Al-Ahram Weekly Online   12 - 18 July 2012
Issue No. 1106
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Destination Riyadh

President Mohamed Mursi's first foreign trip is to Saudi Arabia, Dina Ezzat reports

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Yesterday evening, as Al-Ahram Weekly went to press, President Mohamed Mursi was scheduled to discuss a host of bilateral and regional issues with the ruler of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud.

In choosing Saudi Arabia for his first overseas trip Mursi is sending a clear message: the parameters of Egypt's foreign policy are as yet unchanged.

Mursi is not expecting the kind of warm welcome Hosni Mubarak used to receive from the Saudis.

"He knows there are sensitivities, concerns over the fact that he is from the Muslim Brotherhood. He is going to assure his Saudi interlocutors that he is not planning any foreign policy choices that will shake the stable positions of Egypt -- especially when it comes to Gulf security and relations with Iran," says a Mursi aide.

Egyptian diplomats say talks between Mursi and Abdullah will focus mainly on bilateral relations and that Egypt's newly elected president will offer his hosts a general review of the current situation in Egypt.

Iran, too, is likely to be on the agenda. Diplomats say Mursi is unlikely to eschew a gradual improvement in relations with Tehran but will not go as far as suggesting an immediate resumption of diplomatic ties.

"The argument he is likely to make on this point is that Iran and many Gulf states have diplomatic representation and that does not intervene with the concept of Arab security priorities in the Gulf area," said one diplomat who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly.

On Palestine diplomats say Mursi is unlikely to tell his hosts what they want to hear.

"The Saudis don't want Egypt to show any leniency towards Hamas but Mursi cannot afford not to be more open. But there is no indication that Egypt is planning to immediately open its borders with Gaza or make any other, similar gesture," says one diplomat.

The Saudis will be more comforted by Mursi's position on Syria. While Egypt will refrain from any direct intervention it is certainly not going to offer any support for the continued rule of Bashar Al-Assad.

But what goes for Syria does not necessarily go for Lebanon, argues one Egyptian diplomat. Mursi, he suggests, is unlikely to follow Mubarak's lead on Hizbullah. While Egypt's new president will shy away from establishing strong ties with Hizbullah, a Shia group that "raises traditional sensitivities in a devout Sunni president" he will respect the group "as an Islamist resistance movement".

The best news Mursi is likely to offer his hosts, according to a leading Muslim Brotherhood figure who worked on Mursi's presidential campaign, is that he is not averse to consulting with parliament and other relevant bodies over issuing a pardon, on medical grounds, for the ousted Mubarak who could then, within the context of a wider agreement, take refuge in Saudi Arabia.

"Khairat El-Shater," says this source, "has said before that if such a move gets the green-light from parliament, and if the Saudis are willing to help Egypt through its current economic challenges, then Mubarak and his family will be allowed to move to Saudi Arabia provided they refrain from intervening in internal Egyptian affairs."

"After all the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces keep Mubarak in hospital and not in jail -- so a hospital here or a hospital there, it could be sorted out."

Mursi's trip to Saudi Arabia comes against the backdrop of the political crisis provoked by his decree recalling parliament after it was judged to have been elected unconstitutionally by the Supreme Constitutional Court.

"Mursi is confident that he can fly to Saudi Arabia and return without being isolated by the military," says one of Mursi's aides.

In Saudi Arabia, however, the aide predicts Mursi will be warned that any collision between the president and the military could have dire consequences for stability.

"We don't intervene [in Egypt's domestic affairs] but it is normal for us to express our hopes for stability in Egypt. It is a major country and its fate affects that of the region," said a Saudi diplomat in Cairo.

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