Conflicts Forum Weekly Comment 5 – 12 July 2013

Conflicts Forum

  • It is becoming more and more clear that Gulf leaders and General Sisi intend - in the words of the former head of Mossad - Ephraim Halevy, to land a resounding and definitive public defeat on the Muslim Brotherhood. Unsurprisingly, Israel has become an enthusiastic collaborator in this project too, liaising directly with General Sisi, with whom Israel has maintained close relations since being Israel’s point-man in the Egyptian military with whom Israel co-ordinated on Sinai.  As a corrolary to the disabling of the Brotherhood, Hamas too increasingly is being demonized to the Egyptian public (by the Army):  It is being labelled as the 'terrorist' hidden hand behind the disorder in the Sinai (see here for an account of the angry public protests instigated against Meshaal and Haniya, when they visited Cairo shortly before the coup).              We are not here talking therefore of any intent somehow to chasten and then bring back the newly contrite Muslim Brotherhood to participation in fresh coalition government in Cairo (as presented in the mainstream reporting), but rather the narrative emerging from the Gulf backers of General Sisi’s coup, in bracketing the Brotherhood and Hamas with al-Qai’da and as terrorists, is to unseat them from politics completely and definitively, in order - again using their words - to restore ‘moderate’ Islam to the region.  In short, the Army and some Gulf leaders are taking up Bush’s failed mission to re-make the politics of the Middle East and of Islam in their own image.
  • And what then is meant by this ‘moderate’ Islam that is to replace Brotherhood Islam?  The root meaning attached to ‘moderate’ by Gulf leaders is not what most westerners understand by the term.  Rather, it reaches back to the Nasserist era when the Saudi King began to co-opt those Brothers who had fled persecution in Egypt under Nasser to seek refuge in the Gulf, into two major al-Saud projects:  the first of these was that the MB intellectual resource was to be harnessed by the kingdom in order to give Wahhabism the academic respectability, which, until this point, it had wholly lacked; and the second initiative was make this newly respectable doctrine (Salafism) the sole legitimate ‘voice’ of Sunni Islam (this was the main purpose behind the Muslim World League, established in 1962).  The Saudi King wished to see the end to the multiplicity of ‘voices’ in Islam, and to confine it to a singularity of expression.  And for this - and into this (especially the League), the Kingdom poured its vast oil resources (thus inadvertently and paradoxically, providing the funding which permitted the Brotherhood to lay down its MB cell system throughout the Gulf under the cloak of furthering the Saudi projects – a network which Gulf rulers now feel threatens them directly).  The Brothers did indeed draft for the al-Saud the ‘model’ of the first Muslim communities as the blueprint for modern Sunni Islam, but the Muslim Brothers then gave ‘the model’ their own strategic twist: they gave political ‘sovereignty’ to the people) – rather than to ‘traditional authority’; or in other words, to the King, as the Saudi’s had intended.  The al-Saud have never forgiven them. So, in many ways the ‘moderate Islam’ which the Gulf leaders claim to be sponsoring, is the (supposedly) apolitical, docile Islam, which defers to kings and monarchs (rather than the Islam which claims a legitimacy that springs from the people) – it is, in other words, the Gulf model of Salafism, of which Wahhabism is one orientation, which is required to be obedient to traditional authority, and which practices a literal emulation of the first Muslim communities.  This model of Islam has become (in the Gulf) closely married to the neo-liberal economic practice. Again we hear (as we have from certain academics, such as Olivier Roy, at various points over the last 20 years) that now this 'shattering blow' to the Brotherhood marks the end of the road for political Islam.  This being echoed by liberals as well as neo-conservatives in the region and in the West:  Whilst it is true, that after this coup, the Muslim Brotherhood cannot continue as it has, by promising a path to power to be achieved through patience and legitimacy;  it would nonetheless be a mistake to underestimate the deep roots of this huge movement.  But even if the Brothers have been dealt a major reversal, the present euphoria amongst Gulf leaders and in Israel is misplaced.   Shi'i Islamism is vibrant and increasingly self-confident, but the the main gainers of the void left by the Egyptian 'decapitation' will be the Salafists.  Salafists now are far from being apolitical – or respecters of 'traditional authority' of yore.  It is this current – radical, jihadist Salafism – that is increasing exponentially throughout the Caucuses, Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa.  One only has to look to Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and north Africa to see this. Of course many Israelis (and others) yearn for the return for a 'responsible adult' in the region,  believing that the Mubaraks and autocrats of the region were the pivots on which the security and stability of the region (and Israel) rested (see here for leading Israeli commentator, Ben Caspit’s, mourning for the Mubarak of days past).   But this constitutes the paradox of the West's present posture.  In seeking to enhance Israel's security, it finds itself increasingly allied, directly and indirectly, with far more dangerous and violent Islamic currents in a struggle against those Islamic movements (and secular states) which just happen to be the bogeymen of Israel and Gulf leaders.  What is striking is that there is no critical analysis of  the wider consequences to such actions, such as has just happened in Egypt, in the corridors of power in Europe.  In brief, this Gulf ‘project’ is about returning the region to ‘traditional authority’ and crushing the notion of ‘sovereignty of the people’ – by expelling such notion from Islam altogether.  It is about saving autocracy. The question is whether such an anachronism is possible to sustain today in a region undergoing tectonic shift, and for that we shall have to wait and see.  Much hangs on the outcome.  Will the military coup in Egypt reshape the region as the Saudis have gambled? Or will the coup, in and of itself, become the detonator to a series of changes that will tip the region in an entirely different direction to that expected by its protagonists?
  • What is also clear, is that so engrossed has been the Gulf with the prospect of landing this resounding defeat on the Muslim Brotherhood that little real attention has been given to the substance of all this.  Yes, the Brotherhood has been decapitated (the Guidance Office and Shura have been disabled, new arrests ordered and political detentions continue throughout the Gulf).  But, in fact, wider Sunni political Islam has effectively been decapitated too (Erdogan discredited, the Sheikh of al-Azhar in retreat and Qaradawi now precariously holding on in Doha). Who are Sunni Islam’s leaders now?  Sunni identities are in disintegration.  It is true that General Sisi’s coup has shown the Muslim Brotherhood to be essentially hollow: all organization and no vision. But is the army better placed?  It has received financial support from its sponsors (though much of it is in loans or cash deposits at Egypt’s Central Bank), to keep the wheels turning, but real reforms will require more. They require some critical mass of popular consensus – and consensus is precisely that which seems presently to be unavailable in Egypt.  The army has has created a political void of fragmented interests.  The secular/liberal/Leftist current is on a 'high', and in no mood to compromise one jot; and the Salafists will have to be accommodated to pay off the Army's debt to Saudi Arabia.  This seems an unworkable combination.  And who will be the emergent leaders of this now leaderless Egyptian Brotherhood Islamic current; and what will be their natures?   Why should one imagine they will be more ‘moderate’?  And now that Morsi has gone, the Egyptian opposition, united only by its hatred of the President, is already presenting publicly its own deep divisions.  It seems probable that the Army will be thrown back to increasing reliance on members of the 'deep state' to constitute a government – and this will please no one.  Expect Salafist dissatisfaction in Egypt to be transmitted back into Gulf Wahhabism too.
  • The US and Europe’s response to General Sisi’s coup – with its prevarication towards international legal norms - has created other tensions too.  Although the Quartet Envoy Tony Blair’s tour of the TV studios in support of the army’s coup has drawn criticism and disdain in Europe, he is still regarded in the region as a bell-weather for a certain form of conservative US thinking.  So Blair’s new interventionist creedsuggesting that a lack of ‘efficacy’ in government coupled with the manifestation of sizeable public protest, validates an army coup must have sent shivers down the AKP spine. Erdogan reportedly immediately called a crisis meeting of the government to consider whether the recent protests in Turkey had been inspired precisely in order to prepare the way for an army intervention directed against the Turkish supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood too.


3 Comments

  1. Rahiel wrote:

    Very informatie article. Thanks.

  2. Brunella wrote:

    If I remember correctly you were the first in early 2012 to point out that what one was confronted to in Syria and from there on in the whole region was a very deep Sunnism crisis .You were right and beginning in Damascus we started end of 2011 to hear voices pointing to this very crisis.I think of the late Dr.Bouti and Dr.Schueibi notably.

  3. alig wrote:

    interesting analysis.how are islamic organisations like Indian subcontinent based Jamate islami and tableghee jamaat fit into saudi Wahabbi expectations of saudis?