In the Middle East, the Muslim Brotherhood is in retreat

The Sunni Islamist movement’s fortunes have been reversed throughout the Middle East, with the Brotherhood losing power in both Egypt and Tunisia, as well as influence in Syria, Turkey, Qatar and Gaza.

Muslim protester raises arms 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Muslim protester raises arms 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Reports surfaced this week suggesting that Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal is seeking to relocate from his current base in the Qatari capital of Doha. Hamas has indignantly rejected these claims.
This shouldn’t be taken as authoritative – the movement also dismissed evidence that it was leaving Damascus in 2012, until the move was complete and could no longer be denied.
If it turns out that the Hamas leadership is indeed on its way out of Qatar, this is the latest indication of the astonishing change of fortunes that has hit the Muslim Brotherhood. History may remember 2013 as the year of the movement’s eclipse, after its very brief moment in the sun in 2011-2012.
At the beginning of this year, the Brotherhood held power in Egypt and Tunisia. A Syrian insurgency dominated by militias with similar ideas to the Brotherhood and supported by the same patron (Qatar) looked to be heading for victory in Syria’s civil war.
A Brotherhood-related party was in power in Turkey, and the Emirate of Qatar had emerged as the energetic financier and enthusiastic cheerleader of the Brothers’ advance across the region.
Qatar, through its immensely popular Al Jazeera channel, had the ability to sculpt public opinion according to its will, across borders in the Arabic-speaking world.
The Brotherhood/Qatari alliance also seemed well on the way to claiming the commanding stake in Palestinian nationalism. Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the movement, had carved out the only genuinely independent Palestinian entity in the Gaza Strip. This was pivotal as the Palestinian cause and opposition to Israel remain key badges of legitimacy in the politics of the Arab world.
Hamas, led by Mashaal, spent 2011 and 2012 relocating itself out of Damascus, drawing ever closer to Doha. Emir Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani then visited Hamas-controlled Gaza in October 2012, pledging $400 million to the Hamas enclave. Everything seemed to be going in the right direction.
But the advance of the Brotherhood was alarming to the conservative Gulf monarchies of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Israel, too, was watching events with concern. While Israel was far less vulnerable than the fragile Gulf states, the rise of the Brotherhood in Egypt seemed to promise trouble somewhere down the road.
In the course of 2013, the advance was reversed.
Most important, the Brotherhood was forcibly removed from power in Egypt in a Saudi and UAE-supported military coup in July. The new military regime is in the process of destroying Islamist military resistance. The Brotherhood has been declared illegal and will not be permitted to stand in future elections once the civilian political process has been reactivated.
In this age of asymmetric conflicts, in which the very concepts of victory and defeat are said to be obsolete, the Brotherhood in Egypt has suffered something that looks very much like an old fashioned, unambiguous and clear defeat.
In Qatar, meanwhile, the emir was replaced in June by his son, Tamim. The precise circumstances and reasons for Thani’s sudden departure from power remain mysterious.
Since then, Qatar has virtually disappeared from the regional stage. Its contributions to the Brotherhood in Egypt are drying up.
Hamas, alarmed by the turn of events in Egypt, is reactivating its contacts with Iran and the rival, Shi’ite-dominated Islamist bloc led by Tehran.
In Syria, President Bashar Assad’s regime rallied in the first months of 2013, and its existence is no longer in imminent danger. On the Syrian rebel side, meanwhile, it is now the Saudis who are making the running – officially supporting the “moderate” Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and enabling the funding of Salafi organizations through private funds. The Qataris and the Brotherhood are no longer the main players. In the latest reversal of fortune, Tunisia’s al-Nahda party has agreed to dissolve the government that it formed following its election victory in 2011. The government will be replaced by an administration of technocrats pending new elections. This move follows the unrest and political crisis that erupted after the assassination of opposition leader Mohamed Brahmi in July.
In Turkey, meanwhile, the Brotherhood- aligned AKP is left to ponder the ruins of its plans and hopes for the region. It had expected the formation of an alliance of like-thinking Brotherhood-style Sunni Islamist regimes across the region, in North Africa, the Levant and the Gulf.
After the events of 2013, this is no longer on the cards. Instead, the AKP government must cope with angry protests by non- Islamist Turks, the loss of allies and regional isolation.
This appears to be taking its toll.
A broadcast featuring Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan discussing the crushing of the Brotherhood in Egypt had to be stopped recently when the Turkish leader began weeping uncontrollably.
What all this means is that on literally every front on which it made significant advances, the Brotherhood has now stalled.
Whether or not it turns out that the reports regarding Mashaal’s relocation are true, Hamas is being forced to reposition itself, and to go back to Iran with cap in hand. The reason is because this movement, too, had placed its bets on a Qatar-financed alliance of Brotherhood-oriented states – which will now not come into being.
The Brothers are by no means finished. Their politics retain a natural purchase in the conservative, Sunni Arab Middle East. But the moment when everything seemed possible has decidedly passed. What looked like the potential beginning of a new age ended up as a brief moment in the sun.
The sun is now setting on the Muslim Brotherhood’s hopes of regional domination.