IDEOLOGICAL TENSIONS IN THE ISLAMIC WORLD: A NOT SO COLD WAR

Author : Admin | Tuesday, May 27, 2014
Posted in category Special Analysis
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Not earlier than 2011, the Arab world appeared to undergo a historic revolution that was supposed to define Islam in the 21st century, an Islam compatible and at ease with the democratic values of free speech and tolerance. With Osama bin Laden dead and al-Qaeda in disarray, moderate Muslims were set to reclaim the much-maligned political Islam from extremists.

Today, the outcome of the elections in Egypt (26/27 May) and war-torn Syria (3 June) is more than predictable, with the two military dictators, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Bashar al-Assad going to be “freely and democratically” confirmed, thus confirming the transformation of the Arab Spring into a dictatorial winter.

The military dictators, as well as, elsewhere, the so-called jihadis seem to have seized back the crucial edge in the battle for the soul of Islam. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that moderate Muslims have thrown away the gains briefly achieved in 2011.

The dangerous evolutions in the Muslim world also reverberate in the Balkan region, where the local communities feel increasingly threatened by the growing Islamic radicalization and by the specter of the local and European jihadis expected to come back from Syria.

Analysts and politicians agree that the Muslim world is in worse shape than before, torn by sectarian violence, and Islam is at war with itself, at several levels simultaneously – between moderates and extremists; between Shiites and Sunnis; and between “pro-West” (as Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies are sometimes labeled) and anti-West (Iran, Lebanon, Syria) Muslim powers.

The Muslim world is seen to evolve towards a less and less stable and secure situation. As a result of poor governance, civil wars are burning in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon are also on the edge of the civil war. Instability in those places has spilled across borders into Algeria, Jordan, Kuwait, and Turkey, straining those countries’ already fragile social fabrics. Moreover, these stresses have provoked a vicious proxy war between Iran and a group of Sunni Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, that many fear will snowball into a region-wide Shiite-Sunni conflict.

In a recent interview with German magazine Der Spiegel, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki mentioned that “There are two main axes here in the Middle East: Sunni and Shiite. A few Persian Gulf countries and Turkey are behind the first one, while the second one is the Iranian-Arab axis, which extends across Iraq and Syria and into Lebanon. Four or five years ago, we told the United States that Turkey and a few Gulf countries were trying to destroy the Shiite axis… And now we can see the outcome in Syria… and the violence returned to Iraq from terror-infested Syria. But it has also swept over into Lebanon and Jordan”. He warned that the war in Syria “will infect the entire region. The attacks and the fanaticism in Lebanon are the first effects, but the tension in Turkey is also a consequence of the Syrian drama. The regime in Jordan is already faltering, and the crisis will also spread into Saudi Arabia”.

The instability that currently plagues the Middle East is a combination of clashes arising from the particular political, economic, and security dysfunctions of each country, coupled with a set of conflicts that cross the region’s borders. The current epicenter is Syria, which has populated the region with refugees and terrorists, undermined many of the region’s economies and threatens to involve all of Syria’s neighbors. Jordan and Turkey have struggled to deal with the burden of some two million Syrian refugees that added to their own economic and social problems. Sunni extremists from Syria have taken refuge in Iraq and are threatening to intensify the civil war in that country. Also, the conflict in Syria does not look like ending, due to the proxy war between the groups sponsored by Iran, and those supported by Saudi Arabia, which is not only trying to limit Iran’s influence, but also to avoid another rise to power of its ideological enemy, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB).

 

A history of suspicion developing into extremism

Suspicion among Muslims and toward non-Muslim minorities has a long history. Sunnis do not trust Shiites and Islamists are suspicious of liberals, and each group reacts to the other. Many who do not belong to Islamist parties and who represent minority groups in Egypt and Tunisia are terrified of the Muslim Brotherhood but also of their more extreme counterparts, the so-called “Salafis”. An Islamist state could not be expected to guarantee liberty for everyone. Shiites, for their part, are anxious about the power of political Sunnism and its impact on them.

Extremist ideological networks are present throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Absence of security and rising instability are aggravated by Islamists in power around the region. The situation in Syria, with continued fighting between the regime and armed groups, is a breeding ground for terrorism. Lack of security and stability spread in Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon as well as in Tunisia and Egypt.

The shift to extremism in the Arab world did not happen overnight. After the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, Pan-Arabism came forward with a vision of resistance to outside rule through a “new” social order, conceived along Islamic lines. Later on, in the 20th century, Pan-Arab nationalism became secular, and was transformed into a political movement by a Syrian Christian, Michel Aflaq, who founded the Ba’ath (“Renaissance”) Party in Damascus in 1940. Aflaq, a Christian, said that Islam could not be dissociated from an Arab nationalist identity, but that the state must be separate from religious institutions.

When Gamal Abdel Nasser took power in Egypt in 1952, the country became the spiritual home of Arab nationalism. But enthusiasm for this identity did not liberate the Arab nation from foreign hegemony; nor did it generate the freedom, development and democracy that the people desired.

The failure of, and disappointment in, nationalism allowed Islamists to gain new ground. At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, Muslim thought was occupied by critical, philosophical views of reformers such as the Iranian Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani (1839-1897), the Egyptians Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905) and Ali Abderraziq (1888-1966) as well as others who favored adoption of Western cultural achievements while preserving Islamic belief.

The advocates of that version of reform called themselves “Salafis” or imitators of the Prophet and the first three generations of his companions and successors. They resisted the weight of Islamic law on Arab society and questioned the spiritual tradition of Sufism. But they did not try to expel their opponents from the body of Muslim believers or advocate armed attacks on the West.

The 19th century’s “Salafis” were superseded by the fundamentalist Wahhabis from the Arabian Peninsula, who later usurped the term “Salafi”; and then by Hassan al-Banna (1906-49), the Egyptian founder of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The links between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Wahhabi/“Salafi” ideologies were formed after the Nasser regime in Egypt and his Syrian allies, whose influence grew in Damascus in the 1950s, began opposing the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brothers travelled to Saudi Arabia, where they worked mostly in education and the media. The Muslim Brotherhood reshaped the religious curriculum in Saudi schools and universities, in order to serve the Wahhabi context. They conformed to the past Saudi practice of excluding the term “Wahhabi” from textbooks and public statements and proclaiming themselves nothing more than “Salafi” Muslims, or simple representatives of Sunnism (that is, of ahl-as-sunna wa’al jama’a, or “the people of the Islamic tradition united in consensus”). A movement was formed, called “As-Sahwah” (“Awakening”), which may be considered a Muslim Brotherhood variant adapted to Saudi Wahhabism.

The role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arabian Gulf countries was similar to that in Saudi Arabia. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood migrated to the UAE in 1973, searching for jobs and to escape political persecution in their home country. After the founding of “Al Islah” (“Reform”), a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in the UAE in 1974, the Brotherhood penetrated the education sector through formulation of curricula and control of student activities. Many Muslim Brotherhood members immigrated to the Gulf, where they formed committees in Kuwait and Qatar, along with the UAE. Delegates from the Gulf states collect funds for the Brotherhood internationally.

The Iranian Revolution in 1979 reinforced the appeal of Islamist ideology across the Middle East and North Africa. The new Iranian regime wanted to exploit for political advantage the lack of freedom and discrimination the Shiite Muslims faced in Sunni-majority countries, and Radio Tehran broadcasted regular appeals to Saudi Shiites to rise up against their oppressors.

In response, Saudi Arabia began a propaganda effort, attacking the Shiites and especially Khomeini’s views. Saudi Arabia, which considers itself the guardian of Sunni Islam, spent billions of dollars on challenging the Shiites and spreading Wahhabism around the world.

 

The Sunni – Shiite divide: Saudi Arabia and Iran struggle for power

The Sunni – Shiite divide dates back to the 7th century, after the death of the Prophet Mohammad and it concerned the line of succession. Sunnis believe that leader of the Muslim community, the caliph, should be chosen among them. Contrastingly, Shiites assert that the caliph should only be a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammad. As a result, they began to contradict the authority of the caliph. In 680, after the Sunnis killed Mohammad’s grandson, Hussein ibn Ali, the leader of the Shiites, an intensely emotional narrative of injustice and martyrdom was instilled in Shiite Muslims.

In the early 1900s, the dispersion of minority Shiite populations across a span of Middle Eastern countries didn’t cause notable confrontation with Sunnis. That all changed during the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, where for the first time a militant Shiite regime was installed in one of the most populated countries in the region.

Apparently, the confrontation is religious and ideological. Saudi royals have spent vast amounts of money funding the spread of the (Sunni) Wahhabi school, an ultra-conservative, literal interpretation of Islam, which is the state religion in Saudi Arabia. The official title of the Saudi King includes the duty of “Guardian of the Two Holy Places”, Mecca and Medina, suggesting a degree of a divine authority. On the other hand, the Islamic Republic of Iran promoted its own version of political Islam, a combination of elected republican institutions under the guidance of a Muslim cleric, the Supreme Leader. The founder of the Iranian regime, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, condemned the Saudi monarchy as a tyrannical, illegitimate clique that answers to Washington, rather than God.

However, the real goal of the conflict is power and money: two oil-rich giants, vying for control of the Strait of Hormuz that accounts for almost 20% of all oil traded worldwide, as well as for regional power. Cultural and ideological differences aside, the growing tension has more to do with Iran’s growing regional influence that threatens the Saudi position in the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf.

Tensions between the two countries are exacerbated by the fact that Saudi Arabia, largely pro-west in its political orientation, has had to live in fear that Iran’s expressed aim of seeing its revolution internationalized would indeed succeed. Moreover, it would add to its own worries about the relatively large population of Shiites in the Eastern Province (10-15 percent of the overall population of Saudi Arabia), which complains of religious discrimination, marginalization and economic misery, although the Eastern province contains the bulk of the Kingdom’s oil reserves.

Saudi Arabia also feared that Iran would try to export its revolution into the Gulf Arab monarchies. When Iraq attacked Iran in 1980, Saudi Arabia enthusiastically supported Saddam Hussein’s war effort, and the Iraqi dictator remained a bulwark against Iran’s expansion until he was toppled by the US-led coalition in 2003.

The perceived threat never receded. Although Iran’s distinctly Shiite model of an Islamic state found little attraction among Sunnis in the Arab world, Gulf Arab monarchs feared that Iran would incite rebellions among Shiite populations in Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait. In Bahrain, the Shiite majority has been voicing its deep dissatisfaction, and the Saudis are also convinced that Iran is fomenting a rebellion in Yemen’s north among a Shiite-dominated rebel group known as the Houthis.

Jihadists against shiites

With Saddam’s regime replaced with a government dominated by Shiite political parties friendly to Iran, Saudis thought that the nightmare scenario was closer than ever. In 2004, Jordanian ruler Abdullah II warned of an emerging “Shiite Crescent” in the Middle East.

Since Shiites are hated by both al-Qaeda and the Taliban, a growing jihadist movement against Shiites mounted, inciting massive carnage. Sunni insurgents backed by al-Qaeda have engaged in a relentless campaign against the Shiite-led government of Iraq.

The increased sectarian violence in Iraq has been agitated by the major role the Shiite-Sunni conflict has played in the Syrian Civil War. It has been a focal point of the war because President Bashar al-Assad and the royal family are members of the Alawite sect that practices a version of Islam very similar to Shiism. Given that only 15% of Syrians are Alawites and the Assad regime’s close ties to the Shiite regime in Iran, hostilities toward Assad’s regime are propelled by Syria’s majority Sunni population.

The resurgence of Shiite-Sunni hostility is also visible in Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria. In Iraq alone, more than 6,000 people were killed in Shiite-Sunni violence in 2013. Across West Asia, a form of ethnic cleansing is going on with Shiites being forced to flee Sunni-majority areas, and vice versa. The region is awash with refugees from both sects raising the specter of a Palestinian-style crisis of the stateless/homeless Muslims. In Syria, more than a third of the population has been displaced, with a knock-on effect being felt throughout West Asia. In Lebanon, the presence of Sunni Muslim refugees has put pressure on its already fragile sectarian balance. Tensions are being fuelled by the Shiite militant group Hezbollah which is actively backing the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The intensifying violence has the potential to develop into an inter-religion war, as more Middle Eastern countries become entrenched in a battle not between two nations, but between two ideologies and their political powers. The widening geographic sphere of the attacks on Shiites has indicated a steady change in the volatility of Iraq and other countries, such as Lebanon and Pakistan. In Pakistan, the Shiite minority has been the victim of attacks by the Taliban and other radical Sunnis.

This conflict spans far beyond a civil war in Syria or the increased violence in Iraq and threatens to destabilize a great portion of the Middle Eastern region, as it shows no signs of subsiding.

Since the peak of the civil war in Iraq (2006-07), the geopolitical rivalries have been acquiring an increasingly sectarian tone. With Iran firmly embedded among the Shiite Islamists in Lebanon and Iraq, Saudi Arabia poses as the protector of Sunnis. Never before has religious identity in the region been so politicized.

A new kind of cold war

At the regional level, the Sunni-Shiite rivalry between the Sunni/Wahhabi Muslim Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Shiite Islamic Republic of Iran is already being called a new kind of “Cold War”, which comes complete with its own spy-versus-spy intrigues, disinformation campaigns, proxy wars and supercharged state rhetoric.

While the two most influential regional powers in the Persian Gulf take care not to get embroiled in a direct conflict, they try to outflank each other by seeking allies among regional political forces, and through intense propaganda – hence the analogy with the cold war between the US and Soviet Union. In fact, Iran and Saudi Arabia are involved in a series of seemingly intractable disputes which have the potential to destabilize the entire region.

Iran’s nuclear program is primarily aimed at Israel, but Saudis believe that nuclear capability would give Iran a crucial strategic edge in the Persian Gulf. This triggered the Saudi strategy to become a nuclear power.

Saudis have long accused Iran of fueling discontent among Shiite communities in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, who are demanding equal political and cultural rights.

In Lebanon, while Iran backs the Shiite Hezbollah that commands the strongest armed force in Lebanon, while the Saudis support Lebanese Sunnis in a proxy battle that became a major driver of instability in the country.

In Iraq, Saudi Arabia has frosty relations with the ruling Shiites, and has been accused by Iraqi government of backing the Sunni Islamist rebels.

In Syria, the regime of Bashar al-Assad is Iran’s key Arab ally, and a conduit for weapons that flow from Iran to Hezbollah via Damascus. To further isolate Iran, Saudi Arabia has extended diplomatic and financial support to Syria’s opposition, and has called for the arming of the rebel Free Syrian Army.

The two sides have assembled allied camps. Iran holds its sway in Syria and the militant Arab groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Palestinian territories and Shiite radical factions in Iraq. In the Saudi sphere are the Sunni-Muslim Gulf monarchies, Morocco and the other main Palestinian faction, Fatah. The Saudi Camp is pro-Western and leans toward tolerating the state of Israel. There are even speculations that Israeli-Saudi intelligence services cooperate in the Middle East. The Iranian grouping defiantly opposes Israel.

Both Iran and Saudi Arabia did not hesitate to interfere in the affairs of other countries, either in order to further their own agendas or to prevent outside influences spilling over into their sphere of influence. Over the decades, they have conducted a series of complicated game of moves and counter moves to weaken each other. They have built up various militias through which they carry out proxy and covert operations.

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In what is seen as the Sunni-Shiite divide, analysts assess that, as a result of the worsening situation in Iraq, Iran is now in complete control of the political Shiite sphere. None of its opponents can claim to have achieved this position in the Sunni camp, for neither Saudi Arabia, nor Turkey, nor any Islamist movement have been able to fully dominate the scene. In addition, given the differences among these actors’ outlooks and their diverging assessments of the dangers at hand, agreement among the Sunni forces would appear difficult to achieve. Thus the most likely scenario seems to be conflict to resolve the issue of dominance of the Sunni sphere of influence, with Egypt and Syria serving as the primary battlefields.

 

Developments in the Sunni-Sunni conflicts

The other side of the current “cold war” in the Middle East involves a Sunni-Sunni conflict, with Saudi Arabia, Turkey and political Islamic non-state actors (mainly the Muslim Brotherhood and the jihadist groups) competing to control and dominate the politics of Sunni Islam. In this other “cold war”, Saudi Arabia and its allies base their agenda on the idea of restoring stability and development and promises of abundant funding made possible by oil riches. Meanwhile, the agenda of Turkey and its allies is predicated on combining democracy with development, while the jihadist factions’ philosophy rejects the world order entirely.

Dominating the Sunni sphere requires controlling religious interpretation, especially the aspects that relate to politics. In this regard, the model of Islamic democracy practiced in Turkey is considered a challenge to the political part of the Saudi religious theory. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) government in Turkey believes that Islam and democracy are not mutually exclusive and promote the compatibility among conservative Islamic movements in the Arab Middle East. Saudi rhetoric sees democracy as an encroachment on the fundamentals of religion.

The recent designation by Saudi Arabia of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization is considered a manifestation of this intra-Sunni cold war, with each party attempting to gain the hearts and minds of Sunni Muslims, drawing them to their own political agendas and religious authorities. After adopting the anti-terror laws, Riyadh might also pressure regional Arab and Muslim organizations and bodies to adopt similar legislation in its quest to dominate the Sunni scene and weed out potential competitors, primarily the Muslim Brotherhood. Victory in this war is a sensitive matter for Saudi Arabia, as a defeat of its political and religious projects by either the “democratic” or the “jihadist” Islam models would undermine the basis of the Saudi regime among Muslims. Saudi Arabia’s role as the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques makes it a necessity that its religious rhetoric emerge the victor in the battle of ideas in the Muslim world.

On its part, Turkey’s AKP government is considered the main sponsor and supporter of political Islamic movements in the region. Riyadh resents this, as it sees Islamist movements as a threat to regional stability. Even though Qatar backs Turkey in its support of Islamist movements, Qatar’s actions do not bother the Saudis as much as Turkey’s. In fact, the political stance of Qatar toward democracy is no different than that of Saudi Arabia. Democracy, Ottoman heritage and a powerful economic and political position all contribute to making Turkey, rather than Qatar, Saudi Arabia’s main competitor in the Sunni political world.

The current Saudi-Turkish ideological conflict is also reminiscent of past relations between the Saudi kingdom and the Ottoman Empire.

Saudi caliphate claims

Saudi leaders also promote their claim to the restoration of the caliphate, since they endorse the view that if such a caliphate is to return, they should take the lead in shaping its creed and outlook.

Although previous caliphates never included all Muslims as subjects, the restoration of the caliphate remains alive in the imagination of some Muslims. The project of reviving the caliphate became important among some Muslims after the Ottoman caliphate was abolished in 1924. The only Islamist group that openly prioritizes the restoration of the caliphate project is Hizb ut-Tahrir. Under Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda occasionally invoked the caliphate as a mobilizing idea, but it was never central to its ideology. The Muslim Brotherhood paid lip service to restoring the caliphate while remaining mainly concerned with national projects, despite its claim of being a transnational movement.

Recently, the latest Saudi director of the Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud University, a stronghold of Wahhabi theology and jurisprudence, attacked the idea that Turkey, with the AKP led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will restore the caliphate.

Such attacks on the Turkish leadership are not new. Since the mid-18th century, Saudi Wahhabi clerics denounced Turkish Islam as innovation amounting to blasphemy and fought the Ottoman Empire. They were willing to ally themselves during the First World War with the British, obviously an infidel power in their classification, to expel the Ottomans from Arabia. Their main differences with the Ottomans were not only religious, but also grounded in local, pre-modern nationalism. Wahhabis aspired to control the Hijaz, where the holy cities of Mecca and Medina are. The Ottoman caliphate had nominal suzerainty over the region and indirectly ruled through the Sherifs of Mecca. Wahhabis wanted to control this city not only to shape Islam for all Muslims, but also to increase their revenues from the pilgrimage season.

This history of animosity is revived in the new political context, where Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood is seen as a direct threat not only to Saudi Salafist hegemony, but also to the status of the Saudi state in the Muslim world.

Political Islamic movements in the Arab world, such as the Muslim Brotherhood are now allies of Turkey, whereas in the past they had been associated with Saudi Arabia. For decades, the Muslim Brotherhood was a soft-power tool exploited by Saudi foreign policy in its cold war with the pan-Arab nationalist and Nasserite movements. The Muslim Brotherhood’s stance vis-à-vis the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, however, sowed the seeds of mistrust between the two parties. The seeds grew when the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Sahwah (Awakening) movement criticized the Saudi government during the 1990s. As the Arab Spring came to pass, with the Brotherhood ascending to power with Turkey’s support, whatever remained of the trust between the Brotherhood and the Saudis disappeared, sparking a cold war that may not end anytime soon.

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The conflict today, however, is not between Wahhabism and Sufism, but between Islamic Wahhabism and Islamic democracy. The conflict between these two camps reaches into all the countries of the Arab Spring, but it is particularly apparent in Egypt and Syria.

Saudi Arabia: repositioning itself as a regional player

The rise of Shiite Iran and of secular Turkey, as well as the perception of Riyadh of a more distanced position of its traditional ally, the United States, triggered several moves that aim to the re-positioning of Saudi Arabia as the main regional player and ideological leader in the Islamic world.

The moves are also reflecting a Saudi sense of vulnerability and anxiety about the future that is exacerbated by the current state of the monarchy. King Abdullah is about 90 years old and is said to have considerably reduced his workload in the past year. Crown Prince Salman, his brother, is also believed to be in fragile health. Analysts and diplomats say that some princes and aides, including Khalid al-Tuwaijri, the king’s “gatekeeper”, have assumed greater authority and pushed for a more uncompromising policy.

Internal problems appear to have affected Saudi decision-making, particularly its policy towards Syria. Saudi backing for a nebulous rebel movement has also led to a flood of Saudis joining extremist groups – potentially forming a new wave of jihadis who might return to the kingdom and wage a domestic jihad, much as they had done after fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

a) Refusal of the UN Security Council seat

One of this “re-positioning” moves was the kingdom’s October 2013 decision to renounce the long-time coveted two-year position as a temporary member of the UN Security Council, a decision motivated by the fact that the council had failed to bring peace to the Middle East, in particular with Palestine and the civil war in Syria, and also failed to make the Middle East a nuclear free zone. However, the main reason seemed to be the Saudi frustration with the U.S. Administration, seen as an increasingly unreliable ally that was challenging the Saudi leadership in the ideological Islamic world.

Saudi Arabia strongly backed the military coup in Egypt that overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood-led government. But rather than voicing the tacit support the Saudis expected, Barack Obama’s administration responded with wary prevarication and a reduction in aid. A second shock came with Mr. Obama’s sudden moves towards rapprochement with Iran, a country the Saudis see as a hostile Shiite power and a bitter regional rival. The Saudis feared that years of patient effort to sustain and fortify an anti-Iranian front might be wasted.

Another cause for the Saudi move was seen to be America’s failure to punish the Syrian regime for crossing the so-called “red line” against the use of chemical weapons, thus losing a chance to defeat Bashar al-Assad and roll back the influence of his main ally, Iran. The Americans’ perceived cowardice has also, in Saudi eyes, boosted the narrative of al-Qaeda-style radicals, who have said all along that the West was not to be trusted.

Although the Obama Administration was said to pressure the Saudi government to reconsider the rebuff to the Security Council, prince Turki al-Faisal, a former head of Saudi intelligence, explained in Washington that the Saudis feel “a high level of disappointment in the US government’s dealings”, noting pointedly that “we never act impulsively”.

Other analysts pointed that, by rejecting the UN council seat, the Saudis intended to adopt a more aggressive regional role, in the expectation of future clashes with the Security Council, perhaps over Iran and Syria. Commentators known to express publicly what princes say in private have hinted at a growing Saudi impatience for a bolder foreign policy.

b) Steps to acquire nuclear status

A worrying development in the Saudi process of re-asserting its force as a regional power against Iran’s Shiite regime was brought by the renewed disclosures, in November 2013, about the kingdom’s possibilities to acquire from Pakistan the necessary elements in order to develop its own nuclear weapons.

NATO intelligence was quoted, according to which nuclear weapons made in Pakistan on behalf of Saudi Arabia were ready for delivery, and Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli military intelligence, told a conference in Sweden that if Iran got the bomb, “the Saudis will not wait one month. They already paid for the bomb, they will go to Pakistan and bring what they need to bring”. Moreover, Gary Samore, former counter-proliferation adviser of President Barack Obama said that “the Saudis believe that they have some understanding with Pakistan that, in extremis, they would have a claim to acquire nuclear weapons from Pakistan”.

On 29 April 2014, Saudi Arabia became the first Middle East nation to publicly exhibit its nuclear-capable missiles. The long-range, liquid propellant DF-3 ballistic missile (NATO designated CSS-2), purchased from China 27 years ago, was displayed for the first time at a Saudi military parade in the eastern military town of Hafar Al-Batin, at the junction of the Saudi-Kuwaiti-Iraqi borders. Also present were the Pakistani Chief of Staff Gen. Raheel Sharif, King Hamad of Bahrain and Sheikh Muhammad bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi. The parade was part of the largest military exercise ever seen in the Gulf region, under the title of Operation Saif Abdullah (Sword of Abdullah) with more than 130,000 soldiers and commanding officers from all the Gulf emirates except Qatar taking part in the war game for the first time, as well another first, Egypt.

Analysts consider that the exercise was also meant to give Washington three messages: (a) The Gulf nations are ready to fight Iran; (b) They are prepared for this armed conflict to be nuclear; and (c) They no longer rely on America for a military and nuclear shield – only on themselves. “The Saudi military exercise was a goodbye wave to America”, wrote The National, a leading United Arab Emirates newspaper on May 6 in its story on the exercise and, although Washington counts the UAE as one of its most loyal Gulf allies, such a remark would not have appeared without being sanctioned at the top.

By showing off their ageing Chinese missiles, the Saudis intimated that they had acquired the more advanced generation of this weapon. In recent visits to Beijing, high-ranking Saudi officials negotiated the purchase of Dong-Feng 21 (DF-21), whose range is shorter, 1,700 km, but more precise and effective in view of its terminal radar guidance system.

The presence of the Pakistani chief of staff at the event was meant as corroboration of Islamabad’s active role as the source of the Saudi nuclear arsenal.

The story of Saudi Arabia’s project – including the acquisition of missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads over long ranges – goes back to the 1980s, when Riyadh secretly bought dozens of CSS-2 ballistic missiles from China. In the summer of 2013, experts reported the completion of a new Saudi CSS-2 base with missile launch rails aligned with Israel and Iran.

It has also been clear for many years that Saudi Arabia has given generous financial assistance to Pakistan’s defense sector, including its missile and nuclear labs, and visits by the then Saudi defense minister Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz al Saud to the Pakistani nuclear research centre in 1999 and 2002 underlined the closeness of this relationship.

It was around 2003 that the kingdom started serious strategic thinking about its changing security environment and the prospect of nuclear proliferation. A paper leaked that year by senior Saudi officials mapped out three possible responses – to acquire their own nuclear weapons, to enter into an arrangement with another nuclear power to protect the kingdom, or to rely on the establishment of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. In the years that followed, diplomatic chatter about Saudi-Pakistani nuclear cooperation began to increase. In 2007, the US mission in Riyadh noted they were being asked questions by Pakistani diplomats about US knowledge of “Saudi-Pakistani nuclear cooperation”, according to one of the State Department cables posted by Wikileaks. By the end of that decade, Saudi princes and officials were giving explicit warnings of their intention to acquire nuclear weapons if Iran did.

Former Pakistani senior intelligence officers said that Pakistan maintains a certain number of warheads on the basis that if the Saudis were to ask for them at any given time they would immediately be transferred. As to the details of the arrangement, debate was going on about how the Saudi Arabians would redeem the bargain with Pakistan, the main alternatives being: a “cash-and-carry deal” for warheads (the first of those options sketched out by the Saudis back in 2003); an arrangement under which Pakistani nuclear forces could be deployed in the kingdom; or, a so-called “NATO model”, with Pakistan sending its own forces, its own troops armed with nuclear weapons and with delivery systems to be deployed in Saudi Arabia. However, the last option was seen as less credible, since Saudi Arabia, which regards itself as the leader of the broader Sunni Islamic “ummah”, would want complete control of its nuclear deterrent, at a time of worsening sectarian confrontation with Shiite Iran.

c) Harsh anti-terror measures

In February 2014, a new anti-terror law was issued as well as a royal decree that punishes Saudi citizens with up to 20 years in prison for fighting abroad. Those who belong to or sympathize with radical religious and political movements would also be punished.

In addition to the al-Qaeda suspects, the targeted groups include members and sympathizers of the Saudi branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Sururis, the large Islamist movement that resulted from the fusion of the Brotherhood ideology and the Salafist tradition in Saudi Arabia. In short, the royal decree targets a range of Islamists whose presence in Saudi Arabia is not regulated in political parties, as those remain illegal, but function as trends with well-known leaders and followers. In March 2014, the Saudi interior ministry published a list of “terror” groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra, which is al-Qaeda’s official Syrian affiliate, the “Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham” (ISIS), and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. The list also included the little-known Saudi Hezbollah group and the Huthi rebels fighting in neighboring Yemen, both of which may be linked to Iran.

At the domestic level, it seems that the Saudi government is determined to punish not only the radicals but also the Saudi sympathizers of the Muslim Brotherhood who, after Riyadh supported the Egyptian coup in 2013, began to criticize their own government for continuing to subsidize military rule in Egypt. The new decree is bound to end this late episode of transnational Islamist solidarity. But the Saudi government may not be able to continue to count on its own moderate Islamists for support, as that group may increasingly drift away from its present coexistence with the regime.

At the regional level, the royal decree came at a time when Saudi Arabia is facing criticism over its continuous support for rebel groups in Syria and reports about Saudis participating in the fighting on the side of radical Islamic rebels. The deterioration of the situation in both Syria and Iraq raised many questions over Saudi involvement, and Riyadh remains accused of sponsoring radical groups and undermining diplomatic efforts. In an attempt to change this image, Issa al-Ghaith, judge and Consultative Council member, explained that the royal decree sends a clear message to the West that Saudi Arabia is serious about fighting terrorism.

In spite of the new anti-terror laws and the fact that the Saudi regime wants the world to see the Saudi jihadists as independent non-state actors over which the government exercises no control, analysts point out that such an image is difficult to create since in Saudi Arabia, the state and religion are fused and tend to support one another. According to local observers, the problem in Saudi Arabia started when a dogmatic Wahhabi tradition struggled to maintain control over the dissenting voices that emerged from within its rank and file. The more this tradition insisted on obeying political leaders, the more it fragmented and mutated, producing lethal outcomes that came to haunt not only Saudi Arabia but also the world.

d) Banning the Muslim Brotherhood

The February anti-terror laws were followed by the 7 March 2014 (soon called “the Black Friday”) Saudi decision to include the Muslim Brotherhood among the terrorist organizations subject to the new laws, which also includes provisions that any hint of support for outlawed groups could be deemed a criminal offence. The decision was considered to be unmotivated, since it was not triggered by any internal development involving the brotherhood.

As mentioned before, the Brotherhood’s origins in the kingdom go back to the 1950s and 1960s when the monarchy welcomed members being persecuted by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and other Arab leaders. Although not permitted to formally organize, they flourished in a spiritual environment congenial to their Islamic ideology. They also found jobs in the expanding Saudi bureaucracy and raised funds for their work.

However, relations between the Brotherhood and the monarchy grew increasingly tense over the years because of the activities of the Saudi opposition movement Sahwah al-Islamiyya (Islamic Awakening), which was shaped by the Brotherhood’s vision of political Islam. Sahwah’s activities included its opposition to US troops in the kingdom during the Gulf War. More recently, Riyadh was angered by the Brotherhood’s role in helping unseat its old ally, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and mismanaging the Egyptian economy.

It also feared that the Brotherhood’s electoral victory in Egypt would inspire the Sahwah to begin agitating again for political reform.

Although it seems that the Saudi theocracy has many common points with the Brotherhood’s political Islam, it is precisely because the monarchy bases its legitimacy on Islam that it fears the Brotherhood rivalry. If political Islam were to be rooted in power in the largest Arab country, it could become an exportable commodity to the Gulf. For that reason, Saudi Arabia welcomed the military regime in Egypt and propped it up with billions of dollars of economic aid. According to a local analyst quoted by Financial Times, “there is a conviction in Saudi that the Muslim Brotherhood is the only power that could have exploited the Arab spring, and so they think that without the Brotherhood there can be no revolutions”.

Saudi Arabia faces a challenge from the Brothers in two ways. Firstly, the Brotherhood offers a competing form of Islamic government, one that was realized for a time in Egypt and that directly challenges Saudi Arabia as the beacon of Islamic governance. Secondly, Saudi Arabia faces politicized Islam as an oppositional force: discord throughout the Kingdom could be channeled by the Brotherhood and used to confront the royal family.

Although the Saudi official religious ideology is the hard line Wahhabi sect, the Saudi state likes order and stability more than it likes political Islam. The Saudis view the Muslim Brotherhood as a political cult, as a set of secretive revolutionary cells attempting to take over one country after another. And it looks at Qatar as the patron of the Brotherhood.

Saudi Arabia isn’t supporting any particular alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood and pro-Iranian states and movements. Its counter-moves are pragmatic and ad hoc. Secular nationalists will do, like General el-Sisi. They just have to be against populist political Islam, whether of the Brotherhood or the Shiite variety. From the point of view of the Saudi monarchy, the Muslim Brotherhood and Khomeinist Shiism look very similar. Both are populist movements. Both advocate a republic and are hostile to monarchy. Both challenge the Establishment in the Middle East. So from Saudi King Abdullah’s point of view, the opening toward Iran conducted by Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi was a confirmation that the two forms of political Islam were operating in tandem.

The United Arab Emirates has similar fears, stemming from the disparities in wealth between Abu Dhabi and Dubai and the northern Emirates. The government also insists that it has rooted out dozens of Brothers who were planning to disrupt the status quo. Equally, the UAE’s de facto leader, Mohammad bin Zayed, is known to have a deep distrust and dislike for the group that directly shapes the state’s policy. The anxiety over Islamists in the UAE also added to Saudi concerns. Last year the UAE government accused dozens of alleged Islamists of plotting a coup backed by the Brotherhood overseas. In July the Supreme Court handed down long prison sentences to the alleged plotters in a trial criticized as unfair by western human rights groups.

 

Qatar: support for the Muslim Brotherhood and relationship with Turkey

As pressure on the Brotherhood widened, Saudi relations with Qatar also deteriorated, since Qatar, the only Gulf state to have been traditionally sympathetic to Islamists and to have backed the Egyptian Morsi government, refused to join the regional crackdown on the Brotherhood. According to Gulf sources, the main Saudi demand has been for the closure or the drastic curbing of the coverage of Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based network and only remaining popular channel that gives ample airtime to Brotherhood members. Qatar, however, has insisted it will not be bullied. It has argued that it is neither committed to the Brotherhood nor able to dictate to Al Jazeera how it should cover the Egyptian story.

Since the late 1950s, Qatar has provided various kinds of support for the Brotherhood. Even without a meaningful religiously based commonality – Qatar being theoretically closer to the Saudi interpretation of Islam – Qatar often found Brotherhood members both available and sufficiently qualified to staff its emerging bureaucracies. This filled a basic need, while also allowing the Qataris to diversify away any existing dependency on Saudi Arabia in such matters. The Brothers, who settled in Qatar over the decades, whether notable ideologues like Yusuf al-Qaradawi[1] or those with the loosest of affiliation to the group, found Doha to be a safe and secure location. These relationships came into their own during the Arab Spring, when their potential for influence increased. Though the Brotherhood is once more deeply repressed across much of the region and should never be seen as a group in “Qatar’s pocket”, there is a deep connection that has been cultivated over decades.

Consequently, Saudi Arabia stepped up a long-running dispute with Qatar, accusing its smaller neighbor of destabilizing the Gulf. Along with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, in an unprecedented move, on March 5, 2014, Riyadh withdrew its ambassador from Doha. It also hinted at more stringent measures, including closing its borders and airspace, in what is shaping up to be one of the worst crises within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the regional group that includes both Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

The three states claimed that Doha had been violating a clause in the Gulf Cooperation Council charter banning interference in the domestic affairs of the fellow GCC members. The decision, unprecedented in the GCC’s history, hints at significant changes to come for the GCC and the balance of power in the Gulf.

The Gulf press indicated that the three countries’ anger was sparked by Qatar’s political and media support for the Muslim Brotherhood and its activists in Egypt and in the Gulf itself. Along with their criticism of Qatar’s policy towards the Egyptian regime, the three countries also protested that it is showing excessive openness towards the pro-Iranian axis and deviating from the Gulf foreign policy on such issues as the Iranian nuclear dossier, the Syrian crisis, the relations with Hezbollah and the riots in Bahrain.

The three countries also criticized the Qatari media, accusing it of serving the Muslim Brotherhood and working to destabilize the region. The criticism was directed especially at Al Jazeera and at the daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi, which was recently purchased by Qatar and whose renowned editor, Abd Al-Bari Atwan, was fired.

Qatar, for its part, rejected the accusations that it was harming the security and stability of the region and said that it was entitled to pursue an independent policy despite its membership in the GCC, out of its desire to wield influence and avoid being historically marginalized.

Subsequent mediation from Kuwait’s Emir has led the protagonists to a modus vivendi, and a vague document has been agreed upon.

One of the main reasons for the tension between the countries is Qatar’s support for the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Doha continues to support the Muslim Brotherhood, especially since the ascension of Emir Tamim. Muslim Brotherhood institutions continue to function in Doha including associations and commercial entities.

Qatar’s support for the Brotherhood also triggered the deterioration of its relations with Egypt, since the toppling of the MB regime on July 3, 2013. The current Egyptian regime, which enjoys political and economic support from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, accused Qatar of interfering in Egypt’s internal affairs by using Qatari media outlets, chiefly Al-Jazeera, as a pulpit for incitement against it, and by sponsoring Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who lives in Qatar and calls for supporting the Brotherhood. Following the tension between Egypt and Qatar, the former recalled its ambassador in early February, and the ambassador has yet to return to Qatar.

Local analysts connected with Qatari policymakers stated that Qatar would not submit to pressure aimed at changing its foreign policy “whatever the cost” and that Qatar would not cease hosting MB members, including Yusuf al-Qaradawi.

The Gulf stated are also worried about Qatar’s relations with Turkey that they regard as being conducted unilaterally and outside of a GCC framework. Qatar’s overtures to Turkey are causing major friction. First, because Turkey is supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood and Doha is seen as linked to Turkey regarding the support for the Brotherhood. This puts Qatar in opposition to many other states in the region including Saudi Arabia, and, of course, Egypt. Arab officials are claiming that Doha and Ankara are establishing spy networks in the GCC states to report on anti-Brotherhood planning and the future of GCC support for Egypt. This accusation goes to the very heart of the “non-interference in internal affairs” of the GCC states.

Qatar is alone in the region in providing financial, material, and rhetorical support for popular governance around the Middle East. Such aid, which has been frequently channeled through Brotherhood connections, resonated favorably across much of the region. This allowed Qatar to play an important role in emerging popular revolts, keeping the autocratic monarchy with no meaningful elections on the right side of wider public opinion, while also laying the foundations for new, potentially close regional relations. Qatar’s Gulf neighbors, however, without as pliant a domestic context and driven by the intention of thwarting new Islamist actors, seek the firm reinstatement of the regional status quo ante.

In March of this year, Qatari representatives facilitated the release of thirteen Greek Orthodox nuns held in Syria since in December 2012 with – according to some reports – a ransom of $67 million. From the Saudi perspective, this was a clear example of Qatar adversely intervening in the conflict and facilitating the conditions for jihadist groups to grow, prosper, and strengthen. Saudi authorities also see Qatar fermenting similar problems in Yemen where Doha stands accused of channeling its support through the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Al Islah party.

Despite their own material and financial support for suspect groups in such conflicts, Riyadh clearly believes that Qatari actions encourage jihadism, which represents a threat to Saudi security.

Unfortunately for the small state and its new Emir, Tamim’s options are no seen as good ones. He can either fully comply with the wishes of Saudi Arabia and the UAE (which would cost him his relationship with Qatar’s old guard, including his father) or consolidate his role by working with his father’s allies and freeing his country once and for all from the shackles of Saudi influence and an increasingly irrelevant GCC.

Tamim might not survive the first scenario, given how difficult it would be to confront not only his family but also the enormously influential ex-prime minister and foreign minister Hamad Bin Jassim Al Thani. But the second option wouldn’t be easy, either. In that scenario, Qatar would more forcefully ally itself with Iran, with which it already has strong economic ties. It would also get politically and economically closer to Oman, which already has friendly relations with Tehran. But that wouldn’t come without costs either. The Sultanate is essentially in the GCC doghouse for refusing to adopt the group’s standard line against Iran. Should Qatar join that club, it will be hard for it to ever reverse course with the GCC.

Should Qatar become friendlier with Iran and Oman, it would signal the death of the GCC and herald a new power alignment in the Gulf. It would also severely complicate U.S. plans in the Middle East. For some time, the United States has encouraged the Arab Gulf States to think and act more collectively to enhance Gulf security. But with increasing tensions among GCC members, including possible divorces, this goal seems increasingly unrealistic. Washington may come to see that its Gulf allies will not be able to provide regional security anytime soon and, as a result, think twice about plans to reduce the U.S. political and military footprint there.

Saudi Arabia is also bruiting the induction of Egypt into the Gulf Cooperation Council, presumably with the proviso that Egypt will be allowed to extract enormous strategic rent from the GCC. In return, Egypt will protect the very wealthy but very weak GCC from Iran and Shiite Iraq, and from the Brotherhood.

This is a new political era in the Arab Gulf, one in which individual states are charting their own courses and where the idea of unity, no matter how hard Saudi Arabia pushes for it, is rapidly fading.

 

The Muslim Brotherhood: the new enemy

The 7 March 2014 decision of Saudi Arabia to blacklist the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, along with three other Middle East-based Islamist groups, including the kingdom’s branch of the Shiite movement Hezbollah and Syria-based militant groups Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and the al-Qaeda linked Jabhat al-Nusra was motivated by Abdel Latif al-Sheikh, head of the Saudi religious police, by the accusation that “they were ruled from outside to serve political purposes”.

The blacklisting of the Muslim Brotherhood is considered to be “the news” among the decisions revealed in the Saudi royal decree. According to local observers, unlike ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra or Hezbollah, which are all armed groups, the Muslim Brotherhood would pose a particular challenge to authorities in Riyadh because of the difficulties to identify its members and “terrorist” activities in the kingdom. Difficulties could also occur when foreign Brotherhood members in political parties visit the kingdom.

The Saudi decision follows the harsh measures adopted against the Muslim Brotherhood earlier in Egypt by the military regime that ousted the MB-elected authority led by ex-President Mohamed Morsi. In his first “electoral campaign” interview with Egyptian TV, the leader of the coup, presidential favorite and former army chief Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, has vowed that the banned Muslim Brotherhood group “will not exist”, should he win the forthcoming elections on 26-27 May.

On March 24, 2014, an Egyptian criminal court handed down a mass death sentence for 529 Muslim Brotherhood (MB) members, charged with attacking a police station and killing an officer. Some 350 of the accused were tried in absentia, and the sentence was arrived at after only two sessions.

The court heard an appeal on April 28, when hundreds of other MB members were tried on similar charges. A total of 683 people, including Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Badie, were sentenced to death. The same court also reversed 492 death sentences out of 529 it passed in March, commuting most of the death sentences to life in prison.

This sentence is one of the harshest in the history of Egypt’s judicial system and unprecedented due to the sheer number of accused sentenced to death at the same time. It came after a set of harsh measures against the Muslim Brotherhood, that included the disbanding and outlawing of the movement (23 September 2013), the designation of the movement as a terrorist organization (25 December 2013), the shutdown of its newspaper and the placing of some 1000 groups and associations linked to it under state oversight; the placing of MB private schools under state oversight; the removal of the MB from the Constitution Drafting Committee; the April 15, 2014 ban on MB members running for president or for parliament; and the firing of hundreds of preachers associated with the movement.

Although the Muslim Brotherhood is commonly known and not so well appreciated in the West for its political Islam doctrine[2], the Egyptian mass death sentence provoked broad international criticism, including from the United Nations, where it was stated by the human rights office that the sentence contravened international law.

Backfire in Jordan

Although Jordan announced that it will not follow Saudi Arabia and Egypt by banning the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood or labeling the group a terrorist organization, the recent Saudi decision has added to the movement’s political isolation in Jordan, a situation that many believe is of its own making.

The decision is based on the traditional positive relationship between the Hashemite regime and the Muslim Brotherhood. Jordan received key Muslim Brotherhood figures as asylum seekers, mainly from Egypt, back in the 1950s, at the height of tension between Amman and Cairo. The Brotherhood supported the late King Hussein bin Talal against attempts by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser to destabilize Arab monarchies. In return, Hussein allowed the group to function legally as a social organization. When all political parties were banned in 1957, the Brotherhood was the only group to be spared. After that, it expanded its social activities and emerged as the only organized movement in the country when political life resumed and parties were allowed to form in the early 1990s.

The Brotherhood’s newly formed political arm, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), quickly dominated the scene in the 1993 legislative elections, comprising the biggest bloc in the Lower House. Only then did the regime realize the growing power of Jordan’s Islamists, but, although the rift between the regime and the Brotherhood has grown wider, both were careful to avoid a breaking point.

On its part, the Jordanian Brotherhood went through major infrastructural shifts. The moderate old guard was sidelined, giving way to a more radical generation of Islamist politicians who increasingly called for political reforms and constitutional amendments that intruded on the king’s powers. Such calls reached their climax with the eruption of the Arab Spring, which paved the way for the rise of Islamist powers in Tunisia and Egypt. The movement led a coalition of secular and nationalist groups and parties calling for political and constitutional reform, thus appearing to have widened the gulf between it and the regime.

As to the latter, King Abdullah II distanced himself from the Brotherhood’s radical leaders and in a March 2013 interview with The Atlantic, he was exceptionally harsh in his criticism of the movement, describing it as a “Masonic cult” and the Brotherhood as “wolves in sheep’s clothing.”

The complex situation of the Brotherhood affected its unity in Jordan, where a group of reformist members associated with the National Initiative for Building (also called “Zamzam”, from the name of the hotel in Amman where it was launched) were put on trial by the movement’s disciplinary board in December 2013, and in April 2014 the group announced it was dismissing three high-ranking members (Rheil Gharaibeh, Nabil Kofahi and Jamil Al-Dhisat) for their role in the “Zamzam” Initiative. In turn, the “Zamzam” Initiative issued a statement condemning the Brotherhood’s move, saying that “punishing people who merely wish to promote national unity is a clear indication that some people still cherish notions of isolation.”

The political project of the initiative was to establish a modern civil state on the basis of citizenship, freedom, justice and good governance. This almost secular vision differs markedly from the traditional conservative discourse of the Muslim Brotherhood. The reform movement is seen as a reaction to a state of political and ideological stagnation and rigidity that has gripped the Muslim Brotherhood for years.

In fact, “Zamzam” has not convinced observers that it is a new political project able to effect change in the political arena, particularly given the experience of the Wasat Party, a group that broke away from the Muslim Brotherhood in the mid-1990s and which saw little success in attracting Brotherhood supporters.

However, their moderate and reconciliatory approach is being viewed with satisfaction by the government and its security agencies, which allegedly encouraged the founders to release their initiative, in hopes that it will create divisions and splits inside the Muslim Brotherhood.

In spite of losing its influence in the street, the Muslim Brotherhood remains a potent power in Jordanian politics. Pro-government media outlets have criticized the movement in recent months and some accused it of attempting to install a religious state with an outside agenda. But the public mood, as well as regime calculations, would not go as far as banning the group.

Accusations against Turkey

In the same context, Turkey was also accused by the new authorities in Egypt of becoming a regional hub for the Muslim Brotherhood’s international organization and that Istanbul hosted several MB meetings for planning what steps are to be taken against the military-backed Egyptian government.

One of the conferences, held in the shadow of another conference, of the Turkish Saadet Party, to support democracy, adopted a “patience strategy” from a study assessing the situation after the military coup in Egypt, prepared by the Brotherhood’s International Center for Studies and Training.

The second meeting was allegedly a cover-up for the Muslim Brotherhood meeting in Lahore and it adopted an action plan to face what happened in Egypt. The meeting also studied the repercussions of what happened to the Brotherhood in Egypt on its brother organizations in Tunisia, Sudan, Jordan and Algeria. It also discussed the obstacles to their free movement in the GCC countries. The meeting witnessed a large attendance from the Brotherhood’s international membership, including participants from Morocco, Malaysia, Mauritania, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Kurdistan-Iraq.

Other reports accused Turkey’s role in supporting the Brotherhood with weapons and activists, including the case of a Turkish Intelligence officer arrested in Egypt.

The Erdoğan government was accused that it considered that the alliance with the Brotherhood not to be as harmful, at the national level, as ties with any other sort of Egyptian government, and that it sees the rise to power of (Sunni) Islamic movements as an opportunity for the Justice and Development Party to rise as a leader of modern Turkey and the post-revolutionary Arab region. This would allow Turkey to play a dominant role in regional politics by hosting the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood’s international organization.

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The measures against the Muslim Brotherhood are seen to generate a new divide in the Sunni world at a time of deep tensions in the faith, as well as rising sectarian feelings pitting Sunni against Shiite. It is likely to complicate the Saudi kingdom’s relations with many other countries where Brotherhood-affiliated organizations are significant political players, such as Jordan, Bahrain and Kuwait.

According to many observers, the decision is going to severely backfire, in the sense that throughout the Arab and Islamic world, the Muslim Brotherhood is known to be a nonviolent entity and ideology. Even the Salafi movements around the world that have been traditionally close to Saudi Arabia have rebuffed the Saudi measures against the Brotherhood.

In Europe, soon after being designated as a terrorist group in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the Muslim Brotherhood is reportedly moving its headquarters to Austria from London due to an investigation of the group by the David Cameron government. According to a report on the Daily Mail website, the group decided to move its headquarters to Graz, Austria, after Prime Minister John Cameron launched a joint investigation by both its domestic intelligence agency MI5 and its foreign one, MI6.

 

Ideological conflicts threatening the “Turkish model”

The Muslim Brotherhood was also invoked in the recent ideological (and not-so-ideological) conflicts in Turkey, opposing the Freedom and Justice Party (AKP) led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Gűlen movement (led by U.S. based preacher Fetullah Gűlen) that threaten the success of the so-called “liberal Islam”, as it used to be represented by the Turkish model, the alleged marriage of liberalism and Islam which, according to some analysts, is collapsing under its own weight.

The “Turkish model” that was developed by AKP and the Gűlen movement was frequently seen as an alternative to both the revolutionary Islam of Iran and the violent Islam of the jihadists and the Sunni fundamentalists.

From allies to enemies

The AKP-Gűlen split that turned the old allies into enemies surprised many in the country, since both the AKP and the Gűlen movement followers are pious Muslims who come from Turkey’s mainstream Sunni (Hanafi) Islam. They were allies against Turkey’s authoritarian secularists, both using religious references in their arguments.

However, the core of the AKP comes from the “National View” (Millı Görüş [3]) tradition, which can be best defined as Turkey’s version of political Islam with anti-Western and pan-Islamic tones. Although the AKP explicitly abandoned this ideology during its founding, more than a decade ago, most observers think Erdoğan is gradually reverting back to the “National View” in the past few years.

According to the Gűlenists, the Muslim Brotherhood wants to come to power in order to change the governing system. It prioritizes the brotherhood of the “umma” in the classical Islamic sense, as a universal community of believers and rejects the concept of a nation-state.

The Gűlen movement comes from the tradition of Islamic scholar Said Nursi (1878-1960), who focused on faith and morality rather than politics, and whose followers were generally distanced from political Islam. Hence, Gűlen’s followers never voted for Millı Görüş and opted for center-right parties. Some scholars have defined the Gűlen movement as “cultural Islam” as opposed to political Islam. In fact, many observers saw that the movement had its own version of a political effort: aiming for members to obtain jobs within the judiciary and the police. Apparently, this began back in the ‘970s as an effort to transform a hostile state by gradually joining its ranks. Since it has been a covert task, it has always been a matter of speculation and a source for conspiracy theories.

When the AKP came to power in 2002 and found itself targeted by the old secular guard, the Gűlen followers within the police and the judiciary emerged as a natural ally. It is often said that Erdoğan empowered the fellow conservatives against their secularist rivals. However, once the old establishment was decisively defeated, around 2010 to 2011, disagreements emerged between the AKP and the Gűlen movement.

The first breaking point was the so-called “MIT (Turkish National Intelligence Organization) crisis”, in February 2012, when MIT head Hakan Fidan, a confidant of Erdoğan, was called by an Istanbul prosecutor to testify as part of an investigation into the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). This was interpreted as a first sign of the struggle between pro-Gűlen police/judiciary and the AKP.

Since the “MIT crisis”, the AKP-Gűlen movement relations have been silently sour, until mid-November 2013, when Erdoğan planned to close down the so-called dershanes (“prep schools”) which are operated by the Gűlen movement and are a source of both finance and recruitment. The movement perceived this move as an “attack on private enterprise” and the government responded with harsh statements. The battle took a new turn on December 17 2013, when Zekeriya Oz, an Istanbul prosecutor widely believed to be a member of the Gűlen movement, initiated an early morning raid on dozens of individuals connected to the AKP, including the sons of three ministers, underlining that this is the greatest corruption scandal in recent Turkish history.

Since the beginning of this corruption probe, two opposing narratives are competing. The pro-AKP camp openly blames the Gűlen movement, or at least its so-called “parallel state”, of trying to bring down the AKP government through the corruption probe. The pro-Gűlen media and some others, in return, blame the government for trying to hide its widespread corruption by resorting to conspiracy theories and blocking the judiciary’s right to investigate the government.

What is most interesting about the recent tide of “corruption scandal” arrests is that the Community specifically targeted the winners of corrupt, neoliberal urbanization. These were the businessmen, politicians, and their families who became extravagantly rich thanks to the AKP’s urban renewal projects.

Power, Kurdish issue and tendencies to revive Islamism

Analysts point out that, more that the ideological differences, the real AKP- Gűlen is, fact, a “fight over the spoils”, as both Gülenists and Erdoğanists scrambled to monopolize power. Erdoğanists sought more elbow room among the ranks of the police; the Gűlen Community wanted more say in the intelligence world. Perhaps both wanted it all.

What also happened, in the context of the Arab Spring, was a revival of some of the old-style Islamist themes among Erdoğan’s circles, especially the idea that an Islamic state is possible.

After the Arab Spring, the AKP was marked by tendencies to revive Islamism, which had resurfaced mostly as a response to the post-2008 economic situation, and it was hoped that a rediscovery of Islamist themes would allow the regime to intervene more rigorously in the Arab Spring and assuage political and economic difficulties.

The Kurdish question added to the difficulties. The Gűlen Community remained attached to classical Turkish nationalism and to dreams of assimilating the Kurds. The AKP was not too far from these ideas either, but again, the Arab Spring strengthened some of its transnational Islamist tendencies.

A war with no victors

The conflict between the Gűlen Community and AKP may result in the end of a bloc and its project. What the current war puts into question is the sustainability of the convergence, and hence of the pragmatic integration of broad Muslim strata to global capitalism.

The existing power bloc has presented its interests as the interests of Turkey as a whole. The crumbling of the power bloc might not only bring about the slowing down of Turkey’s spectacular and speculative growth, but also result in an overnight impoverishment like the one in 2001, or perhaps in an even more serious crash.

Analysts point out that a “victory” of either part of the AKP-Gűlen dispute is difficult to predict, and both parties are, in fact, losers. If Erdoğan crushes the Gűlen movement by any means, as some speculate, he will lose many votes and further diminish his democratic credentials. If the Gűlen movement wins, it will only be proclaiming that it has a lot of power within the state, which will harm its reputation of being a moderate expression of “cultural Islam”. Meanwhile, Turkey’s political and economic stability will suffer, not to mention its rule of law and societal peace, as well as Turkey’s image of an “Islamic model”.

This background puts into question pro-Gűlen scenarios widely in circulation, such as the fantasy that the Community would form its own party and come to power, or that Islamic liberalism could be rejuvenated through a new, Erdoğan-free AKP (or a similar scenario, that the AKP could be split into two parties, one Islamist, the other Islamic liberal). First of all, it is quite dubious that any of these parties would enjoy the popular support of the old AKP. They would have to rule through coalition governments, further watering down Islamic liberalism and depriving it of any meaningful Islamic content. Second, it is not clear the divided or “reformed” AKP scenarios would work, given the level of allegiance to Erdoğan in the party’s ranks.

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If the regime in Turkey falls, or decays into a defensive, conservative nucleus of ex-Islamists, liberal Islam can no longer be considered as a viable alternative to revolutionary, conservative, Wahhabi, or Salafi Islam. As Turkey heads into an interregnum, the global stakes are quite high.

 

Worries in the Balkan Muslim areas

Although not yet directly affected, the Muslim communities in the Western Balkans (mainly Albania, Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina) resent the reverberations of the conflicts between the main players in the ideological war of the Islamic world.

Drawn into the Syrian sectarian conflict

A growing a number of Muslims from the Balkans are being drawn into the sectarian conflict raging in Syria, Iraq and, increasingly, Lebanon. According to the International Center for the Study of Radicalization, ISRA, a think tank based in King’s College, London, some 300 fighters from Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania, have joined Jabhat al-Nusra or ISIS. According to their relatives remained in place, they often left without telling their families and the most common route has been via Turkey, perhaps leading some credence to Iranian state media claims that Turkish Islamist charities have been training and organizing local jihadis for Syria.

Analysts assess that, due to the recent decision by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and United Arab Emirates to classify Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS as terrorist groups, along with the Muslim Brotherhood, a massive return of Balkan and European Jihadists will occur over the coming weeks, culminating by early summer 2014.

Due to the lack of serious border control between Albania, FYROM, Kosovo, Montenegro, Bosnia and Sanjak/Raska in Serbia, the probability that a new generation of Jihadists will flourish aiming to strike in Western European countries is not out of the question.

The problems they pose is even more difficult in the context of the free travel Shengen zone, as well as due to the increasing use by the jihadists of the so-called “lone wolf” modus operandi.

Media reports and assessments by international security organizations estimate that around 5,000-6,000 radicalized Wahhabis are based in Bosnia-Herzegovina, with significant groups based in the Raska/Sanjak region in Serbia, in Eastern Montenegro, Kosovo, FYROM, Albania and Southern Bulgaria. Other cells are to be found in Greece composed by newly established immigrants and in Istanbul from where the main coordinating center for Jihadists from Europe entering Syria is based. Other groups are also located in Croatia, Milano and in Vienna, thus encompassing almost the whole of Southeastern Europe.

A recent report of the Albanian intelligence service (SHISH) mentioned that there are 86 confirmed citizens of that country fighting in Syria on the side of terrorist groups such as ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. The recruiters and coordinators for these individuals from Albania originate from Kosovo which has a larger presence in Syria than any other Balkan region.

At their turn, Serbian authorities said that they identified 500 Islamic terror leaders that operate inside Serbia and whose activities include drug smuggling, human trafficking and recruiting locally to send Jihad fighters to Syrian war. They are concentrated not only in the Muslim-dominated Raska/Sanjak region, but some 200 of the identified leaders are said to operate in the capital of Belgrade. Others operate in Novi Sad, Loznica, Sjenica, Tutin and across Sumadija region. One of the leader of the Belgrade cell is Goran Pavlovic (47), known as Abdulah, who was born a Christian Orthodox Serb and converted to Islam in 2002.

Consequently, the local authorities are on the way to adopt new legislation designed to curb the jihadist activities.

Bosnia and Herzegovina has recently passed a law that prohibits the Wahhabis to recruit people for the war abroad. A similar measure is pending in the southern Serbian province of Raska/Sanjak. According to Deputy Prime Minister of the country, Rasim Ljajic, Serbia is preparing amendments to the Criminal Code that would classify the specific Wahhabi recruitment for the war in the country punishable by imprisonment.

Local analysts estimate that due to the new legislation and the threat of a spreading jihadism in their communities, the Western Balkan Muslim communities are not going to support the decisions, including those of the Federation of the Islamic Organizations in Europe, in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic guerillas in the Levant.

Ideological rifts and Islamist activities in Albania

In Albania, where the Muslim community is the biggest, radical Islamism has manifested itself in a social and cultural role, playing out chiefly within the country’s Muslim community. This rhetorical (and occasionally violent) confrontation is supported by external Islamic states and organizations that have established themselves or allied with like-minded local Islamist groups in Albania.

Leadership challenges and internal conflicts within the local Muslim community are allowing radicalism to flourish, as moderates become increas­ingly intimidated and mired in controversy. Since the Muslim Community is Alba­nia’s second-largest landowner, several “scandals” appeared in connection with alleged profiteering from land sales that caused a division within the Community’s General Council between supporters of Grand Mufti Selim Muça and his oppo­nents.

On September 21, 2010, following an attempt by Muça’s opponents to prosecute him for cor­ruption, a special session of the General Council reconfirmed Muça’s author­ity, and sacked four prominent opponents among the Islamic leadership.

Muça has also been criticized for failing to stop the formation of a union of imams with reported Wahhabi leanings in the large town of Kavaja, located between Tirana and the Adriatic coast. He even formulated some radical Islamic points of view, notably in October 2013, after a meeting with Iran’s cultural attaché in Albania, when he expressed his preference for Iran for officially implementing the Sharia law.

On March 8 2014, the General Council of the Muslim Community of Albania replaced Selim Muça with Skender Brucaj as president of the Community. Selim Muça was designed as honorary president of the Community as well as a permanent member of the General Council.

The intensifying radical Islam in Albania is reflected by a recent case appeared at the beginning of March 2014, when Albanian authorities arrested several Muslims, including two imams, for allegedly recruiting men to enlist with rebel groups fighting in Syria.

A police statement said the suspects were arrested in the capital, Tirana, and two other cities. The suspects include Genci Balla and Bujar Hysi, imams of two Tirana mosques, who are believed to be ringleaders of the group. “The recent arrests of eight people on charges of recruiting militants to fight in Syria has put the Albanian security forces on alert that al-Qaeda may strike back to avenge the arrests of its members”, reads the Notice of Alert sent to all Albanian police forces.

Balla, who is also known as Aburrahman Balla, has drawn attention with his sermons posted on YouTube, calling on Albanians to join Islamist militants linked with al-Qaeda in Syria, namely Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), and accusing the mainstream, anti-government Syrian Free Army of not wanting “Islam to rise up”.

The mosques where Balla and Hysi preached are not part of Albanian Muslim Community, the official organization representing Muslims in Albania.

Political aspirations in Montenegro

Another interesting development is seen with local Islamic leaders’ political aspirations that are also said to be supported by some of the main players in the outside ideological war in the Muslim world.

One of the main examples is Muamer Zukorlić, the Grand Mufti of Sanjak, who in 2007 formed “Islamska zajednica u Srbiji” (Islamic Community in Serbia), headquartered in Novi Pazar.

Although he was accused as an instigator of the so-called “Green corridor”, a sort of an autonomous Islamic state between Kosovo-Sanjak (Serbia) and Bosnia, since 2012 Zukorlić showed that he wanted to play an active role in the Serbian politics and he was even a Presidential candidate.

In August 2013, Muamer Zukorlić launched his own party in Montenegro, called the Bosniak Democratic Union. Consequently, he was replaced as head of the Islamic Community in Serbia. He is allegedly supported by the Turkish AKP and is seeking even the presidency of Montenegro.

The Bosnian Grand Mufti, Husein Kavazović, a former student at the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, known for his pro-Western attitude, decided not to give any support to Zukorlić in his political projects.

 

A complex perspective reflected in the Intelligence establishments

What the analysts have already named “the Islam cold war” is also reflected in the changes that the intelligence structures of some of the main players involved made in order to adapt to the increasingly complex developments. Such changes are to be seen in Saudi Arabia and Turkey, as well as in Israel.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief stepped down in April 2014 after two years marked by perceived failure in Syria and souring relations with the US, the kingdom’s traditional ally. Although the official position was that Prince Bandar was relieved of his post at his own request, the decision, delivered by royal decree, had been rumored for weeks.

Prince Bandar bin Sultan al-Saud, a former ambassador to Washington who was appointed as head of general intelligence in July 2012, had been handling Saudi support for Syrian rebels seeking to oust President Bashar al-Assad. He showed brilliance in much of his accomplishments, notably the project he engineered, with the U.S. and Jordan, to build a defense system inside Syria for keeping al-Qaeda at bay from the Golan and the Syrian-Israeli and Syrian-Jordanian borders.

Prince Bandar’s tenure came as Riyadh sought to forge a more muscular regional policy amid regional proxy battles with its rival for regional hegemony, Iran. During this time, Saudi Arabia has also positioned itself at the centre of a counter-revolutionary axis with the military regime in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates opposing the rise of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood after the Arab spring.

Amid questions over Saudi Arabia’s Syrian strategy, analysts mentioned that Prince Bandar’s position had been in jeopardy for several months. Although some reports said Prince Bandar would return after a period of medical convalescence, such suggestions have been dismissed by the royal decree.

His departure, after he was quoted, in October 2013, as warning of a “major shift” from the United States over its Middle East policy, is also seen as intended to help to smooth relations with Washington, as Riyadh pushes for more U.S. support for Syrian rebels. Despite his longstanding connections in Washington and personal relations with world leaders stretching back decades, Prince Bandar proved to be a difficult partner in his efforts to corral Western support for Syrian rebels. Western officials have said in private that his comment about a Saudi “major shift” from the U.S. following President Barack Obama’s decision not to use military strikes against Assad had complicated cooperation on Syria. A trip to Moscow to push President Vladimir Putin to abandon his support for Assad also failed to produce results. According to local analysts, Prince Bandar was “more or less disengaged from the Syrian file for the past five months. The responsibility was divided between a number of people – officers in the intelligence sphere and other princes”.

Other analysts point out that Prince Bandar lost his job mainly because he was unable to deliver on the personal promise he gave King Abdullah to bring about the downfall of President Assad at the hands of Saudi-backed rebels. He was also criticized for seeking to attain this goal by associating with extremist Islamist elements in the Syrian rebel movement, including some tied to al-Qaeda.

Turkey

Also this spring, Turkey’s government passed a new law designed to give sweeping additional powers to its intelligence service, its latest move to expand executive control over key institutions ahead of pivotal elections.

Under the new legislation, the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) will be assigned operational duties by the Council of Ministers on issues related to external security, counter-terrorism and national security. The vague term of “national security” would serve as a basis for MIT to conduct operations against any entity or individual the government defines and singles out as a “national security threat”. Thus, any group that might oppose the government (Alevis, Kurds or religious communities) could be identified as a “national security threat” and become the target of MIT operations. The provision would allow MIT to function as the intelligence branch of a party state.

The MIT also gains the power to demand unrestricted access to records of state institutions and private companies without a court order. Prosecutors seeking to investigate MIT’s activities or personnel would need the service’s permission to bring a legal case, a provision opposition lawmakers said would provide senior intelligence officials virtual immunity from the law. Journalists who publish classified MIT documents would face a prison sentence of up to 12 years, according to the bill.

Another provision says that the MIT “may gather data passing through telecommunication channels concerning external intelligence, national defense, terrorism, international crimes and cyber-security”. With respect to wiretapping and surveillance, court decisions would be no longer necessary since permission by the MIT undersecretary would suffice to wiretap all foreign phone lines, all domestic public phone lines and the phone lines of foreigners in Turkey “without consideration of regulations in other laws”.

The MIT law also institutes a legal ground for the talks held with Abdullah Oçalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and the Oslo talks held between MIT officials and PKK representatives.

Several leading opposition lawmakers said the bill would turn Turkey into a full-fledged mukhabarat (Syrian-style secret police) state and that, with this law, the prime minister is removing his accountability and the MIT is becoming his private organization.

Analysts suggest that the new laws are also directed against what Mr. Erdoğan called the “parallel state” controlled by the Gűlen community, which maintains a network of millions of followers, including many in influential posts in Turkey’s judiciary, law enforcement and media.

Israel

Another change at the top of the intelligence establishment was announced in Israel, where the AMAN (Military Intelligence) Director, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, was transferred on April 25 to the Israel Defence Force Northern Command. The decision was considered as surprising, since during the three years he served as AMAN chief, Kochavi was credited with enhancing the corps’ operational capabilities to the highest standard in its history and transforming it into a combat force.

However, Kochavi was also considered responsible for three major miscalculations. In 2012, he overestimated the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi’s prospects as Egyptian’s first elected president and failed to pick up on the coup to unseat him. Kochavi did not appreciate the force of the antagonism to the Brotherhood which contributed to Morsi’s overthrow, as it built up in much of the Arab world. This misjudgment was considered to have affected Israeli policy-making with regard to the Brotherhood’s Palestinian offspring Hamas and the Gaza Strip.

Kochavi’s second mistake was to have underrated the chances of the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. It was a similar error with that of Saudi Prince Bandar Bin Sultan who paid for it by losing his job as Director of Saudi General Intelligence on April 15. From the early days of the civil war in 2011, the AMAN chief stuck to the conviction that Assad was riding for a fall, refusing to acknowledge that the war had turned in his favor from the beginning of 2013.

The third mistake was considered to be AMAN’s recommendation that led to the Israeli government’s decision to let the Iran’s Lebanese Shiite proxy Hezbollah lend its fighting strength to Bashar al-Assad. This became a strong factor in bringing about Syrian military successes against the Syrian insurgency. The main motivations were to achieve a diminishing of the Hezbollah force by removing it from the Lebanese border with Israel and by making it fight on two fronts. However, the fighting in Syria did not weaken Hezbollah but, to the contrary, toughened its operatives by hard combat conditions. Its intervention in the Syrian conflict has given Hezbollah strategic depth, a great asset in the event of a war with Israel.

Kochavi’s successor at the head of AMAN is Brig. Gen. Hertzi Levy, who comes from Sayeret Matkal and the Paratroop Corps.

 

Conclusions

According to most analysts, the ideological war in the Muslim world is already shaping three power blocs that dominate the Middle East: the Iran-led Shiite group, a rival emergent Cairo-Riyadh axis leading a group of smaller Sunni states and a smaller, weaker Qatar-Muslim Brotherhood alliance (with Turkish support, somehow diminished by the internal situation). Their competition is set to dominate regional affairs in the period opening up.

As Tarek Osman, author of Egypt on the Brink, says, two camps are emerging: one led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which maintains that political Islam is a perilous force that should be confronted; and the other, led by Qatar and Turkey’s ruling party, which believes in political Islam’s ability to transform the region. “This confrontation has not reached its peak yet”.

The recent events in the region reflect an emergent alliance between Saudi Arabia and the de facto Sisi regime in Egypt, which will almost certainly to become de jure following the coming presidential elections.

This alliance is the core component of an emergent larger bloc in the Sunni Arab world which also includes UAE, Bahrain and Jordan, as well as the fragile West Bank Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas. This alliance is set to emerge as the strongest element among the Sunni Arabs.

It is opposed both by the Iran-led, mainly Shiite “resistance” bloc, and by what is left of the Qatar-Muslim Brotherhood alliance that only a year ago was proclaiming itself the wave of the future in the Middle East. However, this emergent bloc was damaged by the Sisi coup in Egypt in 2013, and by the departure of the Muslim Brotherhood-related Nahda party in Tunisia.

The Hamas authority in Gaza, which has no place in the new Saudi-Sisi bloc, being formerly aligned with Iran, appears to be trying to find its way back to the Iranians. Gaza’s “foreign minister” Mahmoud al Zahar and Iran’s parliament spokesman Ali Larijani both made statements suggesting that relations had returned to normal between Teheran and Hamas. This means that Hamas is probably stuck between Qatar and the Iranians, with a diminishing support of the former and the support of the latter available only in a reduced form.

Israel, which cannot be a charter member of none of these groups, is a de facto ally of the Saudi-Egypt camp, since Egypt and Saudi Arabia, along with Israel, were in recent decades the main allies of the U.S. in the area. The former two countries are now in search of new friends, and have found each other.

The shifting sands of the Mid-Eastern strategic map are also a result of the perceived withdrawal of the U.S. from its role as a regional patron. This process is still underway and it’s too soon to draw any final conclusions regarding its results. But the current drawing together of Saudi Arabia and Sisi’s Egypt is likely to form the basis for the Sunni Arabs’ attempts to contain Iranian ambitions in the period ahead.

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Beyond the disappointments of the false Arab dawn, however, is the broader question of the existential crisis facing Islam in the land of its birth. Given its regressive trajectory, liberal Muslims, especially, will be right to worry about the shape in which Islam emerges from this crisis.

 

[1] One of the main intellectual figures of the Muslim Brotherhood, also the head of the European Council for Fatwa and Research, based in Ireland. He was presented in a previous analysis

[2] The Muslim Brotherhood’s political ideology and activities in Europe was analyzed in a previous paper

[3] Details about “Millı Görüş” and the Gűlen movement are to be found in previous analyses

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