The Entente faces down the Muslim Brotherhood

Brian M Downing 

The Muslim Brotherhood began in 1920s Egypt and over the years has spread throughout the Islamic world. In places it operates as an underground network, elsewhere as an open part of government. Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States have formed an Entente which opposes terrorism and Iranian-Shia power. The Brotherhood has at least some connections to both.

The three powers are increasing vocal in their opposition to the Brotherhood and aligned countries may embark upon a new period of repression. What are the reasons for the Entente’s opposition, how far will it go against the Brotherhood, and what are the possible consequences?

Saudi opposition

Riyadh and its allies in both the Gulf and Egypt dislike the Brotherhood for its opposition to monarchal forms of government. Such regimes in the Brotherhood’s estimation are corrupt and oppressive and exercise power not in the name of Islam or the people, but in the interest of feudal families.

The Brotherhood favors fair elections, chiefly in the expectation that it will win them someday and then govern in accordance with its understanding of Islamic principles. In this respect it is similar to a vanguard party in Marxist-Leninist thinking which leads the nation, and one day all nations, to a harmonious future.

The Brotherhood does not favor democracy as Jefferson or Wilson would understand the idea. It does, however, favor greater public participation than does, say, the House of Saud, the Egyptian general staff, or the Assad regime, all of whom have repressed the Brotherhood in their countries, sometimes quite brutally.

Israeli opposition

The Brotherhood supports Hamas, the Palestinian movement which governs Gaza, however inexpertly, and engages in acts of terrorism, including firing rockets into Israel and seizing Israeli hostages. More broadly, the Brotherhood favors a Palestinian state which the Likud government is gradually taking off the agenda.

Longer term, some Israeli politicians see the Brotherhood’s transnational nature posing the potential of a powerful federation of Arab states opposed to Israel’s existence.

The Brotherhood, Iran, and Qatar

The Sunni monarchies and Israel oppose the Brotherhood for its ties with Iran. Sectarian hostility has grown since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 during which Ayatollah Khomeini called for uprisings against unjust rulers. As Sunni hostility grew and took the form of backing Iraq’s invasion the following year, Iran sought to counter Saudi power by supporting the Brotherhood with its broad popular base and opposition to monarchy, perhaps especially the one in Riyadh.

A Shia theocracy supported a reformist movement in order to weaken Sunni authoritarian regimes. It wasn’t the first time the Brotherhood was used in international politics.

Qatar plays the game of supporting the Brotherhood in order to boost its influence in the world and avoid subsumption under Saudi power. It has used its media giant, Al Jazeera, to support liberal reform and the Brotherhood. Again, this is geopolitics in the guise of reform. The government of Qatar is in the hands of a narrow clique, as in Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, though it is significantly less harsh. For this, Qatar has incurred the wrath of the Sunni monarchies which are presently trying to close down Al Jazeera and subsume the small state under Saudi control.

The Entente and the Brotherhood – cooptation 

Saudi Arabia has used the Brotherhood in the past. When Nasser suppressed it in Egypt, the Brotherhood was allowed to operate from the Kingdom, especially while Riyadh was supporting the Shia of northern Yemen against the Sunni south. The paradoxes here are instructive regarding the convoluted, cynical, and transitory nature of power politics in the Middle East.

In recent years the Saudis have made overtures to the Brotherhood, enticing them with generous subsidies. The implicit price of course is acceptance of Saudi monarchy, if not its hegemony in the Arab world. The Brotherhood would become a popular base for the Saudis.

Politics are indeed transitory in the Middle East but the foreseeable future offers little hope of Riyadh’s co-opting the Brotherhood. The 2013 massacre of over 900 members by Egyptian troops, fully supported by Saudi Arabia and handsomely rewarded afterward, has brought deep and enduring enmity between the Brotherhood and Saudi rulers.

Even prior to 2013 the Brotherhood resented Riyadh’s support for Salafists in the region, especially in Egypt. Saudi largesse builds schools and mosques and periodically donates gifts of food, most notably prior to elections. Egyptian Salafists supported the coup against the Brotherhood government and provide a popular basis for the military government and its foreign backer. (The absence of the Brotherhood and attendant rise of Salafism might be worrisome, especially in Israel and the United States.)

The Entente and the Brotherhood – suppression  

The Sunni powers may be more disposed to suppressing the Brotherhood. This too will prove difficult. The movement has substantial popular support across the social spectrum and has endured several attempts to destroy it over the years. Egypt has made several efforts since the 1920s. All failed, all had consequences.

Suppression will bring violent splinter groups. Sadat was killed by one such group in 1981. One of its principals now leads al Qaeda. The region abounds with clerics and training camps and militias that will encourage the transition. Egypt is already experiencing this (again), and Saudi Arabia has a sizable Brotherhood presence.

Suppression will alarm Brotherhood members in countries where they operate openly as part of government, as in Jordan and to a lesser extent Tunisia. The result will be a weakening of frail governments.

Foreign powers will be able to use repression to their advantage. Russia, Turkey, and Iran will come to the Brotherhood’s aid, rhetorically and financially, as a way of weakening the Entente’s power and strengthening their own. A Triple Entente and a Triple Alliance may be vying for the region for many years and the Brotherhood, above ground or not, will be an important part of the contest.

Copyright 2017 Brian M Downing

Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. Thanks to Susan Ganosellis.