Just two years after helping orchestrate the coup which brought down the Muslim Brothers in Egypt, Saudi Arabia’s rulers are turning to the movement’s international affiliates for help in constructing a ‘Sunni front’ against the Shi’ite clients of Iran. A peculiar alliance, but explicable, writes Alain Gresh in Orient XXI.
The old men who rule Saudi Arabia fear one thing above all else: the ballot box. More specifically they fear the hazy but entirely plausible prospect of an “Islamic Republic” arising in the minds of the kingdom’s pious subjects. That was why they and the other Arab monarchies plotted against the Muslim Brothers in Egypt. And beyond the violent sectarian rhetoric, that is perhaps why they fear the example of Shi’ite Iran, Islamic and republican and increasingly assertive.
In early February 2014, the Saudi press published a royal decree announcing a punishment of between three and twenty years in prison for “membership in any religious or intellectual movement, or any groups or formations defined as terrorist, either nationally, regionally or internationally; as well as any support of any kind for their ideology or their vision, and any expression of sympathy with them.” The main target? The Muslim Brothers. The kingdom had been unsparing in its support of the military coup which had lately toppled the Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt on July 3, 2013, replacing him with army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sissi.
But now, 18 months later, the landscape has changed. Riyadh is welcoming delegations from Palestine’s Hamas, Tunisia’s Ennahda, and Yemen’s al-Islah, all three organizations linked to the Muslim Brothers. And at the same time, the rhetoric of the Saudi media toward the Brothers-unlike in the neighboring UAE-has softened and become more nuanced.
The Saudi reorientation has nothing to do with religion or differing interpretations of the Quran. Instead, it is indicative of the geopolitical and regional perceptions of leaders in Riyadh. Relations between the Saudis and the Muslim brothers have had their ups and downs in recent history. In the 1950s and 60s, the kingdom served as a refuge for members of the movement who had been run out of Egypt, Syria and Iraq. From 1979 on, this alliance, now sponsored by the United States, was consolidated on the ground in Afghanistan, with the war against the Soviet “Evil Empire.” But the first Gulf War of 1990-91, together with the end of the Cold War, put an end to this entente.
The powerful Saudi Interior Minister of the period, Prince Nayef, detailed Saudi Arabia’s dispute with the organization in an article in the Kuwaiti daily Al-Seyassah in 2002. “The Muslim Brothers are the source of most of the problems in the Arab world, and have caused enormous damage in Saudi Arabia. We have given this group too much support, and they have destroyed the Arab World.” The prince recalled that during the Gulf crisis of 1990-91, the Brothers had not supported the Saudis against Saddam Hussein.
What the prince failed to mention was a different cause of his fury, shared with other emirs of the region: the growth of the Muslim Brothers inside the societies of the Gulf during the 1990s, and their participation in the disputes that raged through the kingdom after the Kuwait war around the movement to transform Saudi Arabia into a constitutional monarchy. Because their political vision – yes, an Islamic State, but one based on elections- was different indeed from that of the monarchy, which is based on unfailing allegiance to the royal al-Saud family. The family instead opted to finance numerous Salafi movements, with their reassuring refusal to participate in politics, and indeed to support the powers that be, whether they were the Royal Family, or, elsewhere, Hosni Mubarak.
Between 2011 and 2013, the successes of the Muslim Brothers across the region, the sight of organizations reclaiming both Islam and the right to vote settling into public roles provoked a panic in Riyadh. And so, from Egypt to Yemen, the Saudi regime orchestrated a counter-revolution, a counteroffensive which has to date been successful.
But after the Muslim Brothers in Egypt were crushed, the principal obsession of Saudi leaders shifted to Iran. Their primary objective now is to contain this ‘menace’ in Iraq, in Syria, in Lebanon, in Palestine and in Yemen, mainly through the construction of a so-called “Sunni Front” to contain the “Shi’ite Heretics.” An objective that became all the more urgent with the signing of the 5+1 nuclear accord and the prospect of a detente between Washington and Tehran.
The reigning dynasty has thus opened new channels of discussion with the Muslim Brothers, cautiously but resolutely. Cautiously, because the Muslim Brothers ultimately remain dangerous, especially inside the kingdom. But resolutely because the Iranian menace is the priority in the short and medium term. According to people close to the organization, the first tentative contacts were initiated in the final months of the reign of Abdallah, but they intensified after the king died on Jan. 23 and was succeeded by his half-brother Salman. The new king’s much more proactive approach soon made itself felt regionally when the Saudis intervened in Yemen, first with aerial attacks and later with ground troops, and it meant the kingdom would need to construct a “Sunni Front.”
And it was in Yemen that the rapprochement with the Brothers began, helped by the support that Muslim Brothers from numerous countries expressed for Riyadh’s military operations there. Al-Islah, the Yemeni organization affiliated with the Muslim Brothers, had confronted the Houthis early on, and naturally found itself part of the coalition supporting the Saudis there, where it plays a significant military role supporting the Saudi intervention thanks to the leadership of Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar. After the seizure of Yemen by the coalition’s forces this summer, the “official” government appointed al-Islah member Nayef al-Bakri governor of the city of Aden. But this nomination raised tensions and discontent in the United Arab Emirates, which had dispatched a significant military contingent, and al-Bakri’s future is unclear. Another Islah leader, Abdel Majid al-Zindani as well as other members have taken refuge in Saudi Arabia, where until last year they had been barred from entry. Riyadh meanwhile continues to give Al-Qaida on the Arabian Peninsula free rein in the southeastern part of the country, where that organization controls Mouqallah.
Syria is the only Arab country where Saudi Arabia, after some initial months of hesitation, committed itself to bringing down the regime. In spite of the evolving positions of the Americans and the French, the Saudi regime, like the Turkish government, remains committed to overthrowing Bashar al-Assad. Under Ankara’s direction, and aided by Qatar, a movement to unify the Islamist forces there is being constructed, under the aegis of the Army of Conquest. It is a coalition that includes not only the Muslim Brothers, but also the Nusra Front, the Syrian arm of Al-Qaeda.
A final example of this Saudi shift: Hamas, long close to Iran, but whose leadership left Syria in 2012, and is torn between loyalty to the Muslim Brothers in Syria and elsewhere, and to Iran which has supplied it with significant military aid. Although there were several announcements last year that the chief of Hamas’s political bureau, Khaled Meshaal, would be visiting Iran, in the end it was to Arabia that he went, in July of this year. He was able to meet with the king, the crown prince, and the vice-crown prince, putting to rest a feud that had lasted for several years. He obtained the release of Hamas prisoners in the kingdom and provoked the ire of the Iranians. “This is not the first mistake by Hamas,” said Mansour Haqiqatpour, vice president of the Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy commission. “He had been forewarned, but he didn’t understand. […] If Hamas doesn’t correct its line, it will no longer be able to call on the power of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
The Saudi-Brotherhood rapprochement has been received with equal-or greater-discomfort in Egypt. Cairo has maintained a blockade of Gaza, demolishing more than 3,000 buildings near the frontier and preparing to inundate the smuggling tunnels [which feed the Palestinians of the strip]. Hearing Tunisia’s Ennahda leader Rashed Ghannouchi on a visit to Riyadh in June promoting reconciliation the Egyptian regime and the Muslim Brothers worsened the discomfort. Egypt’s rulers claim there is no difference between the Muslim Brothers, Al Qaeda, or the Islamic State Organization [ISIS]; the same parallel drawn by the Israeli government with Hamas. A large part of the Egyptian regime’s legitimacy rests on its claim to have “saved” the country from the Muslim Brothers.
Officials deny that there has been any worsening of relations between the two regimes, and they have too many interests in common to go into confrontation. The Egyptian press of today is closer to the regime than it has ever been since the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser; it is a good barometer of official Egypt’s disquiet. During Meshaal’s visit to Riyadh, the government weekly Rose el-Youssef published a column by the journalist Ahmed Shawqi al-Attar, stating that “Saudi Arabia has sold Egypt out,” and calling for Egypt to resume diplomatic relations with Iran. The prominent journalist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, onetime advisor to Nasser, simultaneously made the same demand in the Lebanese daily al-Safir.
In Yemen, Egypt supported the Saudi intervention-although it has so far refused to send ground troops-but on the Syria issue Cairo has been very reluctant when it comes to the attempts to overthrow the regime. The government daily al-Ahram passed a significant milestone on Sept. 9 when it ran an article by a prominent journalist, the former head of the journalists’ syndicate Makram Mohamed Ahmed, denouncing those who have “supported the American plan to partition the Middle East” and saluting the Syrian Army for defending the country’s sovereignty. He added that the refugees were fleeing not President Bashar al-Assad, but the Islamic State Organization. And he denounced the supporters of the Free Syrian Army, among them, he said, the Muslim Brothers. His conclusion confirmed the general thrust of the article: “Whatever the crimes of Assad, they pale beside those carried out by the terrorists.”
Clearly, unfailing friendship between Saudi Arabia and Egypt is a myth. And in spite of their strategic alliance, the two countries are going to have to come to terms with their divisions, in the shadow-still terrifying to the regime in Cairo-of the Muslim Brothers.
Alain Gresh Translated from French by International Boulevard
02 Oct 2015