Muslim Brotherhood faces tough decision

20 March 2014

In the face of Saudi Arabia’s hard line, the Muslim Brotherhood must choose its future direction

In March 2013, the Muslim Brotherhood and its backers dominated the Middle East’s fast-changing political stage. And of its state backers, Doha in particular was basking in the glow of success for its role in the overthrow of entrenched regimes in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. 

One year on, the pendulum has swung the other way. The Muslim Brotherhood has gone from ruling Egypt to being a proscribed terrorist group. Qatar too, has found its self under intense pressure for its support of the organisation, with Riyadh, Manama and Abu Dhabi pulling their ambassadors out of the country in early March.

Riyadh issued a decree on 7 March designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation, despite the group’s denouncement of violence decades ago. Government officials have compared it with the likes of Al-Qaeda, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Nusra Front in Syria.

Anti-Brotherhood momentum

The moves reinforce an anti-Brotherhood momentum that has been visible in the region since the Army-led overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood’s former Egyptian president, Mohamed Mursi, in July 2013. Since then, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, Kuwait and the UAE, have ploughed more than $12bn in aid into the new military-backed government, led by Field Marshall Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, who is expected to contest Egypt’s presidential elections this summer.

The UAE’s stance on the Brotherhood matches Saudi Arabia’s. Dubai’s former chief of police, Dhahi Khalfan Tamim had warned in 2012 of the group’s menace, going so far as to say Kuwait would be the starting point of a Brotherhood takeover of the Gulf region.

In January, the Federal Supreme Court in Abu Dhabi sentenced 20 Egyptians and 10 UAE citizens to up to five years in prison on national security charges. Prosecutors alleged the group was linked to an Emirati Islamist society known as Al-Islah, which they said was an international branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.

“A growing trend is for the Brotherhood to separate its political work from the rest of its activities”

Nathan Brown, George Washington University

In response to this shift in fortunes, the Brotherhood’s main state backers in the region, Turkey and Qatar, have been much quieter in their support of the group, but relations have not stopped altogether. “It has taken years for Turkish and Qatari policymakers to cultivate these links, and they know that, despite the repression, the Brotherhood’s relatively centrist vision of political Islam and the group’s organisational structure is likely to keep making it an important actor to be reckoned with for some time to come,” says Raphael Lefevre, a research fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut. 

Lefevre says that Riyadh’s diplomatic spat with Qatar and its designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation is unlikely to re-balance the regional equation. Instead, a further polarisation of existing tensions can be expected.

At one end of the spectrum is Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party, which has been tightly controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood leadership, but has since been outlawed following Mursi’s removal. However, the Brotherhood also has affiliated or sympathetic groups and parties across the region, some of which are now in government, such as Ennahda in Tunisia and the Justice & Construction Party in Libya. Few analysts expect the Saudi move to translate into a grand strategy for the region; rather, Riyadh will require a different approach for each country to match the Muslim Brotherhood’s own country-specific political strategies and ideological tendencies. These are often some way off the policies adopted by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood when it was in power.

Political legitimacy

“Look at the PJD [Justice & Development Party] in Morocco and Ennahda in Tunisia: they are in government. Even the Kuwaiti government treats the Islamic Constitutional Movement in parliament as a legitimate political actor,” says Nathan Brown, professor of Middle Eastern law and politics at the US’ George Washington University. “Saudi Arabia is unlikely to put this all at risk by following a broad-stroke strategy against the Brotherhood. This is about Egypt and Saudi Arabia’s domestic Brothers.”

Riyadh’s decision to brand the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group is aimed at undermining domestic support for the Egyptian and Saudi chapters of the organisation at a critical time in Saudi Arabia’s history, rather than a grand regional strategy targeting all Brotherhood chapters across the region.

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, for example, is a significant player in the opposition to the Bashar al-Assad regime, especially in the politics of Syria’s opposition in exile. In providing support to the opposition, it is difficult for Riyadh to isolate the Brotherhood’s supporters.

Syria’s chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood formed a political party in December. It is called Waad, meaning ‘promise’ in Arabic. Exiled in Turkey, the group describes itself as a national party in an Islamic framework adopting democratic mechanisms. The party has been at pains to represent itself as centrist and open to all segments of Syrian society, which is notable in the context of Syria’s increasingly radicalised opposition movement.

“Saudi Arabia’s decision is likely to encourage the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood to progressively and quietly withdraw from opposition politics and refocus its work inside Syria through charity and military activities,” says Lefevre. This would leave the political work to Waad, which is made up of the Muslim Brotherhood, other Islamists and some national figures, some of whom hail from the minorities.

This reinforces the argument that the impact of Riyadh will affect different branches of the Muslim Brotherhood in different ways. “We should not expect all of them to face repression or regional marginalisation in the way the Egyptian Brotherhood does today. Even Hamas is unlikely to be affected. There is some tension, but there are no concrete moves against them,” says Brown.

“A growing trend, however, is for the Muslim Brotherhood to separate its political work from the rest of its activities, be they religious or social. That would allow the group to solve many of the problems it is currently facing and it would encourage its political wing to treat politics in a less absolutist and ideological way, instead encouraging compromises and pragmatism.”

One of the toughest challenges for the Brotherhood is to shake off its image as a secretive organisation controlling various political parties, such as Waad in Syria, from behind the scenes. The accusation of a hidden agenda has haunted the Brotherhood across the region and undermined its civilian parties.

For the Muslim Brotherhood’s affiliated political organisations to be seen as autonomous, it will need to reduce its political activism and focus its membership on its core missions of providing a social support network for the poor and religious proselytising. 

Along with many other regional Islamist groups, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has struggled to choose between mainstream politics or mobilising mass support through its networks of welfare workers and the provision of grassroots social services that have been the group’s backbone.

The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood was banned in 1954 after a failed assassination attempt by one of its members on Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. It abandoned its more radical positions and turned to non-violent resistance in the 1970s. Members are allowed to stand for parliament as independent candidates, but not as a party.

The Brotherhood was a latecomer to the Egyptian revolution in 2011, but became an important force in pressing for civilian government.

Brotherhood reaction

Mursi, currently on trial for inciting murder through his role in suppressing protests against his government before his ouster, serves as a reminder to Islamist groups that choosing a democratic path provides no guarantee you will be allowed to stay in power. The designation of his party as a terrorist group, on what supporters say is relatively flimsy evidence, also serves as a case in point.

How the Muslim Brotherhood reacts in Egypt will be critical.

“It wasn’t just the 3 July coup, but the subsequent repression and killing of a thousand people,” says Brown. “This probably led some of the rank and file Brothers to feel alienated and exposed. Their views on the definition of non-violent action may have extended to things like throwing Molotov cocktails. This is a worrying trend. The people who would have previously gone to the Muslim Brotherhood, may now be looking at Salafist and even Jihadist groups as a better alternative now.”

A rigid organisational structure and clandestine habits have served the Muslim Brotherhood well in its six decades as a banned organisation across much of the Middle East. It is likely to  once again be key to the group’s survival in the face of Saudi Arabia’s harder line. Internally, its members face the question of whether to respond with politics or by taking a more violent approach.

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