Saudi Arabia has closed its Cairo embassy and recalled its ambassador following protests over a detained Egyptian human rights lawyer. The unexpected escalation followed days of protests by hundreds of Egyptians outside the Saudi Embassy in Cairo and consulates in other cities to demand the release of Ahmed el-Gezawi.
Relatives and human rights groups say he was detained for allegedly insulting the kingdom’s monarch. Saudi authorities denied that and said he was arrested for trying to smuggle anti-anxiety drugs into the oil-rich kingdom.
It was the worst diplomatic tiff between the two regional powerhouses since Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries broke off diplomatic ties with Egypt after it signed a peace deal with Israel in 1979. Diplomatic relations were restored in 1987.
El-Gezawi’s case has revived long-standing resentment over the treatment of Egyptians working in Saudi, which is a destination for more than a million Egyptians searching for better jobs. The lawyer flew to Jiddah on his way to perform a minor pilgrimage, called umrah, to Islam’s holy shrines in the Saudi cities of Mecca and Medina, said his sister Shereen el-Gezawi. The fact that he was arrested on his way to perform a religious rite further inflamed Egyptian sentiment.
His family said he had been convicted in absentia and sentenced to a year in prison and 20 lashes by a Saudi court for insulting the king. However he was not notified of the court’s ruling ahead of his Saudi trip. El-Gezawi had earlier filed a lawsuit in Egypt against King Abdullah over the alleged arbitrary detention of hundreds of Egyptians.
Outside the Cairo embassy earlier this week, protesters chanted, «Down, down with Al-Saud!» referring to the Saudi royal family and other slogans in reference to King Abdullah, the ageing Saudi monarch.
The demonstrators called for the expulsion of the Saudi ambassador in Cairo, and some raised their shoes alongside a picture of Abdullah, a sign of deep contempt in the Arab world. Others climbed over the walls of the embassy in Cairo. In the consulate in the port city of Suez, protesters blocked staff from leaving on Thursday, prompting the military to evacuate them.
The Saudi news agency, quoting a foreign ministry official, said the protests were «unjustified» and attempts to storm the missions threatened the safety of diplomatic staff, in a violation of international conventions. The protests, the official statement said, were a violation of the «sanctity and sovereignty of diplomatic missions». The agency also said the ambassador was recalled for «consultation». Egypt’s foreign ministry had no immediate official reaction.
The Press Association