Egypt, with its vast demographic, cultural, as well as military weight, plays a pivotal role in the future of the Arab World. The direction that the Egyptian revolution takes will not only affect Egypt, but will have a wider impact regionally on the dynamics of the Middle East.
Some might even argue that its effects may even be stronger than the 1979 Iranian eruption, due to the linguistic, cultural, religious and ethnic ties it has to its neighbours in comparison to Iran, as a Persian and Shia state. Thus, it should not come as a surprise that regional powers are constantly intervening and trying to affect and alter the course of events in Egypt in their favour. The most prominent of these regional powers are the Gulf states; namely Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Most analysts have focused on the role of Qatar, as a backer of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE as backers of the Egyptian military. These views offer insights that are relevant. However, they oversimplify the complex dynamics that drive their involvement in Egyptian affairs, most importantly, from a historical context.
The roots of Egyptian-Gulf relations can be traced back to what Malcom Kerr aptly calls “The Arab Cold War”. This term is used to describe the period of struggle between the forces of Arab nationalism, symbolised by Nasser, and other radical regimes with their “conservatives forces”, led by Saudi Arabia. This struggle reached its apex when Egypt intervened in the Yemeni civil war and Egyptian troops encroached on what was considered the strategic back door of Saudi Arabia.
The defeat of 1967, when Israel attacked and destroyed the Egyptian army and occupied Sinai in 6 days, ended this rivalry and settled the Arab Cold War in favour of “conservative regimes”, as Professor Shibley Telhami argues in his study of the Camp David accords. The Egyptian defeat irrevocably altered the nature of political order, from a unipolar order, dominated economically and politically by Egypt, into a multi-polar order, with power shared with the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia. The defeat of 1967, also ushered in a period of ideological decay of Nasserism and Arab socialism, as examined by Fouad Ajami in The Arab Predicament, where Egyptian soft powers severely eroded and the ideological base of the Egyptian military regime was dismantled through attacks from both the left and the right of the political spectrum.
The 1967 defeat also ushered in a period of Egyptian dependence on Gulf states, not only financially and economically through aid, but also socially and politically. The ability of the Gulf states to absorb large numbers of the Egyptian labour force not only provided additional sources of income through workers' remittances for an ailing economy; it also provided a safety valve, reducing social tension that might have otherwise caused largescale instability even more severe than the widespread Islamic insurgency that Mubarak faced in the late 1980s and 1990s.
The question that poses itself is, why was there such severe antagonism between Nasser and the Gulf states? And how could this historical antagonism help explain the current Saudi and Qatari policies towards Egypt. The secret of the antagonism between Nasser and the Gulf states lies in the struggle between nationalist progressive forces represented by Nasser at the time, and the conservative regimes that feared being swept away in the tide of Arab nationalism that was travelling across the Middle East at the time. A struggle that was played out in places like Jordan and Lebanon, where the existing regimes were almost expunged only to be saved by foreign intervention. In other words, it was a struggle between Egyptian nationalist forces, that wanted to extend their hegemony across the Arab World, and conservatives forces that were fighting against this. This antagonism goes a long way towards xplaining the current hostility towards the Egyptian Revolution in particular and the Arab Spring in general.
The Egyptian revolutionary forces, like the Nasser regime before, can be considered representative of Egyptian nationalist forces whose goal is to regain their hegemony not only in Egypt, but across the Arab World. This would naturally involve an intrusion into the Saudi sphere of influence, which can negatively affect the stability of the Gulf states. This would explain the rather strong anti-revolutionary stance of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The success of the Egyptian revolution could have ushered in a period of regional adjustment, similar to the effects of the Iranian Revolution after 1979, or the French Revolution after 1789. The fear is the internationalisation of revolution.
Thus, the Saudis and Emiratis backed the Egyptian military, financially and politically, in its ouster of President Morsi. As I have argued elsewhere, the Egyptian military is the heart of the ancien regime, and as such can be considered to be a conservative, anti-revolutionary force that aims to maintain the status quo. It also continues to play the role of the central pillar of American foreign policy in the region, most importantly, the guarantor of security for the Gulf regimes. A historical case when Egypt acted as a guarantor for the security of the Gulf regimes, is when it moved troops to Saudi Arabia during the second Gulf War to deter Saddam Hussein, as well as the leading role played by Egyptian ground troops during the liberation of Kuwait.
The above explains the support the Egyptian military receives from the Saudis and Emiratis, however, it does not explain the strong antagonism against the Muslim Brotherhood, an issue that has led to deep rifts between Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Can one argue that the Muslim Brotherhood is also representative of the Egyptian nationalist forces, and as such subject to Saudi animosity? As I have argued elsewhere, the Muslim Brotherhood is a conservative mass movement, with rural petty bourgeois roots mainly concerned with sharing power with the existing military caste, rather than overthrowing it. The Muslim Brotherhood seemed keen on inheriting the mantle of the National Democratic Party (NDP), as the civilian junior partner of the military. In other words, they did not pose any threat to the regional status quo, as they were rather trying to appease regional elites.
The roots of this hostility can be traced back to the structure of domestic political order in some of the Gulf States. The main forces that can plausibly challenge the status quo in these states are the forces of political Islam, and as such the Muslim Brotherhood reaching power, even though it was nominal power, in a pivotal state like Egypt was sufficient to unsettle the rulers of different Gulf states. This, however, does not explain Qatari support for the Brotherhood in an apparent break with Saudi Arabia. This can be attributed to the ambitions of Qatar to play a major role in the affairs of the Arab World. Qatar, unlike Saudi Arabia, has little soft power in the Middle East, thus it aimed to create power through financial and media support for a movement that did not pose a threat to the regional status quo. Thus, in a sense Qatar is backing a different political player but is still within the same game.
In the end, what does this support mean in terms of the future of the Egyptian revolution? Since Egypt, as a rentier state, can ignore popular demands and rely on coercion, continuous financial support from Arab states, similar to international financial support, will only act as insulation for the regime from popular pressure. It will also allow the military’s economic empire to flourish and it will spare the regime the sort of financial crisis that is critical in revolutions, as was the case for example in the French and Chinese revolutions. In a way, every dollar of aid retards and weakens the forces of social progress in the Egyptian polity.
Get our weekly email