Friday,20 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1122, 15 - 21 November 2012
Friday,20 July, 2018
Issue 1122, 15 - 21 November 2012

Ahram Weekly

Gulf cools towards the Muslim Brothers

The Islamist election victories in Egypt and Tunisia have not necessarily been greeted with enthusiasm in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, writes Alain Gresh

Al-Ahram Weekly

Dubai’s chief of police, General Dahi Khalfan Al-Tamim, claims that the Muslim Brotherhood is “a small group that has strayed from the true path”. He also says that the revolution in Egypt “would not have been possible without Iran’s support and is the prelude to a new Sykes-Picot agreement” and that Mohamed Morsi’s election as president of Egypt was “an unfortunate choice”. Like many leading figures in the Arab world, Al-Tamim uses twitter, where he has said that “if the Muslim Brotherhood threatens the Gulf’s security, the blood that flows will drown it.”
Throughout this summer, Al-Tamim criticised the Brotherhood, which he calls “a sinful gang whose demise is drawing near”, and he has called for its assets and bank accounts to be frozen. The authorities in the UAE, of which Dubai is a part, have brought around 60 of the Brothers to court, charged with plotting against the regime.
The pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat belongs to Saudi Crown Prince Salman’s family. Despite its reputation in the West, it has almost no autonomy in matters of Arab politics. The day after Morsi’s swearing-in on 30 June, its editor, Abdel-Rahman Al-Rashed, asked various questions, really those of the ruling Al-Saud family. Would Egypt’s new head of state fight terrorism and oppose Al-Qaeda? Would he continue Egypt’s mediating role over Palestine? Would he genuinely support the Syrian opposition, given his opposition to any foreign military intervention? Would he back Jordan’s King Abdullah against the challenge from the Jordanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood?
Al-Rashed asked “as Iran has long been a strong ally of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, will the new president decide to resume relations with Tehran under the pretext that Iran has embassies and ambassadors in the Gulf states? Will he remain silent about Iran’s ideological and religious activities that have intensified ever since the ousting of Mubarak, as seen in Tehran’s support for local groups and attempts to spread Shia ideology among some Egyptian circles? This is something Al-Azhar [Sunni Islam’s leading institution based in Cairo] has already criticised, warning that Egypt could be threatened with sectarian conflict.”
By September, Al-Rashed was condemning Cairo’s willingness to include Tehran (along with Riyadh and Ankara) in a group formed to find a solution to the Syrian crisis. The Saudi foreign minister boycotted a meeting of this group in Cairo on 17 September.
These warnings, and many others in the Gulf press, have attracted little attention in the West, perhaps because they run counter to the prevailing view: that there is a broad alliance uniting the emirs of the Gulf and the Islamist movements in their wish to impose strict religious order and Sharia, as though a shared conservative vision of Islam superseded political considerations and diplomatic rivalries, national differences and divergent strategies.

NO FORMAL AGREEMENT: There are historical precedents for such a view, even if they are more a matter of politics than religion. In the 1950s and 1960s, thousands of members of the Muslim Brotherhood who had been persecuted in Egypt, Syria, Algeria and Iraq, settled in the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia. But as an Egyptian with links to the Brotherhood points out, “there wasn’t a formal agreement. The organisation had been dismantled and had no leadership structure. But it’s true that the activists who settled in Saudi Arabia provided their new homeland with thousands of members who contributed to the fight against Arab nationalism, especially against the then Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser and against the left.”
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1980 gave the alliance a fresh impetus in the name of the fight against communism. Thousands of volunteers flocked to fight the Red Army, mobilised by the different Islamist groups including Muslim Brotherhood networks (though the Egyptian branch mostly stayed in reserve) supported by the United States and CIA and financed by the Gulf’s oil monarchies.
Al-Qaeda came out of this mobilisation to support Afghan “freedom fighters”.
The seductive hypothesis that the Arab Spring represents the third stage of this holy alliance obscures more complex realities of the post-Cold War era. The first is the split between the Brotherhood and the Saudi monarchy in the early 1990s after the invasion of Kuwait. Saudi’s then minister of the interior, the powerful Prince Nayef, wrote in the Kuwaiti daily Al-Siyasa in 2002 that “the Muslim Brotherhood is the cause of most of the Arab world’s problems and it has done vast amounts of damage in Saudi Arabia. We have given this group too much support… The Muslim Brotherhood has destroyed the Arab world.”
He reminded readers that during the Gulf crisis of 1990-91 he had received a delegation that included Rachid Al-Ghannouchi, the current president of the Tunisian Al-Nahda Party, Hassan Al-Tourabi (Sudan), Abdel-Majid Al-Zindani (Yemen) and Necmettin Erbakan (Turkey), all of them linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. “We asked them whether they would accept the attack on Kuwait. They said they [had come] to collect opinions. But when they arrived in Iraq they surprised us by issuing statements backing Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait,” he wrote.
The prince did not mention another reason for his anger, one shared by other emirs in the region, which was that the establishment of the Brotherhood in the Gulf states and its involvement in protests had affected the kingdom since the first Gulf War. The Brotherhood’s political vision — an Islamic state, but a democratically elected one — diverges from that of Saudi Arabia, which is founded on unquestioning loyalty to the royal family. The latter has preferred to finance Salafist movements instead, which are both divided and numerous, and it has been reassured by their refusal to interfere politically and their support for the powers that be, including the royal family and the Mubarak regime in Egypt.
The divide between Riyadh and the Brotherhood widened in the 2000s, when the Brotherhood joined, through Hamas, the “Axis of Resistance” in the region, along with Iran, Syria and Lebanon’s Hizbullah.

NEW CARDS OF THE ARAB SPRING: The Arab revolutions introduced fresh cards into this scenario. Saudi Arabia and the emirates opposed the uprisings. They saw the successful experiments conducted by the Brotherhood in Egypt and Tunisia as anything but good news. Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi leaders, who had excellent relations with Hosni Mubarak and welcomed former Tunisian president Zein Al-Abidine bin Ali after he fled from Tunisia, refusing to extradite him at the request of Tunisia’s new leaders, resented the Brothers for toppling these dictators and the United States for abandoning them.
The Saudi monarchy set itself up as the centre of the counter-revolution and crushed the revolt in Bahrain in March 2011. Riyadh also supported Jordan’s King Abdullah against protests in Amman, in which the Brotherhood took an active part.
Yet, President Morsi’s first foreign visit on 11 July 2012 was to Saudi Arabia, not out of “Islamist” solidarity, but for the sake of realpolitik. Egypt desperately needs Saudi money, and it has received $1.5 billion and has been promised a further $2.5 billion. More than 1.5 million Egyptians work in Saudi Arabia, and the money they send home boosts Egypt’s balance of payments. Moreover, however much Saudi Arabia might wish to, it cannot cut itself off from Egypt, the most important country in the Middle East.
“Morsi’s visit didn’t solve all the problems,” an Egyptian diplomat has said, and many sources of tension remain, including the treatment of Egyptians in Saudi Arabia and the fate of Saudi investments in Egypt. In April, the Saudi ambassador to Cairo was recalled after demonstrations against the arrest in Saudi Arabia of Ahmed Al-Gizawi, a lawyer accused of drug possession. In August, Essam Al-Erian, a senior leader of the Brotherhood who has become a presidential adviser, asked the Saudi ambassador on twitter to “clarify the crime, penalty and circumstances of the arrest of the Egyptian citizen Naglaa Wafa”, a woman with two children held in the kingdom since 2009 and sentenced to five years in prison and 500 lashes after a financial disagreement with a Saudi prince.
The fate of Saudi investments in Egypt is also a problem. In June 2011, a press release from the wealthy Saudi Prince Walid bin Talal announced that he was “giving the Egyptian people” 75 per cent of the 420 square kilometre of farmland he had bought for a bargain price under Mubarak’s corrupt regime. This avoided possible trouble with the Egyptian authorities. Other inquiries have been initiated by the Egyptian judiciary that are looking at Saudi interests, even though Cairo and Riyadh are trying to minimise the tensions and Egypt has set up a special bureau to try to settle financial disputes with Saudi Arabia.

SAUDI FEARS: Saudi Arabia is not pleased by Cairo’s return to the diplomatic scene after a decade in which Egypt had been largely absent or had been content to follow the Wahhabi lead. Morsi’s travels, first to China in a sign that tête-à-têtes with the United States were over and then to Iran, have confirmed Saudi fears.
The Tehran visit won Morsi some credit with the Egyptian public, who were proud of him for having resisted US pressure, although they were barely aware of the Gulf leaders’ anti-Iranian and anti-Shia rhetoric. To avoid possible conflict with Saudi Arabia, the Egyptian president had to pull off a tricky balancing act: he spent only a few hours in Tehran, didn’t meet Iran’s supreme guide as planned, and refused to talk of resuming bilateral diplomatic relations.
After paying homage to Nasser — astonishing, given that Nasser had violently repressed the Brotherhood in the 1950s and 1960s — he called for the departure of President Bashar Al-Assad from Syria, while at the same time rejecting foreign intervention there, which Saudi Arabia has called for.
During his long exile, Al-Ghannouchi, leader of Tunisia’s Al-Nahda, which is part of the Brotherhood, lived in London in preference to Riyadh. On a visit to the United States in December 2011, he predicted that the Arab Spring would remove the emirs from the Gulf, and this prompted the Saudi daily Al-Riyadh to ask whether that prediction included the emir of Qatar, a major supporter of Al-Nahda.
Relations between Qatar, a Wahhabi state like Saudi Arabia and one that adheres to the strict form of Islam that predominates throughout the Arabian Peninsula, and the Brotherhood are solid. Qatar believes that in the Brotherhood it has found a conduit for its policies, since Qatar doesn’t have a big enough army or enough diplomats or spies to play an active regional role. Its bottomless coffers are its only trump card.
It has made use of the Islamist preacher Sheikh Youssef Al-Qaradawi, who has been in Qatar since the 1970s and whose programme on Al-Jazeera, “Sharia and Life”, has made him one of the region’s most popular preachers. Al-Qaradawi is a religious reference point for the Brotherhood, of which he is a former member, though he maintains his independence and has criticised the sectarianism of the Brotherhood’s Egyptian branch.
Qatar, which flirted for a time with Hizbullah, Syria and Iran, while maintaining solid relations with the US, has opted to back the Brotherhood since the Arab Spring. Al-Jazeera, a channel completely funded by Qatar, has lost much of its lustre and some of its best journalists as a result, and it has become a mouthpiece for the Brotherhood in Egypt and, to a lesser extent, in Tunisia.
The emir of Qatar’s visit to Egypt this August in the middle of Ramadan and his $2 billion deposit at Egypt’s Central Bank to help out the country’s treasury is proof of the strength of the ties. But do they amount to a strategic alliance? The recent tensions between Al-Nahda and Qatar, which has become concerned about the movement’s inability to stabilise Tunisia, suggest not.
The French leader General de Gaulle used to talk simplistically about the “the complicated East”, but it can be analysed using the same political concepts as the rest of the world. However, the application of these concepts still has to win acceptance. The branches of the Brotherhood don’t follow a secret conductor in Mecca with a score based on the dogmas of Islam. Instead, their strategy often follows each country’s national interests, as Morsi’s policy over Israel or Gaza shows (a major disappointment to Hamas).
The Salafis’ political debut in Egypt and Tunisia brings new challenges in the shape of the rapprochement between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and the threats to Jordan’s monarchy. Qatar has moved closer to Saudi Arabia, while remaining distrustful of it, while the Wahhabi Saudi kingdom fears a successful democratic transition in the Arab world, even with the participation of the Brothers. For its part, the Jordanian monarchy is now refusing to coordinate its aid for the Syrian rebels with Qatar, which it suspects of favouring the Brotherhood.
It is hard to understand the regional Islamist landscape when it is viewed through a purely religious lens.

The writer is vice president of Le Monde diplomatique.

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