The Middle East Channel

Egypt's coup and the Saudi opposition

It is ironic that a state claiming to rule according to Islamic principles, Saudi Arabia, fears the rise to power of Islamists -- both at home and in neighboring countries. One regional Islamist trend worries the Saudi leadership, the Muslim Brotherhood which has decided to engage in politics through elections and the democratic process.

Saudi legitimacy is based on an appropriation of Islamic symbols such as claims that "our constitution is the Quran" and the application of sharia. The Saudi leadership fears losing its unique Islamic credentials as Islamists in other countries reach power. It wants to remain the sole Islamic model in the Arab region. The possibility of neighboring states combining Islamist politics with democracy threatens the Saudi model and seriously alarms the Saudi state. 

The Saudi government made it clear that it does not accept the rule of Islamists in Egypt or elsewhere, for that matter. Riyadh had in the past coexisted and even cooperated and manipulated the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood but since September 11, 2001 it turned against them when deceased Minister of Interior Prince Nayef held the Muslim Brotherhood responsible for terrorism in Saudi Arabia.

Hours after General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi deposed Mohamed Morsi on July 3, King Abdullah congratulated the Egyptian interim government and promised $5 billion in aid and subsidies, thus indicating his support for the change that led to removing the Muslim Brotherhood from power.

In a recent speech, King Abdullah clearly stated that he continues to back the Egyptian government in eradicating the dissent, chaos, and terrorism of those who threaten the security of Egypt, meaning the Muslim Brotherhood. Many Saudis were shocked especially after it transpired that hundreds of Egyptians were massacred in various squares in Cairo where Muslim Brotherhood supporters had been staging demonstrations and prolonged sit-ins.

While the demise of the Muslim Brotherhood had been a clear stated policy of the Saudi regime, the king's speech was mainly directed toward an internal audience, especially Saudi Islamists of all shades. This includes an amalgamation of Brotherhood sympathizers and others. Saudi Islamists encompass a Salafized version of the Brotherhood, not to mention militant Jihadis and those Jihadis who postpone Jihad until the right conditions are ready for launching it.

All share one agenda although they may differ over the strategy that allows them to achieve it, namely the establishment of an Islamic state in which an umma guided by the holy book rules itself, by implication a rejection of hereditary monarchical rule. While not all Saudi Islamists openly reject the monarchy, their goal implicitly undermines the Saudi state in its present configuration. A recent development among some Islamists clearly represents a shift from theorizing the duties of Muslims to calling for their rights, represented by calls for national political representation, independent judiciary, respect for human rights, and freedom of speech. This shift was invigorated by the 2011 Arab uprisings and subsequent elections in countries like Egypt and Tunisia that brought Islamists to power.

Saudi Islamists went through a euphoric mode praising democratic transformation and hoping that the winds of change will cross the Red Sea. Yet they were not ready to call for an uprising for fear of losing everything. The Egyptian coup and the recent massacres in Egypt demonstrated beyond doubt the might of security approaches to peaceful protest.

A divided Saudi public, sectarian differences, regional rivalries, and tribal fragmentation all mitigated against the emergence of a unified Saudi Islamist protest movement. The government absorbed some of the Islamists' euphoria when it moved its troops to Bahrain to suppress the peaceful protest movement in 2011. Moreover, Saudi full support for the Syrian uprising succeeded in deflating anger among Islamists as long as this uprising remained anchored in a sectarian discourse that depicts it as a struggle of pious Sunnis against heretical Alawis and Shiites.

Close to home, the Qatif demonstrations were God-sent, as they silenced open calls for change or democratization among the majority of Saudi Islamists. The regime deflated its own Islamists' agitations when it engaged with Shiite protesters in the oil rich Eastern province, killing more than 16 activists in the last two years. Many Islamists blamed the Shiites for the increased repression in the country, which they themselves have suffered.

The king's message was clear: zero tolerance for all those who use Islam to pursue political agendas, sort of an oxymoron in the Saudi context as the state itself had been manipulating, co-opting, and promoting Islam for agendas that are nothing but political. The foundation of the state itself is a process of instrumentalizing Islam to revive the Al-Saud control of vast territories, under the pretext of purifying Arabia from blasphemy, innovation, and atheism. The Muslim Brotherhood and its likes appear to be latecomers to the project of politicizing Islam.

King Abdullah's message, supposedly meant for Egyptians, did not go unheeded among the many Saudi Islamists who abhorred their government's support for the Egyptian coup. Since July 3, they have turned into defenders of Morsi and the Brotherhood, issuing statements on social media condemning their own government for backing the coup. A small group of activists launched an online petition to gather signatures against the aid that had been promised to Egypt immediately after the coup. Following the circulation of the petition, a couple of veteran activists such as Mohsin al-Awaji were briefly detained while many other Islamists remain banned from travel, most famous is Sheikh Salman al-Awdah whose television program "you have Rights" was abruptly stopped on an Islamist independent television channel. The government is carefully watching the hyperactivity of Islamists and their statements on television and online, which have so far strongly condemned the Egyptian coup and their own government's unequivocal endorsement of General Sisi.

On Twitter, activists launched a hashtag clearly denouncing the king under the slogan "the king does not represent me." So far the government has not reacted to such provocation. In fact, it may prefer to keep tweets going until they materialize in action on the ground. It may also want to monitor tweets and catch transgressors. A counter hashtag under the slogan "the king represents me" was immediately launched and the Saudi press reported that it was a great success, reflecting citizens' loyalty to their king and agreement with his policies. The virtual war remains heated in a country where freedom of speech is still lagging behind and the king is sacrosanct. Official media falls short of even debating Saudi support of the Egyptian coup and since June it has demonized the Muslim Brotherhood in banal and unjustified articles and commentaries.

The Saudi regime is gradually pursuing a media blackout on Islamists but if their activism moves from the virtual world to reality, it is likely that a mere royal speech will not be sufficient. More brutal measures will no doubt be applied. Egypt and its coup are regular reminders to Saudi audiences that might is always right. The Saudi Ministry of Interior has mastered the art of silencing peaceful activists who call for respect of human rights and has shown its might when dispersing the small demonstrations that sprung up in various regions of the country. It stays firm when facing collective action of any kind, from sit-ins and strikes to demonstrations.

The impotence of the West and the international community that often celebrates democratic transitions vis a vis the massacres in Egypt over the last weeks will only convince Saudi Islamists that they will have to remain speechless at the moment. It is obvious that no one will come to rescue them should they engage in political change and incur the wrath of their government.

The Egyptian coup sent several messages to Saudi Islamists and their counterparts in other parts of the Gulf region, the most important one is never to trust the ballot box. This will have serious consequences in the future and may well revive the old strategies of violence as the only mechanism to pursue goals.

Saudi contribution to the demise of the Muslim Brotherhood will always be remembered by the country's activists as a betrayal of Islam, a view that has already been voiced by many Islamists whose government prefers they remain speechless. 

Madawi Al-Rasheed is visiting professor at The Middle East Centre at London School of Economics and Political Science and Research Fellow at Open Society Foundation.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

A path out for Egypt

It is troubling how predictable and expected the consequences of last week's decisions in Egypt have been. It is troubling because it indicates that those who made such decisions either had little or no idea that these consequences were likely -- or that they did not care about those consequences. In the midst of this crisis, however, it is important to see where there may be a path out and who can -- and who cannot -- help.

The public demand of the pro-Morsi camp (although privately, they are somewhat more nuanced) is the reinstatement of President Mohamed Morsi. In doing so, it is chasing after a scenario that is not only unlikely, but also dangerous. The best case for the July 3 military takeover was the aversion of widespread violence and civil war. This case has now been defeated -- widespread violence has already taken place, and while it is not in a civil war, Egypt is in a very dark place.   

Nevertheless, the danger now is that even more violence could take place -- including if Morsi were reinstated. The calculus of the Muslim Brotherhood is that the majority of the population is either on its side, or on the fence between it and the military. The reality is that the majority of the population is solidly behind the military-backed interim government, and against the pro-Morsi camp, in spite of the incredible and obscene use of excessive force by the government's security forces to break up pro-Morsi protests. Indeed, what we have seen over the past few days is the phenomenon of spontaneous (and there will be non-spontaneous ones as well) civilian groups, voluntarily opposing Morsi supporters on the streets, due to organic antagonism vis-à-vis the pro-Morsi camp. They are creating neighborhood committees; tackling Morsi supporters in fights; and even establishing mobs, such as what were outside the al-Fatah mosque in the Ramsis area of Cairo this past Saturday. There were points that day when the security services themselves were protecting pro-Morsi protesters from an anti-Morsi mob -- the significance of that ought not to be underestimated.

Moreover, and most importantly, Morsi's reinstatement would be a direct challenge against all the institutions of the state: including the ones with the predominance of arms in the country. The military and the security services would resist such a reinstatement with all force at their disposal -- and without a critical mass of civilian support on the pro-Morsi side, the fight would be decisively won against the pro-Morsi camp. The only other way for that reinstatement to occur would be for the army to replace Defense Minister General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and then back Morsi. Indeed, this is what some Muslim Brotherhood members are privately hoping for -- but their calculus in this regard is flawed. Sisi is tremendously popular within the army ranks -- and if the army were to split (which is highly dubious by any stretch of the imagination), Egypt could easily find itself in the midst of a real civil war. The reinstatement of Morsi is simply not on the table, if Egypt is to progress to safety. 

But whether to reinstate Morsi is hardly the most pressing issue in Egypt -- it has gone far beyond that. The Egyptian state is in the midst of perhaps the most dangerous crisis in its modern history. The complete and utter failure of political leadership in Egypt has led to a showdown between the military and the security services on the one hand, and the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies on the other. These two sides are not equal -- the former is responsible for maintaining the security of the state as a whole, and all citizens individually, regardless of their political affiliations, while the latter is responsible for adhering to the law, as individuals, and as a group. Both "sides" have responsibilities to live up to -- but the consequence of the Muslim Brotherhood failing its responsibilities cannot be compared to the failure of the state doing the same.

The future of politics in Egypt, along with the regional and international repercussions that accompany it, directly depends on how this crisis is resolved. The same path that was open before this terrible turn of events is still open. The basic outlines of a political accommodation are still there for everyone to grasp. An interim government is unsustainable, and means for little or no accountability of anyone -- and the reinstatement of Morsi is also a bad move. Fresh presidential elections under the watch of international observers are needed as soon as possible, but that is only a starting point. Consensus is key to unlocking Egypt's deadlock -- and that demands an alternative vote system for the presidency. Whoever becomes Egypt's next civilian president must have the largest possible mandate and be best positioned within a vote system in which the winner is the first or second choice out of many candidates.

That consensus cannot be established without the full participation of all political forces in the country -- and that means the Muslim Brotherhood, popular or not, must be permitted to have political representation as a group. The interim government has already said as much, while reserving the right to prosecute individuals for crimes -- so be it, if the crimes are investigated in a transparent and just manner. But the government is sending mixed messages in this regard completely -- it talks of disbanding the organization, and paints its members indiscriminately as terrorists. But the exclusion of a group that has the support of around 15 percent of the adult population is not something that ought to be considered lightly. If the Muslim Brotherhood as a group chooses to stay out, as it chose as a group to create a single political party, then it cannot be forced in -- but every step must be taken from the side of the state to make inclusion a reality.

Finally, the political process cannot move forward with an impending threat of violence within the country. The demands of the January 25 revolution were "bread, freedom, social justice and human dignity" -- and those demands were made on "Police Day." The reform and restructuring of the Ministry of Interior, with all of its security apparatuses, must be a priority for the government at present. Christian communities of Egypt and their churches must receive the protection of the state, which has been severely lacking. Security sector reform has been necessary for years, but no one has had the desire or political will to take it on. The state's use of excessive force resulting in the mass killing of hundreds of people over the past few days has been as disastrous as was predicted -- and excessive force will be used again. It was used under Hosni Mubarak, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, Morsi, and every authority in Egypt in recent memory. Reforming the security sector is not an option. It is a dire necessity.

These basic details are not the main issue -- the issue is who will be able to get all parties within Egypt to confer on the basis of such principles. Few in the country, if any, qualify as institutions or individuals that have the potential to bring the parties together. Al-Azhar University may qualify, as Azhar's Grand Imam voiced opposition to and dissent against the forced dispersal of the pro-Morsi sit-ins by the government -- but the Muslim Brotherhood will regard him as suspect, considering his support for the military intervention on July 3. Nevertheless, Ahmed al-Tayeb carries substantial weight -- and in the midst of such a polarized society, he is probably one of the few Egyptians left who has the respect of the state's institutions, and stood against the violence of the last few days. If he hosts an initiative with one of his most senior advisors, Hassan Shafei (a noted scholar in his own right who has been deeply critical of the last few weeks), this may be a venue for constructive dialogue. Within that dialogue also present will likely be Amr Hamzawy (a liberal politician who has been consistent throughout), Mohamed ElBaradei (the now former vice president), Selim al-Awaa (a more centrist Islamist figure), Nabil el-Arabi (the secretary general of the Arab League) and the former Muslim Brotherhood figure, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who can act as decent mediators between the multiple sides.

But Egypt does not operate in a vacuum -- and international mediation, alongside national media, may be helpful, at the invitation of the national mediation. A multilateral discussion that brings some international actors together that have some influence on different parties to this emerging conflict, such as the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and the European Union, on the same page may also be useful. Other countries that are less involved in Egypt, but are genuinely neutral brokers, such as Norway, should also be brought into the discussion.

The United States may be a glaring omission -- but that omission is one of design, as the United States has shown itself to be remarkably unpopular on both sides of the divide in Egypt. It ought to stay on the sidelines this time around, and at best engage those non-Egyptian parties involved in the international mediation.

None of this will be easy -- and there will be compromises to be made that few will find assuring, but the most important thing at present is Egypt's stability and the prevention of more loss of life. The only way forward in that regard is dialogue and negotiation. Dialogue when it is non-advantageous to a party's position is always risky -- but the danger of not engaging in dialogue at the present time is certainly riskier. The price of political failure in Egypt increases -- in blood.

Dr. H.A. Hellyer is a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution (DC) and associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (London). He tweets at @hahellyer and is a fellow of ISPU.