DUBAI (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia said on Saturday it had recalled its ambassador from Egypt “for consultations” and closed its embassy and consulates in the country for security reasons after protests against the kingdom’s arrest of an Egyptian lawyer.
It was the first public rupture between the two major Arab states since last year’s popular uprising in Egypt that forced Hosni Mubarak, a close ally of Riyadh, from power.
The head of Egypt’s ruling military council, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, said in a statement reported by Egypt’s state media he was working to “heal the rift” with Saudi Arabia and had contacted Riyadh over its “surprise decision”.
Demonstrations outside the Saudi embassy in Cairo had grown in recent days over the arrest of Ahmed El-Gezawi upon his arrival at Jeddah airport on April 17.
Saudi Arabia’s official SPA news agency quoted an unidentified source as saying the protests were unjustified and that attempts had been made to storm the embassy, threatening the safety of its employees.
On Friday around 1,000 protesters demonstrated outside the mission, demanding the release of Gezawi and other Egyptians held in Saudi jails, witnesses said.
“Oh Saudi ambassador, we will respond to every lash with a hundred!” they chanted, some of them showing their anger by removing their shoes and waving them at the building – a gesture deeply insulting in Islamic culture.
Egypt’s foreign ministry bemoaned “irresponsible actions” by protesters at the embassy and said they were at odds with “deeply rooted Egyptian-Saudi ties”.
Activists in Cairo, including Gezawi’s wife, said early in the week that the lawyer was detained when he arrived for pilgrimage after being sentenced in absentia to a year in prison and 20 lashes for insulting King Abdullah.
The Saudi embassy on Tuesday denied that version of events and said he had been arrested for possession of more than 21,000 pills of the anxiety drug Xanax, which is banned in Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi daily Okaz reported on Saturday that he had smuggled the pills inside bottles of infant milk formula and boxes intended to hold the Koran. It said the case had been referred to the kingdom’s prosecution service.
A source in the Egyptian foreign ministry in a statement: “Egypt condemns individual actions undertaken by some citizens towards the embassy of the embassy of sisterly Saudi Arabia, and which do not express anything other than the opinion of the people who undertook them. The Egyptian government has all love and respect for Saudi as a government and people.”
It added: “The Egyptian government condemns these irresponsible actions which harm the deeply-rooted Egyptian-Saudi ties.”
(Reporting by Rania El Gamal in Dubai, Angus McDowall in London and Thomas Perry in Cairo; Editing by Mark Heinrich)