Egypt’s key player: Saudi Arabia

Emily Dyer and Olivier Guitta Researcher, Director of Research, Henry Jackson Society
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The international reaction to Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s violent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood has been more or less the same, at least publicly. Condemning the regime for the violence, while asking for a diplomatic solution, has been the U.S. and the EU’s approach. But one country has remained silent so far and it is the key actor in the crisis: Saudi Arabia.

As long as Riyadh continues to bankroll the new regime throughout the interim period, General al-Sisi will not take American diplomatic efforts seriously, simply because he does not need to. The cancellation of military exercises by the US is just a symbolic gesture. Even withdrawing the yearly $1.3 billion in aid from Washington may be met by a shrug from al-Sisi.In fact, Saudi Arabia has pledged to cover that shortfall, if the US decided to go ahead with this threat.

At this point, it is an understatement to say that President Obama has no leverage over al-Sisi. The proof is the fact that his administration — from Defense Secretary Hagel to Secretary of State Kerry – have made no headway whatsoever in their attempts to find a diplomatic exit to this crisis.

Despite recent reports of Saudi Arabia offering asylum to Mohamed Morsi, its support for the Egyptian military, even after the violent crackdown, is not going anywhere any time soon.

Saudi Arabia is thought to have been heavily involved in President Morsi’s ouster, partly due to its rivalry with the Muslim Brotherhood’s key financier, Qatar, for regional influence in the Gulf. Just days after Morsi was overthrown, Egypt’s new leaders received a $12 billion aid package from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait, and gas shortages that had been plaguing Morsi’s Egypt for months suddenly stopped. Saudi Arabia, with whom General al-Sisi has longstanding connections having been the military attaché in Riyadh, offered its continued support throughout the interim period.

There is no love lost between Saudi Arabia and its Gulf partners, in particular the UAE, on one side and the Muslim Brotherhood on the other. And one can suspect that Saudi Arabia is quite keen on having the Egyptian army do the “dirty work” of eradicating the Muslim Brotherhood.

While the Muslim Brotherhood could have certainly profited from a major gain of sympathy from both the Egyptian street and the international community, the fact that they engaged in violence – attacking three Coptic churches — killed their credibility.

Also placing women and children at the front of the protests, as potential human shields, was not really a major public relations coup.

Being involved, one way or another, in terrorism in Northern Sinai — through Ansar al Jihad — is the cherry on the cake. In fact, since Morsi’s ouster on July 3rd, terrorism in the Sinai has skyrocketed, including the killing of seven Egyptian soldiers on August 15.

As if to prove its involvement, Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Beltagy recently stated that terrorist attacks in Sinai will stop as soon as Morsi is reinstated as president.

The question remains now how far will the crackdown go and how much will the Muslim Brotherhood  be able to retaliate. At this juncture, it looks that the Muslim Brotherhood has a lot of very well-armed and well-trained elements in its midst to inflict damage to the government forces.

General al-Sisi’s cold shoulder towards the U.S. certainly matches the widespread anti-American feeling on the streets, largely due to Obama’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood rather than the June 30th protesters. Al-Sisi therefore gains legitimacy among the Egyptian people every time he speaks out against Obama and, as long as Saudi Arabia continues to send support to Egypt, he will continue to use full force against those who threaten the army’s interests. But the question remains whether Riyadh will sustain Washington’s forthcoming pressure.

Emily Dyer is a Research Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, where Olivier Guitta is the Director of Research.