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Saudi Arabia Closes Egyptian Embassy Following Days of Protests


(The Blaze/AP) -- Saudi Arabia closed its Cairo embassy Saturday and recalled its ambassador following sustained protests over a detained Egyptian human rights lawyer.

The escalation followed days of protests by hundreds of Egyptians outside the Saudi Embassy in Cairo and consulates in other cities to demand the release of Ahmed el-Gezawi.  Relatives and human rights groups say he was detained for allegedly insulting the kingdom's monarch.

Saudi authorities deny the charge and say he was arrested for trying to smuggle anti-anxiety drugs into the strict oil-rich kingdom.

Egypt's military ruler, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, has been in touch with the Saudis to "heal the rift following the sudden decision," the Egyptian official news agency said.

It has been the worst diplomatic tiff between the two regional powerhouses since Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries broke off diplomatic ties with Egypt after it signed a peace deal with Israel in 1979. Diplomatic relations were restored in 1987.

El-Gezawi's case has also revived long-standing resentment over the treatment of Egyptians working in Saudi, which is a destination for more than a million Egyptians searching for better jobs.

The lawyer flew to Jiddah on his way to perform a minor pilgrimage, called umrah, to Islam's holy shrines in the Saudi cities of Mecca and Medina, according to his sister Shereen el-Gezawi.  The fact that he was arrested on his way to perform a religious rite further inflamed Egyptian sentiment.

El-Gezawi's family says he had been convicted in absentia and sentenced to a year in prison and 20 lashes by a Saudi court for insulting the king, but was not notified of the court's ruling ahead of his Saudi trip. El-Gezawi had earlier filed a lawsuit in Egypt against King Abdullah over the alleged arbitrary detention of hundreds of Egyptians.

As Arab uprisings have toppled four longtime Middle Eastern rulers, Saudi Arabia has been worried about signs of rebellion within its borders. Authorities have met attempts to advocate for more rights, as el-Gezawi has done, or question the authority of the monarchy in any way with strong opposition.

Many Egyptians suspect the drug case against el-Gezawi was forced to cover up his human rights work.

Outside the Cairo embassy earlier this week, protesters chanted, "Down, down with Al-Saud!" referring to the Saudi royal family and "Screw you, your majesty!" in reference to King Abdullah, the aging Saudi monarch.

(Related: Trouble in Saudi Arabia Could Trigger Global Alarm Says...Glenn Beck, Er, Brian Williams)

The demonstrators called for the expulsion of the Saudi ambassador in Cairo, and some raised their shoes alongside a picture of King Abdullah, a sign of deep contempt in the Arab world. Others climbed over the walls of the embassy in Cairo. In the consulate in the port city of Suez, protesters blocked staff from leaving Thursday, prompting the military to evacuate them.

The Saudi news agency, quoting a foreign ministry official, said the protests were "unjustified" and attempts to storm the missions threatened the safety of diplomatic staff, in a violation of international conventions. The protests, the official statement said, were a violation of the "sanctity and sovereignty of diplomatic missions."

The diplomatic dispute has also underscored the inherent tensions in the region between Gulf Arab states and Egypt since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak last year in the face of popular protests.

At one point, the Egyptian government said Arab donors have been reluctant to come up with promised money to help the local economy as it suffers following the uprising.

Gulf nations, led by Saudi Arabia, remained publicly supportive of Mubarak even as Western allies called for him to step down. His downfall - and the swift policy shifts in Washington and elsewhere - deeply stunned the Gulf monarchs and sheiks who considered Western backing as an unshakable pillar for their regimes. In response, Gulf states have increasingly banded together to try to stamp out Arab Spring-inspired opposition and build independent strategies to control key regional rival Iran.

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