Looming and parallel succession crises

How did the paths of Egypt and Saudi Arabia– once radically different countries – thus converge?

Saudi King Abdullah with Prince Abdel Aziz AP 311 (photo credit: AP)
Saudi King Abdullah with Prince Abdel Aziz AP 311
(photo credit: AP)
The Saudi-owned satellite television station MBC broadcast a soap opera during Ramadan 2007 that celebrated the life of King Farouk. The current Egyptian regime, which came to power by ousting Farouk in 1952, had initially tried to scupper an Egypt based production of the same series by refusing funding and limiting access to the relevant sites. The Saudi monarchy’s subsequent decision to embrace the series therefore took on political overtones, especially when it proved hugely popular among the Egyptian masses.
The real irony, though, was that the Egyptian regime should have been so hostile to the prospect in the first place. After all, the pre-Nasser monarchical model, of father handing power to son would now seem favored by the Mubarak dynasty as much as by the Saudi royals. Indeed, the rehabilitation of Farouk might even have been employed as subtle propaganda by the Mubarak regime, although to be fair political subtlety is hardly its strong point.
What is indisputable is that, while from the 1920s until the 1970s Saudi Arabia and Egypt were the Arab world’s polar opposites, it is now possible to talk of looming succession crises in two countries that increasingly resemble each other – despite the rhetoric – in terms of populist Islamist fervor and limited political representation.
How did the paths of these once radically different countries converge? And how do the two distinct succession battles relate to broader geopolitical and religious issues that the hoo-ha over the soap opera helped obscure? The al-Saud ruling family’s conquest of the vast territory named after themselves in 1932 was the result of the violent suppression of tribal and religious opponents and the imposition of strict Wahhabi hegemony. Cairo at the time was, by contrast, celebrated for its religious diversity, progressive Islamic intellectualism and parliamentary democracy. Gamal Abdel Nasser, for all his dictatorial tendencies, knew a backward Islamic theocracy when he saw one, and his tirades against the Saudi monarchy found enormous traction throughout the Persian Gulf.
However, since the oil boom of the 1970s, Egypt’s diminishing role in regional affairs has corresponded to the al-Saud’s meteoric rise. One result has been the irrevocable Wahhabization of Egyptian society. Anwar Sadat invited the Muslim Brotherhood back from exile in Saudi Arabia, using their Salafism to counter the leftists. Meanwhile, millions of impoverished Egyptians travelled to work in Saudi Arabia, becoming exposed to Wahhabi social norms that they, too, would eventually bring home.
That the political stagnation and social decay during Hosni Mubarak’s three decades in power have increased the Islamists’ appeal was confirmed in a recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center. It revealed that a majority of Egyptians now support stoning as a punishment for adultery, hand amputation for theft and death for those who convert from Islam, all part of what passes for the official legal code in Saudi Arabia.
That things in Egypt are now so directionless that Farouk has become an object of nostalgia might at first seem good news for the pro-Gamal Mubarak forces, or at least not bad news.
BUT OF course crucial differences between Egypt and Saudi Arabia remain. Not the least is that Egypt is still nominally a democracy, whereas in Saudi Arabia hereditary rule is the founding principle.
The passing on of power in Saudi Arabia after King Abdullah’s death may be messy, and will certainly be lacking in transparency, but the various branches and generations of the royal family will ultimately reach a consensus in private, as they always have. Widespread talk of a split in the al-Saud’s ranks, and possible social unrest, are as usual wide of the mark. The process of private consultation is accepted, however grudgingly, as inevitable by the Saudi majority, who will patiently await a public announcement and be eager to see social order maintained.
In Egypt it is precisely the intense public scrutiny the Mubarak dynasty will face if Gamal is anointed as president- to-be – along with attempts to reconcile the move with the country’s superficially democratic process – that will be the biggest obstacle to a smooth transition. As such, saving face may actually be an important factor in whether Gamal decides to stand for president, if the military establishment gives the go-ahead.
Should he decide not to, the risk for him is that, in addition to being humiliated and sidelined by the new regime (with all the implications that has for his business interests), his failure will also be claimed as a crushing victory by the Islamist-led opposition. But if Gamal is “elected” president, it will be popularly perceived as the final nail in the coffin of Egyptian democracy, the Islamist-led opposition will likewise be galvanized and the risks of a popular revolt can’t be discounted.
Either way, the consequence will be an acceleration of the Egyptian strategy of adopting the Islamists’ agenda as a way of pacifying its most vocal critics.
So those who stand to benefit from Gamal’s dilemma in the long run, whichever way he falls, are the Islamists. The Saudization of Egyptian society will continue to deepen. How the Mubarak regime must envy the al- Saud’s iron grip on power, even as their Wahhabi agenda so threatens his own.
The writer is the author of Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crisis (2005), Inside Egypt: The Land of the Pharaohs on the Brink of a Revolution (2008) and Behind the Veil of Vice: The Business and Culture of Sex in the Middle East (2010). This article was first published on bitterlemons-international.org and is reprinted with permission.