Gulf Islamist Dissent Over Egypt

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia issued an unusually rapid and strong endorsement of the Egyptian military crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood's sit-ins, calling on all Arabs to unite behind a crackdown on terrorism, incitement, and disorder. Bahrain, the UAE, and Kuwait rapidly backed his stance. But many of the most popular and influential Saudi and Kuwaiti Islamist personalities disagreed vehemently and publicly. Indeed, a popular hashtag quickly appeared on Twitter: "King Abdullah's Speech Does Not Represent Me."

There is a long history of Islamists challenging official policy in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, of course. But even if the uproar could quickly fade away or be absorbed into politics as usual, particularly if the violence dies down in Egypt, it's worth paying attention to the growing, intense public divide between these Islamist personalities and official policy over Egypt. Even more than domestic politics, the impact might be felt most strongly in Syria -- where the same voices now criticizing the support for Egypt's crackdown have been at the forefront of mobilizing public support for the Syrian opposition.

The most public backlash thus far came with Saudi Prince Waleed bin Talal's sudden removal of the popular Kuwaiti Islamist personality Tareq al-Suwaidan from al-Risala TV over his support for the Muslim Brotherhood and criticism of the Egyptian military coup. Waleed posted his letter dismissing Suwaidan on Twitter, with the terse declaration that "there is no place for any member of the Muslim Brotherhood in our group" and explaining that Suwaidan had "confessed to his membership in the terrorist Brotherhood movement." 

Suwaidan was vocal indeed in his criticism of the crackdown, but he was hardly alone. The condemnation of Egypt's crackdown and of the official Gulf support extends across multiple Islamist networks and prominent personalities. The popular Kuwaiti Islamist personality Nabil el-Awadhi, for instance, raged that "the blood of innocents in flowing in Egypt ... the murderers unleash their bullets without mercy and lay siege to mosques and burn them ... and they want you Muslims to watch in silence!" When the Saudi Abd al-Aziz Tarefe tweeted that "what is happening in Egypt is a war against Islam," he received 1584 retweets in 24 minutes. 

When I started tweeting about these responses, a lot of Saudis quickly pointed me to Mohammed bin Nasir al-Suhaybani. Suhaybani had delivered a sermon at the Prophet's Mosque in Medina denouncing the crackdown, and arguing that whoever supported the coup bore the responsibility for the bloodshed and had God's curse upon them. The video, posted to YouTube, has received hundreds of thousands of views. His rapid banishment quickly generated a popular hashtag in his defense ("Shaykh Suhayban Represents Me") -- which resonated uneasily with the hashtag "King Abdullah's Words Do Not Represent Me." 

Few have been more outspoken than the influential Saudi Islamist Salman al-Awda, who tweeted in English on August 15: "Whoever helps a murderer - whether by word, deed, financial support, or even a gesture of approval - is an accomplice. Whoever remains silent in the face of murder to safeguard his personal interests is an accessory to the crime." Surrounded by dozens of Arabic tweets blaming the Egyptian military for said crimes, the implications for the official Saudi position were difficult to miss. "It is clear who is driving Egypt to its destruction out of fear for their own selves," he tweeted. "I am with those whose blood is being shed and against those who are blindly going about killing people."

That seems to be in line with the most popular responses among the politicized Islamists of the Gulf. Examples abound. Ibrahim Darwish, in a video posted two days ago, was particularly incensed by the "monstrous crime" of Muslims killing Muslims. The Saudi professor Abd al-Aziz al-Abd al-Latif on August 16 complained about the official framing: how could it be that "supporting the coup and financing butchers and traitors is not fitna and not terrorism and not intervention in the affairs of Egypt, but fitna is calling for the rights of the downtrodden?" Another popular Islamist personality, Hajjaj al-Ajmi, declared "there is no doubt that the Gulf regimes participating in shedding the blood of Egyptians deserve the curse of God." Others were more careful in their criticism, or focused on the need to avoid bloodshed, but their sympathies seemed clear. Mohamed al-Arefe declared himself on August 15 to be "with Egypt in my heart and my position and my preaching," calling on Egyptians to "avoid violence, preserve the calm, do not wash blood with blood." A'idh al-Qarni pleaded for all sides to show restraint.

This public, intense Islamist anger over official policy toward Egypt could have domestic political ramifications, at least at the margins. The co-optation of the Sahwa Islamist networks was a key part of the Saudi survival strategy in the early days of the Arab uprisings. Key sahwa figures such as Salman al-Awda have been increasingly critical, however, as with his scathing open letter on the need for political reform released in March. The argument over Egypt may further push them apart. As for Kuwait, criticism over Egypt plays into its interminable political crisis, and will likely only intensify the existing polarization. After opposition movements including the Islamic Constitutional Movement organized a protest outside of Egypt's Embassy, a leading pro-government politician warned ominously against any sign of penetration by Egyptian Muslim Brothers. None of this is likely to lead to an uprising or the like, but it puts the monarchs in an unaccustomed defensive position.

The greater impact might be felt in Syria, however. These Islamist networks and personalities have been instrumental in building support and raising money for the various factions of the Syrian opposition. Now, they are prominently equating Egypt's General Abdel Fattah al-Sissi with Syria's President Bashar al-Assad. Suwaidan, for instance, proclaims that "the right is clearly with the revolutionaries in Syria and with those who adhere to legitimacy and reject the coup in Egypt." What will happen if the Islamist networks which have been working to support the Syrian opposition begin to turn their fundraising and mobilizational efforts to Egypt? 


Marc Lynch

Enough Is Enough

It’s time for Washington to cut Egypt loose.

With blood in Egypt's streets and a return to a state of emergency, it's time for Washington to stop pretending. Its efforts to maintain its lines of communication with the Egyptian military, quietly mediate the crisis, and help lay the groundwork for some new, democratic political process have utterly failed. Egypt's new military regime, and a sizable and vocal portion of the Egyptian population, have made it very clear that they just want the United States to leave it alone. For once, Washington should give them their wish. As long as Egypt remains on its current path, the Obama administration should suspend all aid, keep the embassy in Cairo closed, and refrain from treating the military regime as a legitimate government.

These steps won't matter very much in the short term. Cairo has made it very clear that it doesn't care what Washington thinks and the Gulf states will happily replace whatever cash stops flowing from U.S. coffers. Anti-American incitement will continue, along with the state of emergency, violence and polarization, the stripping away of the fig leaf of civilian government, and the disaster brewing in the Sinai. It won't affect Secretary of State John Kerry's Israel-Palestine peace talks and the Camp David accords will be fine, too; Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi can't manage his own streets, and it's unlikely he wants to mess with Israel right now.

The hard truth is that the United States has no real influence to lose right now anyway, and immediate impact isn't the point. Taking a (much belated) stand is the only way for the United States to regain any credibility -- with Cairo, with the region, and with its own tattered democratic rhetoric.

It's easy to understand Washington's ambivalence in the immediate aftermath of the July 3 coup. Nobody ever had any illusions that the military seizing power, suspending the constitution, and imprisoning President Mohamed Morsy quacked, as John McCain rather regrettably put it, like a duck. At the same time, the seemingly robust public support for the coup, longstanding uneasiness about the Muslim Brotherhood, the appointment of well-regarded technocrats to high-level government positions, and strong Gulf Cooperation Coucil support for the new regime stayed the Obama administration's hand. It seemed prudent to many in Washington to wait and see how things would play out, especially given the intense arguments of those defending what they considered popular revolution. It didn't help that neither the United States nor other outside actors knew quite what they wanted. Few particularly wanted to go to the mat for the Muslim Brotherhood or a Morsy restoration, and Washington quickly understood that this was not in the cards. But they also didn't want a return to military rule.

Washington's ambivalent position on the "coup" question also had the tactical purpose of keeping lines of diplomatic communication with both the new government and the Muslim Brotherhood. Washington tried to use its remaining leverage to encourage restraint and to broker some sort of acceptable compromise. Its low public profile made good sense given the torrent of irrational anti-American incitement sweeping Egypt's media. The Pentagon maintained constant quiet communications with General Sisi, but had little evident impact on his decisions.

Deputy Secretary of State William Burns spent nearly a week trying to bring the two sides together, including a very well-crafted effort backed by both the United Arab Emirates and Qatar to push imprisoned Muslim Brotherhood leader Khairat el-Shater towards compromise. These attempts at quiet diplomacy under extremely difficult conditions were worthwhile and well-intentioned at the time, even if undermined by conflicting signals from Kerry and self-appointed interlocuters such as Sens. McCain and Lindsey Graham.

But those justifications hold less weight now after the failure of mediation, the assault on the Brotherhood's sit-in, and the declaration of a state of emergency.

These efforts to broker a political deal were never likely to succeed at a time when local forces are fighting what they see as an existential battle for political survival. Neither the military nor the Brotherhood wanted a deal -- and no outside actor had the enough cards to play to encourage either side to make one. But the diplomacy was still worth trying. Even if Washington could not force a deal, its mediation efforts seemed to offer some alternative to violence and something to which the dwindling band of moderates on both sides could cling.

At a minimum, Washington hoped that its role would help to restrain the new Egyptian government from actions which would cause major bloodshed or efforts to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood. Clearly, with corpses now piling up in Cairo's streets, this half-hearted presence has failed, horribly.

U.S. policy towards Egypt over the last two and a half years tried to quietly support a transition to democracy. This was the correct strategic vision. It's difficult to see any way to return to that path at this point, though. The bloody assault on the protester camps -- after repeated American opposition to such a move -- leaves President Obama little choice but to step away from the Egyptian regime. Washington should, and probably will, call for a return to an elected civilian government, a rapid end to the state of emergency, and restraint in the use of force. When that doesn't happen, it needs to suspend aid and relations until Cairo begins to take it seriously.  

Ed Giles/Getty Images