The Middle East Channel

Saudi Royal Family Politics and the Arab Spring

For almost two years, since February 17, 2011, Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province has seen a protest movement inspired by the Arab Spring that called for democracy, dignity, and more rights for Saudi Arabia's disenfranchised Shiite minority. The killing of protesters and the arrest and shooting of key oppositional clerics have spurred three cycles of protests. A renewed wave of protests and funerals was set in motion by the killing of 18-year old Ahmad Al Matar on December 27, 2012 in Qatif. Much of the escalation was blamed on the security forces, and especially on the long-serving governor of the Eastern Province, Muhammad bin Fahd.

And on Monday, January 14, the Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz issued a decree relieving the governor of his duties after 28 years "upon his request" and appointing Prince Saud bin Nayef bin Abdul Aziz as the new governor of the Eastern Province.

Muhammad bin Fahd is leaving office in the wake of the largest protests the Eastern Province has seen since an earlier uprising of Saudi Shiites in 1979/1980, which was crushed by the National Guard, leading to several dozen casualties. In Saudi Arabia there are between two and three million Shiites, many of whom live in the Eastern Province, centered around the two oases al-Ahsa and Qatif. For most of the 20th century, the governorship of the Eastern Province had belonged to the bin Jiluwi branch of the Saudi royal family. The governor of the Eastern Province was replaced after the 1979/1980 uprising, much like today's announcement.

Muhammad bin Fahd became governor of the Eastern Province in 1985, three years after his father had become king. Muhammad bin Fahd was initially installed to bring a new approach to the Eastern Province, and to open a new chapter with the Shiite minority, which at the time had hundreds of political prisoners and a large opposition in exile. Continuing a tradition of a strong independent Imara, or governorship, Muhammad bin Fahd had a say in all matters related to the Eastern Province, and is said to control a significant portion of the province's economy. The young (born in 1950) and U.S.-educated Muhammad bin Fahd introduced various developmental programs for Shiite areas and all Saudi Shiites arrested since 1979 were released upon his accession. He met more regularly with Shiite notables than his predecessor and sought to win over some of the new Shiite elites and students.

Under his rule, some areas of the Eastern Province were transformed into the economic powerhouses of the country, while others, usually rural areas inhabited by Shiites, were neglected. Over the years it became clear that he would not fundamentally change the second-class status of Shiite citizens. Therefore, Shiite grievances remained, and the Arab Spring galvanized a new generation of local activists. When protests threatened to spread across Saudi Arabia in early March 2011, with a "Day of Rage" planned on Facebook, Muhammad bin Fahd repeatedly met with local notables, clerics, and youth activists to try to persuade them not to protest. This worked to a certain extent, as Shiite clerics and notables issued statements urging the youth not to protest, even though many did protest anyway.

The reshuffle in the Eastern Province has to be seen in part as a response to the protests and the shootings of protesters in the Eastern Province. There are precedents: The governor of the Southern province of Najran was replaced in 2008 after he had cracked down too hard on the local Ismaili Muslims, who unlike the Shiites in the Eastern Province are also members of a powerful tribe. While the removal of Muhammad bin Fahd was a major demand of the protesters in the Eastern Province and should therefore ease tensions there, the problems with the Shiites and with demands for political change voiced by other Saudis are institutional rather than personal. The House of Saud sees any call for political change as an attack and seems incapable of institutional reform. The protests in the Eastern Province are seen purely through a security lens, and will therefore continue to be cracked down upon.

But there are also other issues besides the Eastern Province troubles behind the reshuffles. At the same time as the replacement of Muhammad bin Fahd, Faisal bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz was named governor of Medina. This coincidence points to the importance of the quest for the throne after the passing of the current king, and the enduring power struggle between the grandsons of King Abdulaziz, the founder of what is today known as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Until now, all the kings and crown princes that followed King Abdul Aziz, also known as Ibn Saud, have been his direct sons, but they are dying slowly or are becoming too ill to rule. The reigning monarch King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz is almost 90-years old, and in frail health, and two crown princes, including the long-time Interior Minister Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, have died over the last two years. With the appointment of the 77-year old Salman bin Abdul Aziz as the next crown prince in June 2012, the royal family just delayed the decision about which branch of the next generation of royals it is going to put on the throne.

It now looks like the sons of the former Interior Minister Prince Nayef, who was known as a hardliner at home and was key in Saudi Arabia's counter-revolutionary strategy in the Arab Spring, are putting themselves in good positions to become crown prince. Muhammad bin Nayef became Interior Minister on November 5, 2012, after a short interregnum by Ahmed bin Abdul Aziz, and his brother Saud bin Nayef is now governor of the strategically important Eastern Province. Saud bin Nayef had previously been ambassador to Spain and most recently headed the court of the crown prince, another important position.

It would be premature to read this as a defeat for Muhammad bin Fahd. Indeed, some argue that he will be appointed to another senior position and he is still a candidate to become crown prince in the future. The by now infamous anonymous Saudi twitterer @mujtahidd, who leaks information from the inner circles of the Saudi royal family, argued that Muhammad bin Fahd wants to become king in the future by allying himself with the Shiites in the Eastern Province. Given his problematic relationship with many Shiites this might seem improbable, but through his extensive business interests and his long reign in the Eastern Province he certainly does have a significant power base. Far from ushering in political change in Saudi Arabia, this reshuffle serves as a reminder that the fight amongst the third generation of Saudi royals has started in earnest. But it also shows how totalitarian the Saudi political system is and that the royal family still dominates almost all senior positions in the state. After all, all regional governors hail from the royal family and appointments are made by royal decree without consultation of the population.

The appointment of a new governor to the Eastern Province therefore offers the possibility of some political change after two difficult years. But little in the behavior of the Saudi regime suggests that the mindset has fundamentally changed. Security concerns continue to predominate, as does antipathy toward Shiites and activists calling for political reform and a constitutional monarchy. The new governor would do well to work toward a genuinely new start if he hopes to avoid replaying the same old patterns of protest, repression, and frustration.

Toby Matthiesen is a Research Fellow in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Cambridge. His forthcoming book Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring That Wasn't (Stanford University Press, 2013) offers a first-hand account of the Arab Spring protests in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, and shows how these regimes have encouraged sectarian divisions to undermine protests. Follow him at @TobyMatthiesen or on


The Middle East Channel

The new Egypt at (almost) two

On January 25, thousands of Egyptians will gather in Tahrir Square and across Egypt to commemorate the uprising that toppled the Hosni Mubarak dictatorship. They will celebrate with good reason. When Mubarak, pressured by millions in the streets and ultimately betrayed by his own top generals, resigned on February 11, 2011, a military-backed dictatorship that had ruled and largely abused Egypt for more than half a century came to an end. Most Egyptians were euphoric, and the world was transfixed by the unexpected power of the Tahrir Square freedom movement.

However, in the two years since, the transition remains fragile, and Egypt's politics remain dangerously polarized. In fact, in addition to celebration, there may also be clashes on January 25. Today Egypt has an elected president, a new constitution, and will soon hold parliamentary elections. But if Egypt has made halting steps toward democracy, worrying signs of illiberalism and poor governance are increasingly apparent. The outcome of the revolution in the Arab world's most populous country remains uncertain, and the threat of violence looms large. 

To understand where Egypt's revolution might go from here, it is useful to take a sober accounting of the key lessons that we have learned over the past two years, and to debunk some myths that stubbornly took root during that time.

The Muslim Brotherhood are not democrats. Despite some prominent Western journalists and analysts' continued wishful thinking to the contrary, the Muslim Brotherhood -- a secretive, rigorously disciplined and hierarchical organization -- neither understands nor sees inherent value in democratic politics. Rather, the Muslim Brotherhood believes in a narrow majoritarianism and its leaders and supporters often confuse that with democracy. The Brotherhood believes that 50 percent + 1 equals a free hand to pursue its agenda. And its agenda is manifestly an illiberal one in which universal rights are subordinated to religious doctrine.

The manner in which Egypt's new constitution was conceived, written, and adopted offers the clearest example of the Brotherhood's authoritarian and majoritarian tendencies. A post-authoritarian state should adopt a consensus document, but the current constitution was rammed through despite the staunch objections of non-Islamists. Rather than guaranteeing protections for minorities and women, the constitution leaves a troublingly broad scope for violation of their human rights. Looking ahead, as the Brotherhood embarks upon a legislative agenda, expect laws that will seek to limit media freedoms and constrain freedom of assembly.

The military remains very powerful. In November 2011, Egypt's Islamists, which had for months worked closely with the Mubarak appointed military leadership, protested the proposed "Selmi document" which was designed to ensure the military's privileges in any new constitution. However, after President Mohamed Morsi was elected in June 2012 and dismissed the two top Mubarak era generals in August, Egypt's Islamist dominated constituent assembly crafted a constitution that explicitly guarantees the military's power and privileges. The Islamists learned that trying to bring the military under civilian control was a dangerous task, and the two entities now have a more collaborative relationship. This gives some of Egypt's non-Islamists, who erroneously believed that the military represents the last line of defense against Islamists, migraines. But the more salient factor is that a military not under direct civilian oversight is simply bad for nurturing a fledgling democracy.

Sectarianism in Egypt is alive and well. Attacks on Egyptian Christians were not uncommon in Mubarak's time -- on New Year's Day in 2011, three and a half weeks before the uprising, a church in Alexandria was bombed, killing 21 worshipers. But Christians have thus far fared even worse in post-revolution Egypt. Churches have been burned, Christians have been attacked and prevented from voting, a Christian man's ear was even cut off -- and few perpetrators have been arrested, fostering a culture of impunity. In fact, Christian victims are often blamed for being attacked. In October 2011, for example, the military attacked a group of Christian protesters, killing 27, and as the melee was taking place, a state TV presenter requested that "honorable citizens" report to the scene to protect the soldiers from the marauding Christians.

Now with Islamists politically ascendant, hardline influential Muslim clerics have ratcheted up their sectarian invective against Christians. They are emboldened by the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood and their Salafi extremist junior partners believe in the primacy of Islamic principles over equal citizenship. While the Brotherhood, to appease Western skeptics, has issued various blandishments about its commitment to "equality," its leaders will stand by idly as more hardline Islamists spew ugly and dangerous rhetoric about Christians. Egyptians Christians should be concerned. Even if legislation is not overtly prejudiced, the views of Egypt's leaders will increasingly permeate the country, fanning existing anti-Christian biases.

The progressive "Muslim Brotherhood youth" is a myth. In the years leading up to the Egyptian uprising, there was a prevalent belief that the younger members of the Muslim Brotherhood would exert a moderating influence on the Muslim Brotherhood, especially if the movement was granted legal recognition. Many young Islamists are indeed more moderate, revolutionary, and yes more liberal, than the leadership. However, these more progressive, democratic young Brothers are outnumbered by adherents of similar age who remain committed to conservatism. As a result, the "young brothers" have not had the moderating influence that was expected.

The more impressive progressive Brothers, like Ibrahim El Houdaiby, have left the Brotherhood and started their own small political parties, or joined forces with more established, popular, moderate former members like Abdel Moniem Aboul Fotouh. Their defections have only reinforced the orthodox conservatism and authoritarian nature of the movement. On November 22, 2012, when Morsi declared himself above legal challenges, the Brotherhood ordered its younger members to gather in support of the president's statement, even before the content of that statement was known. The young Brothers actually had no idea what Morsi was going to say. They just knew that they would agree with it.

The silent majority remains the most potentially potent force in Egypt. To be sure, the Brotherhood is currently the most powerful and organized political force in the country. It can count on a bloc of between five and 10 million voters. And these voters have delivered victory after victory over the last 22 months in referenda as well as parliamentary and presidential elections. In fact, it is likely that Islamists will win the upcoming parliamentary elections. However, Egypt has more than 50 million voters. The biggest bloc is the unaffiliated -- either because they don't care, don't know enough about politics, or are disillusioned. For example, only 11 million voters approved the Islamist crafted constitution. This of course does not mean that the other 39 million voters reject it, but if the Brotherhood can only get one fifth of voters to make their way to a polling station to register their approval of such an important document, it means they can be beaten.

The prevalence of undecided potential voters means that Egypt's divided non-Islamists could make electoral progress if they successfully appeal to new voters beyond their own bloc of five to six million, mostly urban supporters. However, to date, Egypt's non-Islamist movement remains incoherent. Thus far, their strategy has been to be the party of "no" and to try to pressure authorities through street protests. This will not work. Non-Islamists can certainly win Egyptian elections, but they have to work twice as hard. They have yet to hone an appealing message, focused on the economy, for example, that would attract voters in places like Upper Egypt or other rural parts of the country, where they are particularly weak.

Authorities are adrift on the economy. There was a strong economic component to the January 25 uprising. Egypt's economy, like those of many other non-oil Arab states, grew under Mubarak in the last few years of his rule, but that growth did little for the poor. As recently as last fall, the Muslim Brotherhood was heralded as "serious" about economic reform. Given Egypt's deep economic problems -- growth is anemic, the pound is losing value, structural limitations to growth abound -- this should have been the government's primary focus. Instead, the Muslim Brotherhood used its political capital to ram through a constitution and then found it had little leverage to push through some needed but difficult economic reforms.

Of course, if the Brotherhood had pursued political consensus, it might have been better positioned to carry out needed reforms -- for example, on taxation and subsidies. In addition, were there less polarization and political upheaval, tourism receipts could well be higher and foreign and domestic investors less skittish. But the Muslim Brotherhood gambled that it was more important to cement its political agenda. For a time, Egypt's regional importance will continue to attract aid -- from the IMF, the United States and, increasingly from the Gulf -- but room for maneuver on crucial reforms is now much more limited.

Sinai is a serious security problem. Sinai is becoming increasingly lawless and poses a potential threat to Egyptian security and the economy. Since Mubarak's ouster, the gas pipeline in Sinai has been attacked more than a dozen times. In August 2012, the border police were attacked and 16 officers were killed, leading to a major shakeup of the security and military leadership. It is also disturbing that it appears difficult to get solid information about what is actually happening in Sinai -- who the Sinai militants are and what are their goals. However, their actions can carry serious consequences. A single devastating terrorist attack on tourists from Sinai-based groups could deal a further blow to Egypt's ailing economy.

Despite all the challenges that post-uprising Egypt faces, Egyptian politics are more alive than they have been in decades, and Egyptian democracy and pluralism are still good long term bets. Entrenched interests and many newly empowered political forces are change resistant -- but it is very unlikely that Egypt will return to the kind of "stable" authoritarianism of Mubarak. While they are a small minority, the core group of revolutionary activists agitating for democracy remains indefatigable. Egypt will probably experience a very bumpy few years, but these activists will keep pushing those in power to move toward a more democratic Egypt. Egypt has changed.

Hani Sabra is the lead analyst on the GCC, Egypt, and the Levant for Eurasia Group.