A year after the Arab Spring, it’s spinning out of control

Qatar is more and more assuming the role vacated by Egypt in trying to settle local and international disputes.

Muslims pray in front of soldiers, Egypt_521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Muslims pray in front of soldiers, Egypt_521
(photo credit: Reuters)
The uneasy, somewhat unnatural equilibrium which existed in the Middle East before the so-called Arab Spring and its dramatic changes is no more.
The fall of Mubarak tilted the Middle East out of balance. His regime had been the cornerstone of the regional equilibrium and America’s staunchest ally.
Immediately after the revolution Egypt proclaimed that it no longer had enemies and that it would open a dialogue with Iran and with Hamas, thus relinquishing its leadership of the pragmatic block of Arab countries against the “axis of evil” led by Iran and unraveling the first strands of its strategic alliance with the United States.
Conversations with Iran were cut short by the discovery of an Iranian terror cell in Cairo but are about to start anew at the initiative of the recently elected parliament where the Muslim Brotherhood holds the majority of the seats. The Foreign Relations committee, headed by Issam Alarian, vice president of the Justice and Freedom party of the Brotherhood, has announced that it was reconsidering relations with Iran. The Arab spring having brought to power in Egypt an extremist Sunni organization – the Brotherhood – one would have thought that this would lead to clashes with Iran, leader of the extremist Shia branch of Islam and fighting for supremacy in the Middle East.
It seems that a common Islamic interest and the need to find an alternative to American aid are temporarily playing in favor of Iran. Iran, fearing to lose Syria, is courting Egypt and hastened to congratulate the Egyptian Parliament after it issued a grievous anti-Israeli declaration this week.
Hamas, which was considered a threat to Egypt under Mubarak, has become persona grata. Being an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, its leaders are now welcome in Cairo where frequent meetings between Hamas and Fatah are held; Khaled Mashaal meets with Tantawi.
Relations are expected to expand when the Brothers form the new government.
The brokered cease-fire over Gaza carried out by Egypt very discreetly shows the new intimacy of Egypt with Hamas. It is also possible that Qatar, being close to the Brotherhood, contributed to that result while Iran may have dropped a few words in the ears of Islamic Jihad, its proxy, to assist Egypt’s efforts.
Saudi Arabia – the longtime ally of Mubarak’s Egypt – is worried. On the one hand the royal family lives in dread of a popular uprising; on the other it has to deal with the threats of an increasingly vocal Iran against the West and its Arab allies. Finding an alternative regional alliance is not easy. The kingdom did threaten to develop its own nuclear program should Iran persist, but Iran did not bother to react.
Then there was an attempt to set up a conservative block including all the countries which are part of the Gulf Cooperation Council, as well as Jordan and Morocco, which would take a firm stand against Iran. However, Saudi Arabia quietly dropped the project, the two countries being so poor that they would be a burden on the Gulf emirates. The Saudis are still actively fighting Tehran, pushing for stronger measures of the Arab League against Assad ostensibly in order to help Sunni populations facing the Alawites but in fact, and no less important, to weaken its rival, which needs its Syrian ally.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia is not slamming the door: it let the two Iranian warships enter the port of Jeddah.
According to sources in the Saudi Defense Ministry, this was done because the ships were allegedly on a training mission (!) and according to the traditional friendship between peoples. Yet a few weeks earlier a plot by the Iranians to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington had been exposed by American authorities.
BUT NATURE abhors a vacuum, and Qatar is quietly stepping up its activities.
It vigorously supported the French initiative in Libya and even supplied arms to the rebels; it seems that it is still sending arms to the Islamist head of the Tripoli military council; it is also very much in favor of the Brotherhood party in Tunisia which recently won the elections.
The powerful Al Jazeera TV channel, financed by the ruler of Qatar, was instrumental into whipping crowds into frenzy first in Tunisia, then in Libya and Egypt. It is calling for an end to Assad’s regime and supports the main opposition group, led by Muslim Brothers and demands action from the Arab League and the Security Council. Qatar is more and more assuming the role vacated by Egypt in trying to settle local and international disputes. It brokered a deal between the government of Sudan and the Darfur rebels and lately between Fatah and Hamas. A number of international seminars and conferences are held in Doha, the capital city.
Yet the small Gulf state, with a population of 1.3 million – 300,000 being citizens of the country and the rest mainly Asians working in conditions akin to slavery – has no history to speak of, no army, no famed cultural traditions. Its ruler achieved his actual position of preeminence through the television channel he founded but also through his policy of acquiring more and more assets in the West; in France, for instance, where Qatar is being accused of “conquering” the country.
The transformation of a small – but immensely rich – Beduin emirate into a major player is due in part to the influx of Muslim Brothers fleeing Egypt after the aborted assassination attempt on Nasser and helping the country set up a system of education based on radical Islam, as well as playing a significant role in the Al Jazeera channel.
Qatar enjoys excellent relations with the United States, which has no less than three military bases on its soil – but keeps in touch with al-Qaida. Al Jazeera regularly publishes the videos and cassettes transmitted by the terror organization.
It is careful to maintain correct relations with Iran and the commander in chief of its tiny army visited Tehran last year.
Which begs the question: is Qatar, a stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood since the Fifties, really an asset for the Americans or some fifth column promoting radical Islam? Meanwhile, the Brotherhood’s upsurge is continuing. After Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco the Brothers are looking for gains in the forthcoming elections in Algeria in April and in Libya in June.
There are talks about reviving the union of Maghreb states established in 1989 which failed because of a number of conflicts between the member states; today it is felt that Islam can be a unifying factor, though it is unclear whether Islamic solidarity will be stronger than national and economic interests.
Altogether, the “old” Middle East, with its dictatorial regimes and clear division between countries supporting Iran and countries allied to the United States, is no more. A new map is yet to emerge, while the fate of Syria still hangs in the balance. However, the map will be painted with the green of Islam, and hard work will be needed to persuade the new regimes that they need to tone down their extremism to benefit from investments, loans and technology from the hated West.

The writer is a former ambassador to Egypt, and a fellow of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs