CAIRO — Close allies and Arab powerhouses Egypt and Saudi Arabia are having their first public spat since Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi took office two years ago, a quarrel over Syria that points to a wider, but mostly muted, divergence in the handling by Cairo and Riyadh of regional issues.
The two countries have gone to great lengths to shield their differences from the public eye, often emphasizing their closes ties and cooperation. But Egypt’s vote in favor of separate Russian and French draft resolutions on Syria at the U.N. Security Council over the weekend has apparently angered the Saudis.
Egypt’s U.N. Ambassador Amr Aboulatta, the Arab representative on the council, defended his support for both drafts, saying his country backed all efforts to stop the suffering of the Syrians.
Russia vetoed the French resolution demanding an immediate halt of the bombing by Russia and the Syrian government of rebel-held areas in the northern city of Aleppo.
The Russian draft called for the separation of “moderate” rebel factions from Islamic extremists, but made no mention of a halt to the bombing. It was rejected because it failed to get the minimum nine “yes” votes needed for approval by the 15-member council.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia’s differences over Syria is rooted in Riyadh’s conviction that Syrian President Bashar Assad must be removed for that country’s civil war to end, while Cairo advocates a political process that denies Islamic militants any role in Syria’s future. Riyadh is also opposed to Russia’s military intervention in Syria in support of Assad. Under el-Sissi, Cairo, wishing to see Syria’s institutions and army emerge unscathed from the conflict, has not publicly spoken against the Assad government or the Russian intervention.
In a rare public rebuke to Egypt, Abdallah Al-Mouallimi, the Saudi U.N. ambassador, denounced Cairo’s support for the Russian draft. “It was painful to see that the Senegal and Malaysia positions were closer to the Arab consensus on Syria (when) compared to that of an Arab representative.”