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Arab Allies of US Skittish in Wake of Egypt Unrest

For other US-backed Arab states, events in Egypt are seen as "tragic."

by Caryle Murphy

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia - There is little doubt about how Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz views the historic developments unfolding in Egypt.

The monarch, who is in Morocco recuperating from back surgery, called Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to express his support on Saturday. And then, speaking to U.S. President Barack Obama on the phone, he declared that there could be "no compromise" on Egypt's stability and security, the official Saudi news agency reported.

The agency went on to say that "the tragic events" in Egypt were marked by "chaos, looting, intimidation of innocents, exploitation of freedom and expression and attempts to ignite the flames of chaos to achieve their suspicious goals ... not approved by Saudi-U.S. sides."

The king's stance is markedly different from that of his subjects, some of whom have said they are "happy" and "proud" of the Egyptians. Like Arabs across the region, many say they are rooting for the protesters who have filled Cairo's Liberation Square day after day to demand Mubarak's ouster.

The king is "clearly misreading Saudi public opinion," said Gerd Nonneman, professor of international relations at Exeter University. But it's not surprising given that he and Mubarak "have had a long history together."

The two men - both in their 80s - have been partners in maintaining a pro-U.S. Arab regional order for decades. Together, they compose the two most influential and important leaders of what is sometimes called the "moderate" bloc of Arab states.

These states, which also include Jordan and Saudi Arabia's Gulf neighbors, are willing to negotiate and make peace with Israel - Egypt, in fact, already has a peace treaty with the Jewish state. They support the secular-oriented Palestinian Authority rather than the religiously based Hamas. And even when they vigorously disagree with U.S. policies - such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq - they do nothing to obstruct them.

This predominantly Sunni bloc, which until recently also included Tunisia, is also a key asset in Washington's drawn-out campaign to stop Shiite Iran's hegemonic attempts to spread its influence in the Arab arena.

But now, the potential for a recasting of Egyptian domestic politics toward a more democratic and popularly-based government, raises the possibility of a change in Cairo's role as a fervent standard-bearer for U.S. policies in the region.

They are policies that are deeply unpopular in the Arab world. "The closer you are to American policies and the more tolerant you are of Israeli policies in the region, the more you are considered ‘moderate,'' said Fares Braizat of the Qatar-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, explaining what it means to be among the "moderate" bloc of Arab countries.

"These regimes are aware that they serve U.S. and Israeli interests more than they serve the interests of their own people. This is why the regimes are frightened," Braizat added. "They have not recognized that they have failed to deliver jobs, and opportunities and above all political freedom."

If Egypt were to have a government that puts "the interests of its own people before the interests of Israel and the United States," Braizat said, "this would help those who want their states to stop being satellite states to Israel and Washington."

Several analysts, however, said they do not foresee a major shift in Egypt's foreign policy no matter how the current crisis is resolved, and no matter who ends up ruling the country - for one simple reason: The Egyptian military is, and will remain, the ultimate power in Egypt.

"And the military is clearly Washington-friendly," said Saudi columnist Hussein Shobokshi.
"You have to differentiate between the regime and the president," he added. "The military has a lot of say and a lot of control ... they would sacrifice the president to preserve the regime."

Augustus R. Norton, professor of international relations at Boston University, said, "it is impossible to envision a transition that does not involve the Egyptian military."

As a result, Norton added, "I don't think you'll see an Egyptian government emerging that is too unlike the past in the way they handle relations with the West."

Nonneman, of Exeter University, agreed. "It's not all that likely that Egypt will turn radical in any way," he said. He called predictions that Islamists might dominate a new Cairo government "massively overblown."

"The only thing which can push a more radical, anti-Western agenda would be Western policies and statements supporting [a continuation of] authoritarianism," Nonneman added.

Still, Norton said there would likely be "a messy process of transition" ahead in Egypt and "months of negotiations" over a new political system. "That's not going to be assuring to Saudis who have been comfortable with the status quo."

It's the "messy" part that discomfits King Abdullah and some of his subjects.

"We have seen what is happening in Iraq," said Saudi journalist and TV talk show host Dawood Al Shirian. "Change should be gradual rather than what's happening in Tunisia and Egypt ... To change regimes through the street is very dangerous ... The future is not clear."

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