It may be the least revolutionary country in the world, but this week Saudi Arabia won the full support of the world’s greatest insurrectionists.
Sayed Sami Hassan has been in Cairo’s Tahrir Square since January 25, 2011, and in that time has seen off an American-backed dictator, a military junta, and an elected Muslim Brotherhood president. He is the sort of street rebel whom, at home, Saudi Arabia’s autocracy most fears.
But this week he gave the absolute monarchs from across the Red Sea his absolute backing. “The Saudis are our brothers,” he said, from his tent in Tahrir’s continuous encampment.
“They are Muslims, they believe in God. President Morsi, now he was an agent of America and Qatar, but the Saudis are helping us.”
The shifts of allegiance in the Middle East in the last three years have been as startling as the convulsions of the Arab Spring itself. But the latest has caught diplomats, analysts and, to the extent they notice the relationships their masters quietly foster, Egypt’s ordinary people by surprise.
Saudi Arabia, not long ago written off as a gerontocracy whose oil billions could not prevent it being outmanoeuvred by a host of rivals in the power struggles of the Middle East, has suddenly re-emerged as the region’s most powerful influence-peddler.
It announced its backing for the military’s swift disposal of President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood government within two hours.
Then on Tuesday it opened its wallet, offering $5 billion in aid. Saudi Arabia’s neighbour and ally, the United Arab Emirates, added $3 billion more, while Kuwait offered $4 billion. In his year in office, Mr Morsi’s government was bailed out to the tune of $8 billion by Qatar – but its Gulf neighbours had beaten that easily in just a week.
There is no evidence that Saudi Arabia was involved in the plot, well-executed and clearly planned in advance though it was.
But the Egyptian defence minister, Gen Abdulfattah al-Sisi, clearly had an air of confidence in Egypt’s future about him when he announced what had happened, despite inheriting an economic black hole, beset by power cuts, fuel shortages, and, it was later revealed, with just two months’ supply of wheat remaining.
On Sunday Egypt’s prosecutor signalled that there would be no let up against Mr Morsi, who remains in detention. It took the unusual step of announcing a criminal investigation against the the country’s democratically elected leader on suspicion of spying, inciting violence and ruining the economy. Several other senior Brotherhood figures already face charges of inciting violence.
The Gulf monarchies are not just being altruistic. While Qatar has emerged in the last few years as the Arab world’s most important, and certainly richest, backer of the Muslim Brotherhood, its Gulf neighbours regard the group’s reformist, populist brand of political Islam with suspicion and, in the case of the UAE, loathing.
It was no coincidence that the UAE’s money was handed over personally by Sheikh Hazza al-Nahyan, the UAE’s national security adviser – this was something close to home, not a matter of charity or mere foreign affairs.
Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE were aghast that President Hosni Mubarak was forced to quit two years ago. They were particularly upset that President Barack Obama, who had originally offered what they regarded as a pragmatic view of the Muslim world in place of his predecessor’s aggressive “democracy promotion”, had not stood behind America’s long-term Middle Eastern place-man.
Neither country has been reassured by what has happened since. Mr Morsi infuriated both by appearing to open the door to rapprochement with Iran, which they regard as the region’s main source of trouble, while both feared Egypt would send support to Brotherhood cells in the Gulf. The UAE only last week convicted 69 people it said were allied to the Brotherhood for “plotting a coup”.
“Saudi and the UAE were very unhappy with Morsi’s government and its impact on the region,” said Theodore Karasik, research director at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. “They took advantage of Morsi’s failures to engineer this change of government and are seeking to shape policy according to their own vision.”
He said there was no concrete evidence of prior negotiation between Egypt’s military and either country. However, Ahmed Shafiq, Mr Mubarak’s last prime minister who lost closely to Mr Morsi in last years’ presidential election run-off, has been living in Abu Dhabi, the UAE capital, and acting as an adviser to its rulers.
Mr Shafiq predicted the coup before the military made its final, 48-hour ultimatum to Morsi. “No doubt, even though I’ve been sitting here [in Abu Dhabi] I’ve had a role in what’s happening,” he said.
Both Gen Sisi and Adly Mansour, the chief justice appointed as interim president by the generals, have old ties with Riyadh – Gen Sisi was once military attache there, while Mr Mansour spent seven years as an adviser to the Saudi ministry of commerce.
The sudden resurgence of Saudi influence is not only being felt in Egypt.
There was a far less-noticed coup in the hotel corridors of Istanbul last week, where the Syrian opposition plot and bicker, a process seemingly so irrelevant to the fighting in Aleppo and Homs that it largely passes unnoticed.
But the day before Saudi’s money was sent to Egypt, it won another small battle when Ghassan Hitto, who was said to be close to Qatar and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, finally resigned as the interim prime minister of the Syrian National Coalition. Two days earlier, Saudi’s man, Ahmad Assi Jarba, a tribal sheikh of more traditional bent, became its president.
Meanwhile, American liaison officers to the Syrian rebels, said to be aghast that Qatar-funded arms supplies are ending up in the hands of jihadists, are trying to work with the Saudis to persuade the “West-friendly” factions to take on the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra even before tackling the Assad regime.
Analysts attempting to decipher the opaque world of the Gulf’s royal families say these moves are not just a sign of rising Saudi self-confidence, but a result of a change of leadership within Qatar itself.
The ruler there, Sheikh Hamad al-Thani, one of the world’s richest men, recently handed over power to his son, Crown Prince Tamim. Although he himself stressed his age, it was seen locally as less of a sign that Qatar was about to become a North Europe-style “bicycling monarchy” and more that conservative local clan leaders were unhappy with his international image as a sponsor of political Islam.
Crown Prince Tamim, a 33-year-old educated at British public schools and less at ease with the fierce rhetoric of Brotherhood clerics, is said to have withdrawn support from his father’s clients. According to one rumour he has even made Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, the Brotherhood’s spiritual mentor and a long-time Qatar resident, persona non grata.
The gilded chandeliers of Gulf palaces are a long way from the painful changes afoot in Egypt and Syria, and certainly from their mass street protests. But it is an irony that leaders of Tamarod, or “Rebellion”, the Egyptian youth protest movement that brought millions to the streets on June 30 to call for Mr Morsi to go, now find themselves allied to Saudi Arabia, where such demonstrations would have been snuffed out months before.
“Stability in Egypt and a successful transition are in the interests of all Arab countries, including the Gulf,” said Mohammed Abdulaziz, one of Tamarod’s three main leaders, words that could have come out of any general or prince’s mouth.
He claimed that Egypt was still the “big sister” or natural leader of the Arab world. “For sure, Egypt cannot just be a client state for anybody,” he said.
At Sayed Hassan’s Tahrir Square tent, an older man backed up his insistence that Egypt had not just replaced America and then Qatar, as sponsors of dictatorship with another – Saudi Arabia. “The Egyptian people will never be tricked again,” said Ahmed Mahmoud, 60. Mr Hassan’s response suggested his rhetoric outmatched his confidence. “Egyptian people” he said, “are deceived sometimes. Just not every time.”