Middle East: Back to the old regional equilibrium?

Analysis: Egypt likely to rejoin the Gulf front against Iran.

 Morsi meets with Saudi Arabia's FM 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Morsi meets with Saudi Arabia's FM 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Will the ouster of president Mohamed Morsi restore the regional equilibrium of the Mubarak era? Though the Muslim Brothers are not ready to give up and the crisis is far from over, relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia are warming up and the same thing is happening with the Gulf states with the exception of Qatar.
These countries have already pledged $12 billion to help save Egypt’s economy – or more realistically to show their support for the new regime in its fight against the Brotherhood.
The old pragmatic alliance against Iran is shaping up again while Qatar, sticking to its decades-old support for the Brothers, finds itself isolated.
The fall of Hosni Mubarak and the rise of the Brotherhood had ended a system of alliances which had lasted 30 years. The front of pragmatic countries led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia with the support of the United States just ceased to exist. Egypt turned inward and Saudi Arabia found itself alone against Iran. Worse was to come. The Muslim Brothers attempted with no great success a rapprochement with Iran.
After all, Hassan al-Banna (1906-1949), the founder of the movement, was not against the Shi’ites and indeed wished for the unification of Islam.
As a first step, Morsi tried to include Tehran in the committee of four – with Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia – the Arab/Islamic forum which was supposed to find a compromise to end the Syrian tragedy. But Iran and Saudi Arabia were at odds on too many issues – Iran’s attempts to assert its leadership over the Gulf region, its nuclear program and its involvement in the war in Syria. The committee never saw the light of day.
Then Morsi decided to renew economic relations with Iran as a first step toward reinstating diplomatic ties. It did not work either since Salafist organizations in Egypt, which have a deeply entrenched hatred of the Shi’ite brand of Islam, strenuously opposed the move – egged on by Saudi Arabia, their main source of funds. In fact, Riyadh distanced itself from Egypt after Morsi’s accession to the presidency.
Having to pay lip service to Arab solidarity, the Saudis did promise $2b. to Egypt, but only half that sum was handed over – reluctantly. Yet in the past the monarchy had cooperated with the Brotherhood.
In 1961, Said Ramadan (1926-1995), son-in-law and formerly secretary of Hassan al-Banna, talked King Saud into establishing “the World Islamic League” in order to export Wahabism, his country’s brand of Islam, to the West. Saudi money helped build mosques and cultural centers run by Muslim Brothers in Europe and the United States. Saudi Arabia also welcomed the Brothers driven out of Egypt by Gamal Abdel Nasser in the ’50s and ’60s; many of them settled in the kingdom.
Then came 9/11 and Saudi Arabia was in shock at the disclosure that 16 of the 18 perpetrators of the terror attack against the Twin Towers were Saudi nationals. This could have led to a deterioration of the all-important relationship with the United States. The kingdom took the measure of the danger. The Muslim Brothers had introduced Jihad to the country and raised a generation of terrorists who implicated it in international terrorism. The king expelled the Muslim Brothers. Neither side has forgotten.
Qatar is a different story.
The Brotherhood set its mark on the small Beduin country more than half a century ago when a number of militants, fleeing Nasser’s vengeful hand, found refuge there. At the time most of its revenue derived from pearl fishing.
The Beduin welcomed the newcomers who were willing to adopt Wahabism and its strict rules. The Brothers devoted themselves to their new home, setting up a Ministry of Education and a Ministry of Religion to mold the youth.
It was at that time that Youssef al-Qaradawi, who was to become the leading religious authority of the movement, arrived in Qatar.
He set up two important institutions: the World Union of Islamic Sages, whose function is to explain his religious edicts to the faithful throughout the world, and the European Council for Fatwa and Research. The council is meant to help Muslim minorities living in the West preserve their religion in a non-Muslim environment.
Qaradawi’s weekly program on Qatar’s Al Jazeera channel, Shari’a and Life, develops his extremist views for the benefit of millions of listeners.
Recently he explained that God used Hitler to punish the Jews and expressed his hopes that Muslims would finish the job.
Al Jazeera played no little part in the outbreak of the Arab Spring. Irked at the incitement pouring out from Al Jazeera in Arabic, Mubarak used to call it “the channel which owns a country.”
Qatar gave generously to the Brotherhood, supporting the Islamic fringe in Libya and helping the Islamist rebels in Syria. Having applauded the success of the movement in Egypt, the country finds it hard to accept its downfall.
The old-new alliance arrives at the worst possible time for Iran, already reeling from the impact of tough Western sanctions. Its staunchest ally, Bashar Assad, is fighting for the survival of his regime, and its other ally, Hezbollah, had to send thousands of its best men to defend Assad and many were killed. The intervention of the armed militia in another country provoked outrage in Lebanon and led to a revival of the Sunni- Christian alliance. Even Hamas quietly closed its offices in Damascus. However, Tehran shows no sign of relinquishing its regional ambitions and of abandoning its nuclear program.
The so-called Arab Spring has revealed the depth of the grip of Islam on the populations of the Middle East. The region is in the throes of a crisis of epic proportions. In Egypt, a groundswell of non-Islamic movements led to the downfall of the Muslim Brothers.
It remains to be seen whether the country will be able to find a resolution to the political crisis and restore law and order with the help of friendly Arab countries. If it does, the rise and fall of the Muslim Brothers will have been a serious blow to Islamic terrorism – and to Iran’s regional ambitions. The United States has a key role to play in this dangerous game.
Its support is vital not only for the new regime but also for its own interests and those of the Western world.
On hopes it will come to understand this, sooner rather than later.
The writer, a fellow of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.