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Egypt calls for calm in diplomatic row with Saudi Arabia

April 29, 2012 | 11:01 am

CAIRO -- Egypt worked to calm a diplomatic squabble Sunday by urging activists to curb protests against Saudi Arabia a day after Riyadh recalled its ambassador over the case of an Egyptian lawyer arrested for allegedly smuggling banned prescription drugs into the kingdom.

The row between the two allies began April 17 when Ahmed Gizawi, who was on a pilgrimage with his wife to Mecca and Medina, was stopped at Jidda Airport. Saudi authorities accused him of trafficking in large amounts of Xanax. But the case quickly called attention to the lack of rights faced by Egyptian migrant workers in the kingdom. 

Demonstrators claim the charges against Gizawi are a move to intimidate him after he filed a lawsuit against Saudi King Abdullah over the detention of hundreds of Egyptians in Saudi Arabia without being formally charged. But Egyptian officials fear the protests may jeopardize a recent pledge by the kingdom to loan their battered economy $2.7 billion.

"The problems Egyptians in Saudi Arabia suffer from are nothing compared to number of Egyptians living there, which is in excess of 2 million," Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr was quoted as saying by state news agency, MENA. "Does that mean that the whole relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia be put in one hand, and citizen Ahmed Gizawi put on the other?"

Amr also cautioned protesters against "insulting" chants made by activists and epithets drawn on walls of the Saudi Embassy and at consulates in Alexandria and Suez.

Gizawi's wife, Shahenda Fathi, returned to Cairo from Jidda on Saturday. She told Egyptian media that her husband denies the charges, adding that he was detained without their luggage being searched. "This case is because of my husband's work on lawsuits concerning Egyptians detained in Saudi Arabia," said Fathi.

The kingdom recalled its ambassador, Ahmed Qattan, citing security reasons. "Egyptians are making a mistake," Qattan said, adding that some "Egyptians think that they are above the law since the revolution" that last year overthrew President Hosni Mubarak.

Egypt's military leader Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi attempted to contain the crisis Sunday. He said the recalling of the Saudi ambassador was a "surprise decision" and urged his Saudi counterparts to "heal the rift."

The furor also reflects how Egypt has changed since the ouster of Mubarak, a close ally of the Saudi king. Egyptians have long complained of a lack of legal rights while working in the kingdom, but dissent and protests against Riyadh were quickly suppressed by Mubarak's regime.

Egyptian activists and politicians also blame Abdullah for pressuring Egypt's military rulers not to allow Mubarak to be found guilty of complicity to commit murder in the deaths of more than 800 people during the revolution.

A verdict in Mubarak's months-long trial is expected in June. 


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Photo: Angry Egyptian activists protesting outside the Saudi Embassy in Cairo on April 24. Credit: Agence France-Presse / Khaled Dessouki.