The Middle East Channel

Iranian riot police clash with protesters over currency crisis

Iranian riot police clashed with protesters in the capital city of Tehran over the sharp decline in the country's currency. The value of the rial against the U.S. dollar has fallen by over 40 percent this week, hitting an all time low. According to eyewitness accounts and amateur video, hundreds of people marched toward Iran's central bank chanting anti-government slogans and calling for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to step down. Some shopkeepers closed their shops in the Grand Bazaar in protest. Money dealers, traders, and merchants dominated the crowd, angry with what they see as financial mismanagement by the government and reflecting the impact of severe western economic sanctions over Iran's nuclear development program. Riot police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd, some of whom were setting fire to tires and garbage cans. Many people, including two Europeans, were reportedly arrested. The protests came a day after Ahmadinejad said at a news conference that the crisis was caused by ruthless money speculators, the United States, and other enemies of Iran. Protests are rare in the tightly controlled environment of Iran, particularly after opposition demonstrations were crushed after the disputed re-election of Ahmadinejad in 2009.


Turkish strikes on military targets in Syria have continued for a second day in retaliation for a border attack by government forces which hit the Turkish town of Akcakale, killing five people. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called an emergency parliament session seeking approval for extensive war powers to "take a precaution to act in a timely and quick manner against additional risks and threats facing our country." The bill presented by Erdogan was dated September 20, which indicates the government had been planning to ask for authority to deploy troops into Syria prior to Wednesday's attack. Akcakle has been hit by Syrian fire on several occasions, but Wednesday marked the first time that Turkey has retaliated with an artillery strike. NATO said it stands by Turkey and "demands the immediate cessation of such aggressive acts against an ally." But NATO senior officials insisted that Turkey did not want a war with its neighbor. The United States said it supports "our Turkish ally and are continuing to consult closely on a path forward." The U.N. Security Council is scheduled to meet at the request of Turkey. Syrian officials are investigating the incident and according to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Syrian authorities said it "was a tragic accident and that it will not happen again." Meanwhile, in Damascus an explosion and subsequent clashes between opposition fighters and government forces killed an estimated 25 members of Syria's Republican Guard.


Arguments and Analysis

Iran Loses the Economic Battle' (John Allen Gay, The National Interest)

"While negotiations on Iran's nuclear program are at a standstill, news this week indicates that Iran is clearly losing the economic battle. As in other cases, currency problems in Iran may contribute to an unpredictable and destabilizing political outcome.

Iran's currency fell by more than 18 percent against the dollar on Monday and another 8 percent on Tuesday, marking a new low in Iran's continuing economic crisis. The figures are grim: a sheaf of rials worth ten thousand dollars a year ago would be worth about $3,75 Monday and $3,500 Tuesday; on Wednesday, there were protests in the bazaar."

Assad's Barbaric Endgame' (Anne Applebaum, Slate)

"We are not entirely powerless. Some areas of Syria, abandoned by the Assad regime, are now controlled by local coordination committees. We should be there to help them-and not just with emergency aid. Some months ago, I argued that Syrians should start thinking about transitional justice: how, exactly, former regime allies would be treated if the rebels win; and how victims would be compensated. But it's also possible to start thinking, now, about the economics of postwar Syria, a country whose budgets will be drained and whose infrastructure is in ruins. By focusing on concrete problems, the opposition, the rebels and the coordination committees may find that they can unify around the solutions.

It sounds absurd to plan for the post-Assad future while Assad is devastating his cities and murdering his citizens. But if no one is proposing a better future, he may win."

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey 

The Middle East Channel

Osama bin Laden and the Saudi Muslim Brotherhood

In a recent video entitled "Days with the Imam" in which he recalls Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri declares that the founder of al Qaeda had been a "member of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arabian Peninsula" before he was evicted in the 1980s. He was expelled because of his insistence on fighting alongside the mujahidin in Afghanistan while the Brotherhood allowed him to bring aid to Pakistan but didn't want him to go any further. Zawahiri's claims seem to have caused some embarrassment among the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), judging from how quick MB spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan was to refute them.

One reason for the embarrassment may be that, with a Muslim Brotherhood president recently elected in Egypt, the organization is eager to reassure the West of its moderate Islamist orientation and is therefore afraid of anything associating it with al Qaeda or jihadism. Yet Zawahiri's declarations shouldn't be seen as too problematic in this respect, since they portray the MB as an organization unwilling to let its members take part in physical jihad, even against the Soviets in Afghanistan at a time when the issue was far less controversial than it would later become. A more likely reason for the Brotherhood's distress, however, is that Zawahiri reveals what among Saudi Islamist insiders is an open secret but remains little known outside those circles: that there exists a Saudi Arabian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. 

Where Ghozlan has a point, however, is that the Saudi Muslim Brotherhood is not exactly a MB branch like all others. From the days of Hassan al-Banna, the Saudi monarchy made it clear that it wouldn't allow the Brotherhood to establish a section in the kingdom. Yet from the late 1960s onward, different groups of Saudis influenced by Egyptian and Syrian Brotherhood exiles started creating local semi-clandestine organizations claiming an affiliation to the MB. A sign that this was the result of a bottom-up dynamic, not a top-down creation, is that four such distinct organizations saw the light at about the same time: one in the western province, called the Brotherhood of the Hejaz (ikhwan al-Hijaz); and three in the central region -- two named after their alleged founder, the Brotherhood of al-Sulayfih (ikhwan al-Sulayfih) and the Brotherhood of al-Funaysan (ikhwan al-Funaysan), and one called the Brotherhood of Zubayr (ikhwan al-Zubayr) because it was established by Saudis whose families had lived in Zubayr, in Southern Iraq. Although the four groups attempted to coordinate their activities and saw themselves as part of one broader entity, they never managed to formally merge.

These groups of Saudi Brothers maintained links to the MB in Egypt and elsewhere, but, because of the sensitivity of the topic, those links remained loose and were never formalized. For instance, Saudi Brothers sometimes attended meetings of the Brotherhood's international organization in the 1980s, but officially they did so in their individual capacity, not as representatives of their organization. Also, Saudi Brothers generally did not pledge allegiance to the supreme guide in Cairo, as members of the Brotherhood are usually required, because, as Saudi citizens, they were already bound by an oath to the Saudi King. In terms of ideology, Saudi Brothers were also quite different from their counterparts elsewhere: although they did read Hassan al-Banna, Sa‘id Hawwa, and Sayyid Qutb, they were also heavily influenced by Salafi authors whom they quoted on issues of creed and on certain issues of fiqh.

In Saudi Arabia, the Brothers were part of a broader social movement called the "Islamic Awakening" (al-Sahwa al-Islamiyya), or Sahwa, whose ideology blended the political outlook of the Muslim Brotherhood with Salafi religious views. Other groups within the Sahwa included the so-called Sururis, named after one of their intellectual godfathers, the Syrian ex-Muslim Brother Muhammad Surur Zayn al-‘Abidin. In the 1970s, the Sahwa's influence grew extensively, especially in schools and on university campuses, to the extent that by the end of the decade, tens of thousands of young Saudis were Sahwa affiliates. This is when the young bin Laden, like many in his generation, joined one of the factions of the movement. It was in his case the Saudi MB, because it was the most active faction in his region of origin, the Hejaz.

Within the broader Sahwa movement, the Saudi Brothers had one major difference from the more mainstream Salafi groups, including the Sururis. While the Salafis were generally quite inward-looking because of their insistence on the need to preserve the purity of the Salafi creed from the corruption of "deviant" Muslim groups, the Saudi Brothers were much more outward-looking and prone to pan-Islamist ideas and sentiments. Among them, there was constant talk about the importance of "Islamic solidarity" and the need to support Muslims everywhere, regardless of how "orthodox" their creed.

This explains why, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and when Abdallah ‘Azzam started calling for Muslims to "join the caravan" of the mujahidin, the Saudis who were the most likely to heed the call of jihad came from a MB background. Among them was Osama bin Laden, as well as Samir al-Suwaylim, later known as Khattab, the future emir of the jihadis in Chechnya. They did so, however, against the will of their own leaders, as Zawahiri mentions in his video. The Brotherhood's official activities in Afghanistan were limited to humanitarian aid, and the organization was reluctant to allow its members to fight, partly because it feared that they could fall under the influence of rival groups. And so, just like Abdallah ‘Azzam's membership in the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood was suspended, bin Laden and Khattab were expelled from the Saudi Muslim Brotherhood.

After bin Laden's relationship with the Saudi Muslim Brotherhood formally ended, each took a radically different path. While bin Laden was growing increasingly hostile toward the Saudi regime, the Saudi Brotherhood insisted on keeping a low profile and avoided -- with the exception of a short period during the Sahwa's intifada in the early 1990s -- any open criticism of the royal family. In the wake of the Arab Spring, a few Saudi Brotherhood figures, galvanized by the revolutionary events in the region, tried to push for the organization to more explicitly challenge the royal family by demanding political reforms -- but again, to no avail. This careful strategy explains why the Saudi Muslim Brotherhood has managed to remain a key element of the Saudi political fabric until this day, while eluding both the wrath of the regime and the attention of outsiders.

Stéphane Lacroix is assistant professor of political science at the Paris School of International Affairs (PSIA) of Sciences Po and the author of Awakening Islam: The Politics of Religious Dissent in Contemporary Saudi Arabia, which addresses the Sahwa and the Muslim Brotherhood's influence in Saudi Arabia.

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