CAIRO (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia said on Saturday it had recalled its ambassador in Cairo for security reasons after protests in Egypt against the kingdom's arrest of an Egyptian lawyer, marking a diplomatic rupture between the long-time allies.
The withdrawal of the Saudi envoy appeared a sharp message to Egypt's rulers of the need to maintain good ties with a Gulf state that last week agreed to send $2.7 billion to support Cairo's battered finances.
Strong ties between Riyadh and Cairo had already been strained by the upheaval in Egypt that overthrew its president Hosni Mubarak, who was close to the Saudi leadership. The rising power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has also worried many in the Gulf who fear the spread of the Islamist group's influence.
Protests against the April 17 arrest of Ahmed El-Gezawi have grown in recent days, culminating in a demonstration of close to a thousand people at the Saudi embassy in Cairo on Friday during which protesters hurled insults at the kingdom's rulers.
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.
Egypt's ruling military sought to contain the fall-out from what it said was a surprise move by Saudi Arabia. Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of the military council, called the authorities in Riyadh to "heal the rift" while the Egyptian cabinet stressed Egypt's "love and respect" for Saudi Arabia.
Egypt's foreign ministry bemoaned "irresponsible actions" by protesters at the embassy and said they were at odds with "deeply rooted Egyptian-Saudi ties".
In response to a request by Tantawi to reopen the Cairo embassy and Saudi's consulates in Suez and Alexandria, Saudi's King Abdullah said he would look into the matter in the coming days, the Saudi news agency reported.
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.
In an apparent move to ease public anger, Egypt's state news agency published what it said was a copy of Gezawi's confession.
The harsh tone used by protesters towards both Saudi Arabia and its king provoked ire in the largest Gulf Arab state, where newspapers published photographs of the drugs Gezawi supposedly carried alongside editorials condemning criticism of the royal family.
"Everybody understands there's a revolution taking place, but that must not be translated into lawlessness. Attacking embassies and threatening diplomatic staff is not acceptable. Saudis are obviously very angry about it," said Hossein Shobokshi, a Jeddah columnist.
But Egyptians have drawn on the case as an example of what they say is a broader problem their compatriots face in Saudi Arabia. Leaders from across the political spectrum have spoken about a case which appears to have touched a popular chord.
In a statement, the Muslim Brotherhood's political party said the protests at the Saudi embassy showed "the desire of Egyptians to preserve the dignity of their citizens in Arab states".
"We call on the military council ... to take serious measures to resolve the Gezawi problem in a way that guarantees the dignity of Egyptians and at the same time preserves the strength of Egyptian-Saudi ties", it said.
Analysts point to the rise of the Brotherhood as a cause of Saudi concern about the direction of the post-Mubarak Egypt.
"It's no secret that Saudi Arabia is very concerned about losing one of its closest Arab allies and the rise of the Brotherhood," said Shadi Hamid, a political analyst at the Doha Brookings Center.
The Brotherhood's Mohamed Mursi is one of the front-runners in the Egyptian presidential election that gets underway on May 23 and 24, along with ex-Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa and others.
"This is a very sensitive time, but also one when more democratic feelings and impulses get into foreign policy, which means these national pride issues come up more than they did in the dictatorial period," said Gregory Gause, a professor of political science at the University of Vermont.