by Ahmed Humayun
Earlier this month Saudi Arabia decreed that the Muslim Brotherhood, the Middle East's dominant Islamist party, was a terrorist organization. This is the latest move in a series that demonstrates Riyadh's profound fears about the challenge posed by the Arab uprisings to the Sunni ruling status quo, and especially to its self-appointed role as the arbiter of Sunni Islam. The Saudi designation says less about the character of the Muslim Brotherhood and more about its own embrace of an all-out eradication strategy meant to vanquish, rather than accommodate, the aspirations of populist Islamist activism across the region.
Contemporary states tend to apply the ‘terrorism' label selectively. Pakistan distinguishes the good Taliban, who are perceived to protect the state's interests in Afghanistan, from the bad Taliban, who attack the Pakistani state and are therefore described as terrorists. Saudi Arabia too condemns groups that target it, such as Al Qaeda and its offshoots, while remaining a critical sponsor of a dizzying array of militant factions around the world.
In the case of the Muslim Brotherhood, the charge of terrorism is particularly inapplicable. The Muslim Brotherhood renounced violence decades ago. Unlike violent extremist groups like Al Qaeda it does not preach that Arab rulers are apostates whose un-Islamic rule must be toppled through war and subversion. It denounces terrorist attacks, supports electoral democracy, and preaches political engagement—rather than terrorism and insurgency—as the method of advancing change.
Saudi antipathy towards the Muslim Brotherhood is not therefore due to any genuine fear of terrorism. The real threat is the political and ideological challenge posed by the Brotherhood's potent mix of Islam and politics. The Saudi model of governance uses religion to command absolute submission to rulers, disdains meaningful elections or transfer of power, and promotes a depoliticized citizenry. Through its enormous petro power it propagates the same Islamic order abroad, funding reactionary clerics, organizations and institutions across the Muslim world. An alternative way of construing Islam and politics is a deep internal threat to the legitimacy of the regime and a provocation to its monopolization of global Islam.
Members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups have long had a large presence in Saudi culture and in government ministries, maintaining an uneasy détente with the Saudi state. This truce was shattered by the waves of Arab unrest that swept across Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere in 2011. Saudi Islamists too began pressing for democratic reforms in a series of petitions. While this alarmed Riyadh, the election of Mohammed Morsi as head of state, and the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt's parliamentary and presidential elections in 2011-2012, threw the regime into a panic. When Morsi was overthrown in a coup last year, the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the Islamists cratered.
Saudi Arabia showed immediate support for the anti-Morsi coup, providing a $12 billion dollar aid package in coordination with the UAE and Kuwait (approximately four times the combined aid provided by the United States and the European Union). Last August, when the Egyptian regime murdered hundreds of protestors belonging to the Brotherhood, one of the most terrible slaughters in recent Egyptian history, the Saudi king publicly approved of the action as a victory against terrorism. In contrast, since the coup Saudi Islamists have stood firmly on the side of the Muslim Brotherhood. Today, Islamist anger at the Saudi regime is at an all-time high since the last time it peaked in the early 1990s.
The designation of the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, then, is part of a wider effort by Saudi Arabia to maintain control over the course of events by drawing and enforcing clear red lines. It is a warning to the Muslim Brotherhood to limit its aspirations and its area of operations everywhere in the Arab world. The Saudi ban is also effectively an incitement to extremism. If Islamist factions are not only prohibited from participating in politics, but are also forbidden from existing at all, then their descent into extremism will become ineluctable. By declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, the House of Saud is effectively saying it would rather confront militant Islam, against which it can use the traditional tools of war and repression, than political Islam, to which it has no rejoinder.
It is not enough for Saudi Arabia to pursue its own intolerant policy – along with its allies, it is pushing for similar inflexibility across the region and crushing any hint of opposition. In an exceptional display of internal public dissension among the Persian Gulf monarchies earlier this month, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain recalled their ambassadors from Qatar due in part to its support for the Muslim Brotherhood as well as its tolerance of other dissidents who had the potential to undermine the political grip of the regimes.
In the West, there has been much confusion about how to view populist Islamic activism. Of course, the Islamist parties in the Middle East are hardly pristine democrats-in-waiting. Their stances on the status of women and of minorities, on the freedom of speech and on other civil liberties, are often troubling. When in power, their inclination to use the levers of state to push forward an agenda that may accord with their supporters, but not of their polity as a whole, is no doubt strong. On the other hand, the same criticisms are more than applicable to the regimes that currently prevail across much of the Arab world, which are among the world's worst dictatorships. And the coercive power available to the Egyptian security services or the Saudi intelligence establishment is unmatched by their Islamist targets.
More importantly, however, the Islamists represent huge swathes of the Arab public; their constituency in the region has been growing for decades; they cannot simply be wished away. And, while exceptions abound, the Islamists have shown themselves to be adaptable, willing and able to participate in democratic political processes and make concessions in both domestic politics and foreign policy. It is instructive that Morsi's regime maintained security and intelligence arrangements with Israel, did not abrogate, as many feared it might, the 1979 Egytian-Israeli peace treaty, and even helped establish a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. This sort of relative moderation aggravated the fears of Arab dictators, who saw the emergence of a credible alternative model and who therefore have now settled on the annihilationist path (Today the Egyptian government keeps between sixteen thousand and twenty one thousand opposition political activists in jail).
There is no indication that the autocrats, with Saudi Arabia leading the charge, are going to wake up, but then this is typical for Riyadh, whose unique combination of existential insecurity and overweening arrogance has disabled it from constructing more creative policies in response to the Arab tumult. At home Riyadh has continued its age-old strategy of purchasing the obedience of its restless subjects through spending tens of billions of dollars on direct cash transfers to individual citizens and loyal religious establishments. Given the depth of Riyadh's pockets and the repression it can deploy in partnership with its allies, this strategy may well work for some time longer. And the rise of militancy and sectarianism across the region has strengthened the hand of the authoritarians by creating yet another excuse to defer reform. In the long run, however, their myopia will merely generate greater resistance and breed unending war.