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In his first foreign trip since being elected last month, Egypt’s President Mohammed Mursi paid a visit to King Abudullah and Saudi Arabia on Thursday, seeking to repair relations with the Kingdom following several months of diplomatic conflict. The trip also sent a signal to Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that the new president would respect the traditional alliance between the military and the Saudis who have given strong political and economic support to the generals in the past. This is important as Mursi continues his climb down from his ill-advised confrontation with SCAF and the nation’s courts over the recall of Parliament — dissolved by SCAF following a court decision that invalidated a third of the outcomes in the election last year.
Mursi now says he wants “consultations” with all those concerned and has specifically said that he will obey the court’s decision on Tuesday that invalidated his decree re-opening parliament. While in Jeddah for talks with the king, Saudi officials offered to mediate the constitutional dispute between Mursi and the generals if the Egyptians request it.
Another purpose of the trip was to assure Gulf states that any outreach by Egypt to Iran would not threaten the Saudis. Egypt is one of only three states — Israel and the US are the other two — who do not have relations with Tehran. Mursi needs Saudi Arabia far more than he need the Iranians and the president is returning home with promises of more economic aid to bolster Egypt’s sagging economy. While there have been tentative feelers to Iran put out by the Egyptian government, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has invited Mursi to Tehran, the president’s Saudi trip sends a clear signal that the Islamists will likely not be receptive.
Without much fanfare, the Saudis have poured more than $3 billion into Egypt in the last few months, mostly in the form of loans and loan guarantees. On June 2, the Saudis put $1 billion into Egypt’s foreign exchange reserves and bought $500 million in Egyptian government bonds a few days later. And on June 8, the Saudis announced that Egypt could use a $750 million credit line to import desperately needed fuel products. The Saudis also arranged a $1 billion pledge of assistance from the Islamic Development Bank.
What is remarkable is that this assistance was occurring against a backdrop that included a temporary recall of the Saudi ambassador and consular officers from two consulates. The recall occurred following violent protests in front of the Saudi embassy in Cairo over the detention of a human rights lawyer. Prior to that, there had been friction over the delay in getting some Egyptian pilgrims to Mecca home in time for the Eid, one of Sunni Islam’s holiest holidays.
But the biggest obstacle to resuming normal relations between the two countries was the Saudis’ strong support for former President Hosni Mubarak during the protests that eventually toppled him. The Saudis are wary of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties in Egypt, due to the Kingdom’s paranoia about opposition religious parties and the Brotherhood’s desire to establish a new caliphate.
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