The decision of the British government this week to launch an investigation into the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood is a major victory for Saudi Arabia, which has been arguing since the 9/11 attacks that it is the Brotherhood’s brand of “political Islam” that is the source of jihadist violence and extremism, not Saudi Wahhabism. Privately, British officials said there had been months of Saudi pressure, complementing Saudi anger over the West’s shift on Iran since November. The UK ambassador to Riyadh no less has been chosen lead the probe.
The events of September 11, 2001 were disastrous for the prestige of the Al Saud not only because 15 of the 19 attackers were Saudi, but because the ideology of al-Qaeda was widely viewed as having its origins in the puritanical Wahhabism sponsored by the Saudi state. The attacks plunged US-Saudi relations into a state of crisis, which King Abdullah, then crown prince, deftly fixed via his Arab-Israeli peace initiative, support for the US invasion of Iraq, and sponsorship of a new discourse of reform.
But an often-forgotten element of the Saudi response was to direct blame at the Egyptian mother organization of transnational Arab Islamism. “The Muslim Brotherhood is the source of all of our problems in the Arab world”, the late interior minister Prince Nayef bin Abdelaziz said in 2002. In the years of reform that followed, Saudi Arabia behaved as if it was the Brotherhood that required reform than its Wahhabi institutions and thought promotion.
It’s certainly true that the thinking of ideologue Sayed Qutb, put to death by Nasser’s Egypt in 1966, has been immensely influential in modern jihadism. After Qutb’s death, numerous movements emerged in the context of 1970s Egypt inspired by his ideas on the apostate nature of tyrannical Muslim rulers, and while some preferred to withdraw from society, others saw a need to challenge leaders via acts of coup, revolt, or assassination.
However, the Brotherhood developed in an entirely different direction in the 1970s under the leadership of Omar al-Tilmisani, who pioneered a seminal new approach to begin reconciling the Brotherhoodwith the basic framework of modern democracy and made elections the movement’s new modus operandi. And it is to the innovation of the popular election we have to look to understand the growing anxiety, now bordering on outright panic, which Gulf ruling elites have displayed towards the Brotherhood over the past decade, and in particular since the Arab uprisings. For Saudi Arabia in particular, legitimation of Al Saud family rule through projecting itself as the true sharia state is directly threatened by a modern political movement with an Islamic frame of reference.
Key in this has been the position of the United States. In 2005 Washington instigated a clear shift towards the Brotherhood, which to that point had been associated with a generalized media discourse of the Islamist bogeyman. Under pressure from the Bush administration’s post-Iraq project for democracy, the Mubarak regime eased up on vote-rigging in the first round of parliamentary elections that year, leading to an impressive result for Brotherhood candidates - so impressive that rigging was quickly reinstituted for the second and third rounds. But for the United States, a new interlocutor had emerged in the Arab world reflecting the religiously conservative Arab Zeitgeist, though Hamas remained a red line.
2011 saw a concatenation of circumstances for regimes like that of Al Saud: political Islam utilized electoral politics to beat a path to government, inspiring the Islamist centre at home, and all with American blessing. The effort to roll it back is in full swing. The Egyptian military removed the Brotherhood’s president and government from power last year. Since then the struggle has moved to pressuring Western governments to again condemn the Brotherhood – thus Cameron’s move this week is an important victory in the Saudi campaign.
The question now is will US and European, positions on the Brotherhood shift due to Saudi and other Arab pressure? Thus far there is no indication that Washington or the EU intend to move ground. None have supported Egyptian assertions that the Brotherhood is behind deadly attacks on army and security targets, including apparent suicide bombings (claimed by jihadi groups), and both publicly exhort the government to engage in dialogue with its Islamist opposition.
But cracks have appeared, as diplomats report intense debates in European capitals right now over approaches to the Brotherhood in particular. Tariq Ramadan, the grandson of the Brotherhood’s founder (who says he is not a member), has for several years been on a panel of government advisors on freedom of religion after moving to the UK where Kemal al-Helbawy was for long the Brotherhood’s European representative and organizer. Ramadan was for several years prevented from entering France, where the Right is highly suspicious of the Islamists, and Paris quickly made common cause with Riyadh following the Brotherhood’s downfall. Egyptian military officials were present at the Obama talks in Riyadh two weeks ago in a Saudi effort to push Washington to restore arms sales Egypt. Now the UK has launched an inquiry that could see the Brotherhood proscribed.
Facing intense internal repression, foreign exile locations have risen in importance for the movement. They include Doha, Istanbul, and London, where Brotherhood figures from the United Arab Emirates have also sought refuge amid an ongoing crackdown. The National Alliance to Support Legitimacy, which organizes nightly protests in Egypt, chose Istanbul for a news conference last month to denounce a government report whitewashing the extreme violence used to break-up the Brotherhood sit-ins last summer. The Brotherhood has set up an office in Cricklewood, North West London. Doha’s Al Jazeera channel is a critical Arab media outlet for the Islamists.
At home, the Saudi campaign has involved designating the Brotherhood a terrorist organization, including it in a list of banned groups Saudis must not join or propagate, and coordinating a mass ambassador withdrawal from Doha with the UAE and Bahrain. It has also involved a return to the effort to brand the Brotherhood and not Wahhabism as the source of Islamic violence, part of a wider effort to reinvent al-Wahhabiyya and raise Saudi prestige. Thus Jamal Khashoggi, manager of Alarab TV, recently wrote that it was Egyptian jihadists who had polluted the minds of Bin Laden and Saudi jihadists in Afghanistan, and Abdel-Rahman al-Rashed, manager of Al Arabiya TV, wrote that Salafi jihadist groups in Syria were an invention of Syria and Iran (rather than a product of Saudi thinking, funding and politicking). It is remarkable that barely a decade after 9/11 Saudi Arabia can find a willing audience for these claims in the West.