The Egyptian crisis is having ramifications across the Middle East, and it will come as little surprise to many that as millions of Egyptians poured out onto the streets and President Morsi was toppled, regional actors began to move their chess pieces in expectation of the momentous changes that were occurring.
The rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was seen as an indicator of wider regional trends, following the removal or attempted removal of largely secular foreign-backed dictatorships that had ruled the region for decades. The brutal repression of Islamist actors over the past fifty years, causing a built-up anger and resentment led to the conviction that once these dictators were removed, Islamist politics was the inevitable model for their replacement.
Some erroneously assumed that Turkey would be the leading example of this rise, but it turned out that the Arab world found its own variants of Islam and politics, particularly in the form of the Ikhwan.
By the beginning of 2012 it was common to talk of an Islamist arc stretching from Tunisia all the way over to Syria, in which Sunni Islamic parties, and in particular the Muslim Brotherhood were either rising to power, or gaining ground. Behind this rise stood Qatar, and its enormous wealth. Money flowed into Rachid Ghannouchi’s Ennahda Party in Tunisia, to Ali al Sallabi and Abdul Hakim Belhadj in Libya, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in the Gaza strip, and politically Islamist movements in Syria.
Qatar calculated that these forces were on the rise across the region, and that supporting movements that were coming to power made more sense than opposing them. Furthermore Qatar had housed many Islamist dissidents over the years, including Khaled Mashal, Sallabi and Yusuf al Qaradawi, and possessed the conduits and personal connections to exploit these relationships.
Qatari officials in 2012 exuded confidence in their position, even a brash arrogance. Qatar’s power was increasing daily and the world was subjected to endless news articles about “small state, big influence” and Qatar “punching above its weight”. The region appeared to be moving in a Sunni Islamist orientation, and despite the idiosyncrasies present in each of the countries Qatar was involved with, it was clear that the Qataris had picked what appeared to be the winning side.
But things went bad; Bashar al Assad, with Iran and Hezbollah supporting him, fought back. The National Coalition and the Free Syrian Army remained hopelessly disparate and fractured and began to lose ground militarily. Qatar has now accepted that it must let Saudi Arabia take the lead in Syria after its efforts to remove Bashar have proved unsuccessful. In Libya, anger turned against the Islamist militias roaming Benghazi, and by extension Qatar. Analysts based in Libya have often phoned me to ask what on earth the Qataris were doing, noting that Libyans were angrily turning against them.
Finally the conundrum in Egypt: anti-Morsi activists set alight Qatar’s flag in February, and a number of times in the June protests opposition activists merged Qatar’s flag with that of Israel’s to symbolise their discontent with Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood government. Anger had built over months at the poor performance of the government escalating into the events which led to the revolution/coup/intervention by Egypt’s armed forces and the removal of a defiant President Morsi from power.
Ripples in the Gulf
What is fascinating is the division these events have created inside the Gulf region. Since the fall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011 both Saudi Arabia and the UAE (and also Jordan) viewed the rise of political Islam, and especially the Muslim Brotherhood in the region with fear and suspicion. Emirati policy in particular became more activist, and increasingly hostile rhetoric poured out of the country, its target being the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar, whom it blamed as responsible for funding these destabilising regional trends.
Relations between the UAE and Qatar have undoubtedly suffered recently, and mutual hostility has grown in recent months. At the moment of Morsi’s fall the Emiratis could hardly hide their delight, immediately sending congratulations and their support for what appeared to be a Brotherhood collapse. Qatar’s reaction to Morsi’s downfall was delayed but supportive of the ‘will of the Egyptian people’. Under the circumstances and faced with the potential collapse of their ally, Qatar had no other choice.
Nevertheless Qatar’s position has been both sensible and correct. Faced with a crumbling regional position, their foreign policy in Egypt and Syria is no longer the advancement of their national interest and affecting regional change, but holding the line and preventing any further deterioration of their foothold in the region.
Luckily Qatar’s new Emir Tamim bin Hamad al Thani, has come to power at just the right time. It has often been said that he would be the man to work out a new set of relations with regional partners and redefine Qatar’s place in the regional order. Although very much party to the execution of his father’s policies, now he can appear to be his own man. As such, Qatar can exploit this angle to its advantage and begin to rebuild relations with the UAE, and hedge its bets effectively in Egypt.
One thing is for sure, the process of change in Egypt won’t be smooth and easy. The Salafist Al Noor party, so keen to stand next to Egypt’s opposition factions has now rejected Mohammed al Baradei for Prime Minister and pulled out of Egypt’s new coalition in protest at the army’s use of violence against protestors. As the biggest single faction after the Muslim Brotherhood, their position in any future political alignment is crucial and Egypt will struggle to be stable without their buy in.
As such it would be premature to say that either Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates has actually gained at Qatar’s expense. Until Egypt is able to stabilise and form a political order that involves no bloodshed and begins to improve its disastrous economy, there is nothing to be gained by any Gulf state pumping in untold billions of its oil wealth.
Furthermore Islamists in the Gulf region are furious with what appears to be the abandoning of Islam in the political sphere. Whilst Salafis have serious disagreements with the Brotherhood, they are at least Islamic in their outlook and as such receive Salafi sympathy and support. The prevailing opinion of these Islamists is that those who support the coup in Egypt are against Islam, and that democracy is a farce that cannot accept Islamic ideals. Worrying trends lie ahead and Gulf states would do well to understand that appearing too supportive of Morsi’s downfall could cause domestic instability in their own borders.
Whilst it might be clear that the regional order is now turning against the Islamist/Brotherhood tide, these are not necessarily positive developments. Should Egypt collapse into violence and disarray, supporting the Army might well make the UAE look similar to how Iran and Qatar appear in Syria - one sided backers in a conflict that pulls the country apart rather than unifying it.