Saudi King Abdullah’s rare visit to Cairo Friday is a show of solidarity between Arab leaders who make counter-terrorism their battle cry.
As Iraq cracks along sectarian lines, both Cairo and Riyadh condemn the religious extremism of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the Sunni Muslim group making swift territorial gains against Iraq’s Shi’ite-dominated government.
Egypt’s Foreign Ministry has called for a quick resolution of the violence to ensure future generations “can cope with the forces of extremism and maintain the concept of the nation-state in Iraq and the Levant.”
The latter is an apparent reference to Syria, where ISIL also holds ground. Egypt’s current government officially sides with Syria’s opposition, but is extremely wary of having Egyptians fight alongside the more extreme elements, and bringing those views back home.
Saudi Arabia has also condemned the extremism of ISIL, but in a sign of the deeply entangled alliances and suspicions that haunt the region, was forced this week to deny an Iraqi government claim it supports the militants.
Even as questions linger on their respective positions on ISIL, what indisputably binds the leaders of Sunni-majority Egypt and Saudi Arabia is their disdain for the founding group of modern Islamism, the Muslim Brotherhood.
Brotherhood as godfather
Supporters of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi view the Iraqi conflict as a vindication of their government’s crackdown on the Brotherhood and the idea of removing Islamism from politics.
Gruesome videos of the excesses of ISIL bolster their view. So, too, does commentary this week on the Brotherhood’s website, which characterizes the bloodshed in Iraq as a “revolt for freedom.”
“We made it very clear that if you want to play politics, stay away from religion,” said Cairo-based publisher and political commentator Hisham Kassem. A defender of Sissi’s role in ousting Egypt’s first freely elected president, Brotherhood member Mohamed Morsi, Kassem says his country offers an example for Iraq and the region. “Egypt will be teaching a lesson: that we put our foot down early on this religious, sectarian politics.”
For sidelining the Brotherhood, long viewed by the Saudi monarchy as a challenge to its rule, Riyadh has been generously grateful. The kingdom has sent billions of dollars in aid to post-Morsi Egypt, keeping afloat, if barely, its sinking economy.
Of course, few countries mix religion and politics more deeply than Saudi Arabia. With its strict application of Sharia, or Islamic law, human rights groups regularly cite it as among the most oppressively religious-run nations in the world.
Religion vs. rights
Rights groups have also condemned Egypt’s repression of the Brotherhood. The crackdown has claimed some 1,000 lives, seen hundreds sentenced to death and, by the government’s own estimates, at least 16,000 imprisoned.
Yet both Egypt and Saudi Arabia say the answer to the problems in Iraq is tolerance. Officials have urged leaders in Baghdad to move beyond Shi’ite-centered sectarian politics to include more of the nation’s Sunni majority.
The politics of inclusion were also championed this week by the Arab League, that creaking home of regional unity on the banks of the Nile.
Observers note that few, if any, of the League’s member states practice what they preach. In Egypt, one Western diplomat warns that the government does so at its own risk.
“When you see the consequences of a lack of inclusion in countries around the region, even if Egypt is not likely to turn into a Syria or Iraq - historical conditions and composition are different - you still have to worry about the consequences of a not-inclusive policy and continuing the tradition that the winner takes all,” said the diplomat.
That “winner takes all” approach, argue some analysts, may be the region’s one, true common denominator, cutting across the battle lines of sectarianism, extremism, military-backed governments and theocratic rule.