Pushing back against Saudi Arabia, Egypt resists threatening Iran with military action

Lebanon's Prime Minister Hariri might have done Riyadh's bidding, but Egypt's President Sisis is unlikely to do the same. Here's why.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, right, meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Presidential Palace in Cairo, Egypt. Saudi Arabia's powerful clerics and its regional rivals are increasingly insisting that the stance against Iran is part of a region-wide battle for the soul of Islam. CREDIT: Egyptian Presidency Office via AP Photo.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, right, meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Presidential Palace in Cairo, Egypt. Saudi Arabia's powerful clerics and its regional rivals are increasingly insisting that the stance against Iran is part of a region-wide battle for the soul of Islam. CREDIT: Egyptian Presidency Office via AP Photo.

It’s been four months since the start of the “Gulf Crisis” — the Saudi Arabia-driven blockade against Qatar that includes the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt — with little sign of tensions dissipating. Qatar was presented with a list of 13 demands it has refused to meet, the top one being that it further limit its ties with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s key adversary in the region.

The other Gulf Arab countries playing a role in the blockade clearly have their own issues with Iran: Bahrain accuses Iran of inciting violence within its borders, while Iran blasts Bahrain for its crackdown on the Shia majority largely locked out of power in the country. The U.A.E. also has troubled ties with Iran, accusing it of destabilizing the region, even as it enjoys strong trade ties with the Islamic Republic.

Egypt, however, has always been the outlier in that coalition — it has no serious ideological or security issues with Iran, something that has become increasingly clear as Riyadh tries to increase pressure on Tehran. The Associated Press on Thursday reported that Egypt is resisting Saudi calls to throw “the weight of its military” into the standoff if called for.

Saudi is now facing off against Iran in three countries. In addition to Qatar, it is leading the U.S-backed coalition in the fight against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. More recently, over the past two weeks, Saudi Arabia has challenged Iranian influence in Lebanon, where Iranian-backed Hezbollah has accused Riyadh of forcing Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri to resign and keeping him hostage for the past two weeks.

Egypt’s position in the blockade is squarely about its dislike of Qatar, against which it holds a powerful grudge for its support of the Muslim Brotherhood party after the 2011 uprising in Egypt. In the year following the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood executed a speedy power grab, securing a majority in parliament, with a party member, Mohamed Morsi, taking the presidential office in the elections that followed six months later.

But by July 2013, Morsi too had been deposed and jailed. With a military strongman, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, taking over, nationalistic feelings and acrimony towards Qatar ran high. So angry was Egypt at Qatar’s role in the bolstering of the Muslim Brotherhood — which Sisi promptly declared a “terrorist organization” — that authorities even arrested several journalists employed by Qatar-owned news channel Al Jazeera, locking three of them for over a year.

When Qatar’s financial aid was not longer acceptable, Egypt turned to Saudi for some $10 billion in various grants and loans. It seems entirely possible that Riyadh would now want to cash in on its investment — as some have speculated was the case with Hariri.

But Egypt has risked angering Saudi Arabia in the past and survived largely unscathed. For example, in October it backed a Russian U.N. Security Council resolution that served to block a French one stopping air raids in the Syrian town of Aleppo (Russia and Iran both back the Syrian army against various rebel factions and the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS).

Egyptian journalist and analyst Alaa Bayoumi wrote at the time that while the vote seemed as though it reflected differences in Syria, it was actually about a far bigger issue:

Instead of rallying behind Saudi Arabia in its conflict with Iran, Sisi adopted a vision of Egyptian foreign policy designed to protect his regime, maximise its freedom of movement, and diversify its sources of foreign support — even if such goals contradicted with Saudi and Gulf interests and led him to reach out to the Saudis’ main regional rivals, including Iran itself.

It seems unlikely that there will be an actual war between Saudi and Iranian forces, but the ongoing threats — Saudi has already accused Iran of declaring war after a Houthi-fired missile was intercepted north of Riyadh on November 4 — have Cairo concerned. And the response of the most populous country in the region at the very least reveals yet another Saudi miscalculation: Egypt has made it clear that it will not be dragged into an escalated, military conflict with Iran over Saudi’s issues.

Egyptian media, which is almost entirely state controlled under Sisi, has been sending clear messages on where Egypt stands. Imad Hussein, editor of the Al-Shorouk — an independent newspaper — wrote, “Egypt’s real national duty is to tell our brothers … that we are with them to defend the security of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf and the entire region … But that does not mean that we get dragged by them into wars and conflicts that are essentially sectarian and benefit no one except the enemies of the (Arab) nation.”  In Al-Mastry Al-Yourm, commentator Mohammed Aboul-Ghar, warned that “Coming close to that dangerous (Gulf) region is a horrifying prospect. It’s neither wise nor sound to even talk about that.”

Sisi, for his part, has tried to walk a fine line with Saudi Arabia — he’s defended the government’s mass arrests in what it claims to be an “anti-corruption” plan while warning against military action against Hezbollah and Iran.

But Sisi is also facing massive domestic challenges while he prepares for next year’s presidential elections: He’s been slow to deliver on economic promises while struggling with increasingly bold insurgent attacks within Egypt and trying to stave off a spillover of ISIS fighters from Libya in to his country.

D. Parvaz previously worked for Al Jazeera.