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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? 

YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images

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