steps, especially with other Arab states. It always strives to keep the door for dialogue open, which means that the anger that is present today is unprecedented with regards to previous diplomatic crises.
The new element this time – which can be seen from the reaction on the street or on social networking websites – is that the anger at what happened is not just at the Saudi official or governmental level, but also at the level of ordinary people, who welcomed Saudi Arabia’s decision [to close its embassy] in response to what happened in Cairo. No one can blame them for this, if we imagine that the opposite occurred for any reason, and Saudi citizens in Riyadh stormed the Egyptian embassy and vandalized it with offensive words or slogans, would we not see a wave of anger on the Egyptian streets?
The popular dimension of the reaction is what we must work to contain, and we must not allow some to take this too far. This can be achieved by giving priority to the voices of wisdom, reason and calm. The interests, relations and geo-politics that exist between the two countries have never been severed in the past, nor will they be severed in the future, because the bond between the two countries is stronger than any transient dispute that may occur.
On the Egyptian side, the Saudi decision – although it is not a positive one – may have its benefits amidst the state of over-excitement that exists towards everything on the Egyptian scene. On the one hand, it may serve as a reminder to everyone that foreign relations are not to be taken for granted; there are rules governing these which must not be exceeded, and it is the responsibility of the host country to protect the diplomatic missions present on its soil. Political groups cannot impose their will on foreign parties by demonstrating or storming an embassy, otherwise there would be a state of chaos and mob rule. If there are complaints or grievances, there are diplomatic and legal ways to address them, rather than transforming international relations into the laws of the jungle.
The Egyptian street and its mobilization should be for local issues. Yet can you believe that after the 25 January revolution, a popular diplomacy delegation was sent to Ethiopia to address the issue of Nile water resources? Do people really believe that countries manage their interests and intentions with conversations in cafes, rather than by strategic interests? If so, this is delusional! The role of the elite is to educate the masses, not incite them. After the revolution in Egypt, many criticized the disputes that had previously occurred between Egypt and Algeria over football, the impact of which continues to this day, holding the former regime responsible for what happened, claiming that it promoted the escalation of such matters for its own reasons. Today, forces are emerging saying that they are the true revolutionaries and they should solely represent the country and its interests, contrary to all international norms and conventions. This only makes the country appear backward and underdeveloped.
The strangest thing is the eruption of this battle now and its timing. The issue of the Egyptian lawyer, who was arrested in Saudi Arabia accused of smuggling illegal pills, is not the first and will not be the last. As long as there are tens of thousands or millions who travel or work between the two countries for various reasons, there will inevitably be problems and personal issues, and for every issue to turn into a crisis, this is a display of backwardness. To consider how the world deals with circumstances such as this, there are, for example, Western Europeans who have been imprisoned or tried in Saudi Arabia, or even in Egypt, in cases where they have violated laws which are not considered violations in their own countries. Yet we do not hear about one embassy being stormed or vandalized; there are diplomatic channels to deal with such cases.
Let us demonstrate some wisdom, gentlemen, for the situation today can be summed up by the famous Egyptian proverb about an individual that will fight anything, including even the flies around him!
The writer is Asharq al-Awsat's Deputy Editor-in-Chief. The article was published in the London-based newspaper on May 1, 2012