The House of Saud picks a side.
There is chaos in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood and their leader Mohammed Morsi were ousted from power by the Egyptian military in a soft coup last month. The Brotherhood hasn’t taken kindly to being deposed from power. This week has seen violence of an unprecedented scale in recent history in Egypt. Over 750 civilians have been killed since Wednesday. Without the active intervention of the U.S. and regional powers, that number will rapidly increase and the possibility that Egypt will descend into a long, protracted civil war isn’t far-fetched.
What we’re seeing is a battle between the Old Guard and resurgent Islamist groups in Egypt. The military-security apparatus’s decades-long dominance is being challenged and neither the Islamists nor the Old Guard are ready to back down. The victims of the ensuing confrontation are, unfortunately, the ordinary Egyptians.
In the midst of turmoil, Saudi Arabia appears to have picked a horse:
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has called on Arabs to stand together against “attempts to destabilise” Egypt.
“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, its people and government stood and stands by today with its brothers in Egypt against terrorism,” he said in a statement read on state TV on Friday, backing Egypt’s military leadership.
“I call on the honest men of Egypt and the Arab and Muslim nations … to stand as one man and with one heart in the face of attempts to destabilise a country that is at the forefront of Arab and Muslim history,” he added.
Saudi Arabia “has stood and stands with its Egyptian brothers against terrorism, deviance and sedition, and against those who try to interfere in Egypt’s internal affairs… and its legitimate rights in deterring those tampering with and misleading” its people, he said. [al-Jazeera]
The House of Saud’s endorsement of the Egyptian military may appear odd given Saudi Arabia and the Brotherhood’s commitment to conservative strains of Islam. However, it is important to distinguish between Wahhabism as a religious and philosophical movement that the Saudis promote (for example in Afghanistan or Pakistan) and the political movements that draw inspiration from Wahhabism.
The Saudis are happy to promote Wahhabism, but have always been very cautious about political Wahhabism. It should not surprise us then that they are very uneasy with the Brotherhood because they see the movement as a threat to monarchy in the Gulf. Other Gulf monarchies also endorse the distinction. The UAE, for example, arrested 30 Egyptians and Emiratis in June on suspicion of ties with the Muslim Brotherhood.
This also explains why Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar have ensured that the Muslim Brotherhood hasn’t gained the kind of foothold in the Gulf that it has in Egypt and the Islamic maghreb. The absence of the Brotherhood’s mass participation in the politics of the Gulf is not by accident, it is by design. None of the Gulf monarchies are eager to see the Brotherhood operate in their neighborhood.
Further, where Egypt is concerned, the Saudis have always been among the military-security establishment’s most important supporters. Gen. Nasser and Mubarak drew strength from Saudi Arabia’s backing. In fact, it should be surprising that Saudi Arabia’s endorsement of the military-security establishment wasn’t made apparent sooner.
In India’s neighborhood, similar parallels can be drawn with regard to Pakistan, though for different reasons. The Saudis are likely to always back the Pakistani army over political parties such as the JUI (that draw inspiration from the Muslim Brotherhood). This is unlikely to change as long as the Saudis see nuclear Pakistan as a bulwark against Iran. Of course, the Saudis will continue to support the proselytizing of puritanical Wahhabism by religious jamaats in Pakistan, but not to the extent that they begin to pose a challenge to the Pakistani army’s primacy in dictating policy in that country.