Can the wealthy powerbrokers of the Persian Gulf create the Egypt they want?
- By Marc Lynch
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).
He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements.
Many Egyptians furiously contest whether the overthrow of former President Mohamed Morsy should be considered a revolution or a coup. But the fiercely anti-revolutionary monarchs of the Gulf have no such doubts. Within days of Morsy’s fall, three conservative Gulf Cooperation Council states pledged $12 billion in support to the new regime. It’s pretty clear what the counter-revolutionary Gulf monarchs expect for their generosity, and it’s not democracy. The conservative Gulf states would like to buy a new Mubarakism and a final end to all of this Arab uprising unpleasantness. But they are unlikely to succeed.
The $12 billion in support came from three members of the GCC’s conservative axis: Saudi Arabia, the core of the anti-revolutionary monarchical bloc, pledged $5 billion; the fiercely anti-Islamist and anti-democracy United Arab Emirates pledged $3 billion; and Kuwait, traditionally more liberal but now locked in a debilitating political crisis over the powers of its Parliament, promised $4 billion. Those cash infusions come on top of years of political and media support for the anti-Brotherhood forces in Egypt.
This massive financial support follows on, and replaces, billions of dollars given by Qatar to the previous Muslim Brotherhood government. It is likely to prove equally ineffectual in delivering the desired payoffs, though. As Doha discovered to its dismay, money will buy only temporary love and symbolic returns. Whatever Gulf paymasters might hope, the new Egyptian government will be forced to respond to its own intensely turbulent, polarized, and dysfunctional domestic political arena. No outside player — not Washington, Riyadh, Doha, or Tehran — can really hope to effectively shape the new Egyptian politics for long.
Many, if not most, of those who demanded Morsy’s departure did so to save Egypt from the Muslim Brotherhood and restore a democratic transition, not to bring back the old regime. Nothing in Egypt’s recent history suggests that the new government will be able to easily pacify its intensely mobilized public or that any external power will be able to control its politics. General Abdul Fatah al-Sisi’s "neo-SCAF" may appear to be much better at the Egyptian political game than his bungling predecessors, but its muddled transitional roadmap looks as poorly conceived as the one the military failed so badly at implementing in 2011. Indeed, as anti-Muslim Brotherhood rage fades as a unifying force, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi may find themselves taking over Qatar’s role as the external force blamed for ongoing economic and political failure.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia had multiple reasons for supporting the anti-Morsy mobilization. Their deep antipathy towards and fear of the Muslim Brotherhood was a primary motivation. The UAE has been leading the charge against the Brotherhood at home and across the region, for years. The recently concluded trial of 94 alleged Brotherhood activists is only the tip of the iceberg. Dubai’s controversial police chief Dhahi Khalfan Tamim has been sounding the alarm bells for years, while Emirati media have been flooded with anti-Brotherhood reporting and commentary.
Saudi hostility to the Brotherhood is driven not by any devotion to secularism, of course, but by the fierce competition between the Brotherhood and its own Salafi Islamist networks. Riyadh seeks leadership over Islamist political networks for both domestic and regional reasons. The Saudi regime worked for years to co-opt the Brotherhood-inclined "Sahwa" Islamist networks that drove political dissent in the early 1990s — and it still fears their remobilization (for example, the highly publicized open letter by Sahwa leader Salman al-Odeh warning the government against ignoring public discontent). Saudi support for the jihad in Syria is likely driven in part by the same concerns as its anti-Brotherhood campaign. Just as the Afghan jihad of the 1980s redirected Islamist energies away from home following the traumatic seizure of the Great Mosque of Mecca, the Syrian jihad focuses Islamist energies abroad, working with rather than against Riyadh’s leadership. In Egypt, as in Syria, the Saudis don’t oppose Islamism, just competing Islamists.
The rivalry with Qatar also clearly drove the calculations of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The cooperation between these GCC states in the early days of the Arab uprising was always clearly the exception. Their rivalry and mutual disdain runs deep, and Doha’s rivals have moved rapidly and aggressively to take advantage of the departure of the Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassim. What happened in Doha is clearly not staying in Doha. Morsy’s fall represents a serious setback for Qatar’s regional policy, but not the only one. Qatar’s men in the Syrian opposition have been sidelined, for now. Its leading Islamist figure, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, has capitulated to the Saudi anti-Shiite line, and now rumors are flying that he has been expelled from Doha. Meanwhile, the Saudis are moving to re-establish their traditional domination of the Arab media, with Al-Jazeera floundering and the influential (allegedly Qatari-backed) Arab populist editor Abdel Bari Atwan suddenly departing the pan-Arab daily al-Quds al-Arabi.
Most broadly, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi saw the chance to finally put the nail in the coffin of the detested Arab uprisings by re-establishing the old order in the most important of the transitional states. They were horrified by Mubarak’s fall, by the demonstration effect across the region, and by America’s seeming embrace of the uprisings. From the start, they worked to divert, prevent, or control the Arab uprisings: helping to crush the uprising in Bahrain, sending massive financial assistance to less wealthy fellow monarchs in Oman, Jordan, and Morocco, and seeking to control the transition process in Yemen. Their media, in contrast to Al-Jazeera’s celebratory coverage, tended to emphasize the negative consequences of the Arab uprisings, the perfidy of Islamists, the carnage of Syria and Libya, and Egypt’s political chaos.
A successful Egyptian democratic transition, with or without the Muslim Brotherhood, represented the greatest threat to this vision of conservative restoration. Such an Egypt would offer a powerful example of the possibility of democratic change through peaceful uprising, and would likely pursue an independent foreign policy which would challenge the Saudi-backed regional order. Gulf leaders no doubt calculated that Egypt would return to its rightful place in the official Arab order. But their vision of Egypt’s political reset is not to 1954, no matter how much they want to see the Brotherhood crushed. They would like to prevent, not encourage, the emergence of a new form of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s independent foreign policy that could challenge their own. A reset to the late 2000s, with Egypt playing a subservient supporting role to Saudi diplomacy, will suffice.
What might this look like? The blueprint for the "new Arab Awakening" presented this week in Foreign Policy by UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash suggests a useful outline. This new Awakening for which he urges support contains no mention of democracy, popular mobilization, or media freedoms. The focus instead is entirely on countering Islamic "extremists," economic development, and competent technocratic government (and a token wave toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). There is nothing in this which could not describe the agenda of Gamal Mubarak’s National Democratic Party circa 2010. Or, to be glib, the new Arab awakening means "go back to sleep or the Muslim Brotherhood will get you."
For now, anti-Muslim Brotherhood rage has allowed the new regime to avoid the contradictions between revolution and counter-revolution. Amazingly, the SCAF has somehow managed to persuade Egypt that Washington’s main ally in Egypt has been the Muslim Brotherhood and not, as has always been true, the military. State media along with many of the new "independent" media have eagerly leaped to the task, flooding the zone with denunciations of Brotherhood "terror" and rewriting recent history to glorify the role of the armed forces and police. A Bahrain-style campaign on social media blasts all would-be bridge builders and moderates as Brotherhood sympathizers and traitors. The streets are festooned with posters attacking Al-Jazeera and Tamarod banners declare "Obama supports terrorism." The Brotherhood’s defiant response, and the support it has received from international Islamist networks and from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, feed this polarization.
None of this is likely to work over even the short term, though. Mubarakism failed for a reason, and the new version is unlikely to fare better. Anti-Islamism will have a short-half life as a legitimating formula for the new leadership. While the Gulf states and the old elites may have taken advantage of the uprising against Morsy, they neither created nor controlled popular anger. A significant portion of the June 30 protest wave wants continuing revolution and the building of democracy, not Gulf tutelage or the restoration of the pre-2011 status quo. The mobilized Egyptian public will have little patience when the new leaders again fail to restore order, fix the economy, or find political consensus. The new infusion of cash from the Gulf will stave off disaster for a while, but will no more likely fix the massive underlying problems than did the Qatari support, while subsidy reforms or other needed measures will galvanize public outrage.
Washington is now more trapped than ever between its professed hopes for democratic change in the region and its alliance with the anti-democratic regimes of the Gulf. Washington seems likely to accept the new realities and to try to save face by urging the Gulf to join it in pressuring the SCAF to rapidly restore democratic rule … as if that were a shared goal. The United States probably should suspend its aid to Egypt, as is legally required, but the Gulf assistance mitigates any influence which such a threat might offer. The administration’s intensive consultations in recent days with the Egyptian military and with Gulf leaders suggests that Washington will find it easier to work with the new-old constellation of power.
But it would be a mistake to easily go along. July 3 might have been more coup than revolution, but the massive mobilization was very real. The Arab uprisings are not over, no matter how much the Gulf monarchies might wish that they were. A neo-Mubarakist restoration will no more bring stability to Egypt than did the pre-revolutionary Mubarak regime. There is no solution to Egypt’s problems without overcoming the country’s polarization and establishing meaningful democracy, neither of which are high on the agenda of Egypt’s new Gulf backers.