Recent developments in the two spheres: GCC-Egypt relations, and the parallel impact of any changes in this relation within the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), merit a pause. The interaction between both may be the prelude to a different set of “rules of the game” in this regard.
In one especially expressive moment recently, the pulse of potential changes in the policy of the GCC towards the government of Egypt and the MB was loud enough to be heard. On Feb 18th, GCC spokesman Abdul Latif Ben Rashed issued a statement, posted on the official site of the Council, saying that Egypt’s accusations against Qatar of supporting terrorism was false, unfounded and rejected by the GCC. Furthermore, it stated that the Egyptian accusations deny “Qatar’s efforts to fight terrorism.” Ben Rashed’s statement was a reaction to a statement attributed to an Egyptian official in Cairo’s foreign ministry that put partial responsibility for the massacre of 21 Egyptian Copts in Libya.
Twelve hours later, Rashed’s communique disappeared from the official site of the GCC online. Shortly after, the Spokesman issued a different statement denying that he ever made the first one and “reiterating” that the GCC fully supported Egypt in its fight against terrorism and referring to the GCC efforts to reconcile Cairo and Doha.
The first statement, as much as the second, triggered waves of comments on both sides, Egypt and the GCC countries. The first statement was taken as a confirmation that the GCC is “changing” its policy on both Al Sissi government and its adversaries, the MBs. The second was taken as a sign of “unsettled” debate with the GCC on the direction of its policy on both. But Saudi newspapers ran articles criticizing Cairo’s demand for an international intervention in Libya as self-damaging. It was indeed a precedent in decades to see such views expressed publicly in the Saudi media.
Since the passing away of Saudi King Abdullah, the MB’s leaders have expressed hopes that Riyadh will change its policy towards Cairo and their organization. Indeed, there were signs of change scattered here and there, including rumors of secret talks through semiofficial channels going on between Riyadh and some leaders of the organization in London. The Saudi Foreign Minister said his country has no particular enmity towards the MB, “except for those who declare allegiance to the Murshed (the Supreme Leader)”. By this, the minister was limiting any dispute to the political arena, or to put it accurately, to the position of the organization on the issue of political power.
It became obvious that the Kingdom is indeed considering a shift in its strategy. Saudi Arabia needs the MBs in Yemen and elsewhere to curtail what is perceived as Iran’s regional expansion. While the GCC sees the organization as a political threat, it is moving to a position where it considers that the threat of the MB, compared to the Iranian threat, is less immediate and far less urgent.
Viewed from the angle of the MBs, this “review” of policy in the GCC is welcomed. It definitely improves their negotiating position in Egypt when the time of negotiations arrives. However, some analysts believe that the dynamics of structural changes within the MB has already been set in motion, and that the leadership of the organization is getting more and more isolated by the general shift of the grounds of the confrontation with authorities. The continuous slide towards further polarization and hardening of positions with violence and counter-violence narrows the room for the maneuvers available to the MB leadership. A considerable chunk of the MB’s base has been further radicalized since the massacre of Raba’a Square in Cairo last year.
The assumption that the government of Egypt will accept a full-fledged and comprehensive compromise that is able as well to convince the bases of the MB to moderate their positions sounds overly optimistic. Therefore, the real effect of any GCC pressure on Cairo to allow such a compromise will end up with either a clear rift between the two sides, Egypt and the GCC, or a split within the MB due to imposing a deal that will be perceived by the MB’s youth as a surrender..
Each of the two possibilities is as risky as the other. However, the GCC “review” of its policy on the MB is just one side of a larger review of its regional alignments. That could be seen in the warming up in relations between Saudi Arabia on the one hand and both Qatar and Turkey in the other. There are questions in Cairo about the extent of the US role in shaping this strategic reorientation in the region.
It was remarkable that the Obama administration neither condemned nor condoned Egypt’s military strikes on alleged ISIL targets in Libya. But this position, which marks the end of the usually warm ties between the two military institutions, is merely a byproduct of a deeper strategic divergence.
Any escalation in tension between Egypt and the GCC should not be allowed to increase. The consequences will be far worse than any presumed gains of crude pressure tactics. The lessons of 1954 – 57 should be revisited.
It is not clear to what extent President Al Sissi, supported by the UAE, will be able to resist any solid pressure from other GCC countries and Washington. However, it will be helpful to start working on a general framework that allows Egypt and the MBs to accept general outlines of de-escalation as a prelude to a possible “promised” deal. Putting in front of Cairo the blunt choice of whether to be cut off totally or to open its arms to the MBs is a naïve and dangerous concept. Furthermore, it will not work, except to further alienate Cairo which is a risky proposition at this sensitive regional moment.
By the same token, it is dangerous and naïve to force the MB leadership to either surrender to Al Sissi or continue to receive his wrath. Regarding the leadership of the organization, as is obvious from its communiqué one day before the Libyan massacre and its following refusal to condemn the massacre, it is not late to try to extract elements of a de-escalation plan between its leaders and the Egyptian government.
It is obvious therefore that the issue of the MB is taken in two different contexts. One is related to regional alignments. The other concerns Egypt and the dynamics within the organization. The two contexts overlap on one specific proposition, that is to open the clogged horizon of a cohesive synthesis.
If a de-escalation plan is indeed accepted (against all odds), the relevancy of the organization could be assessed on both tracks. It will as well help unlock the potential of a new regional alignment. We believe that the MBs are really isolated on the level of the Egyptian “street.” Any de-escalation deal should not be perceived in Cairo as a serious threat. In fact, the threat is that the current impasse radicalizes the base of the organization even more. It should be noted that there is no distinct lines between a prelude to a deal and the deal itself. A de-escalation agreement might be all what it takes.
The alternative will be a formation of a new configuration in the region that may not be sustainable and will bring a new host of problems that merely replace the old ones. It is worthwhile to examine closely the main impediment in the road to a new regional alignment and the stability of Egypt. In both cases it is one obstacle: the MB.