The Economist : Islamism is no longer the answer

Opinion Articles

IT WAS all smiles in the Qatari capital, Doha, when leaders of the Gulf Co-operation Council met on December 9th. Unusually, the annual summit of the six-member club of Arab oil monarchies packed more politics than pageantry. It marked the official healing of a deep rift between Qatar and its neighbours. More accurately, it confirmed the small but immensely rich host nation’s retreat, under sustained pressure, from an activist foreign policy its neighbours viewed not only as irksome but as downright subversive.

For the past decade Qatar had given quiet, generous and persistent support to the Muslim Brotherhood. It had lent money, diplomatic backing and a powerful media platform not only to the mother organisation, founded in Egypt in 1928, but to a range of affiliated and like-minded Islamist groups across the region. Qatar’s leaders leant ideologically towards the Brotherhood’s conservative but centrist Islamism. They also saw its tentacular reach as a force-multiplier for their own ambitions, and wagered on Brotherhood-style Islamism as the political wave of the Arab future.

Indeed, in the Arab Spring of 2011 Brothers and their fellow travellers won elections in Tunisia and Egypt, and took a lead in the bloodier uprisings of Syria, Libya and Yemen. The Palestinian branch, Hamas, had resorted to armed violence against Israel since the 1990s and took control of the Gaza Strip. Turkey, in the electoral grip of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AK party, seemed to offer an economically successful model of democratic Islamist rule: a bigger, modern-looking Brother.

The Brothers’ dream has come apart with stunning swiftness. Beginning with the popularly backed military coup that ousted President Muhammad Morsi from power in Egypt in mid-2013, the Brotherhood’s brand of political Islam has suffered a stinging sequence of setbacks. In Tunisia voters have turned back to secularists. The apparent loss of Qatar as a patron leaves only Mr Erdogan as a bastion of support for them, but his increasingly autocratic government has few other friends left.

How did it happen? The Brotherhood itself is partly to blame. Its early strident anti-imperialism morphed, following the exit of colonial powers, into a more general opposition to oppressive secular regimes, deemed to be instruments of the West. While some strands shifted towards violence, the mainstream opted for a patient policy of change from within. “Islam is the solution” became their vague slogan.

The method seemed to pay off in the Arab spring. But in places like Tunisia and Egypt, the Brotherhood misread election wins as endorsement for its Islamist project, when they equally reflected the weakness, after years of dictatorship, of other political actors. The Brothers overplayed their hand and alienated support. Elsewhere, the Brotherhood found its white-collar brand of Islamism outflanked by harder-line groups that demanded instant rather than gradual application of Islamic law, or rejected democracy as a deviation from God’s commands. Among poor, traumatised Sunnis in Iraq and Syria extreme jihadists with guns proved to have greater appeal. Seen as the strongest opposition group at the start of Syria’s civil war in 2011, the Brotherhood now wields little influence on the ground.

The Brothers also had powerful enemies. Whereas many Western governments saw them as a potentially tolerable face for Islamism that might safely sponge up radicals inclined to terrorism, some Arab governments saw them as a mortal threat. This was the belief within Egypt’s “deep state”, which since the coup has killed hundreds of Brothers, arrested thousands and put the group’s entire leadership on trial. Egypt has squeezed Hamas, throttling Gaza’s licit and illicit border passages.

More quietly, wealthy Gulf states have moved to stamp out Brotherhood influence. “It is a fascist group,” flatly declares one senior Gulf official. “They have been a gateway, a recruiting device for every kind of extremism.” Propelled by such hostility, countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have joined Egypt in banning the Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation. Gulf monarchies have not just poured money into Egypt to prop up its post-coup government, and heaped pressure on Qatar by recalling ambassadors and threatening sanctions. In places such as Libya and Syria they have also backed factions opposed to the Brothers; in the case of the UAE they have even conducted undeclared long-range bombing raids to thwart Islamists in Libya.

Such pressure has worked. Qatar has quietly expelled senior Brothers and muted media coverage that was favourable to them. Jordan, whose branch of the Brotherhood has long been the strongest opposition party, has lately arrested several members, including a party leader charged with insulting friendly Arab states. In another, unrelated setback Shia rebels in Yemen, who in October seized the capital, Sana’a, have mounted a campaign of harassment against the Brotherhood-affiliated, and once powerful Islah Party.

Left with no refuge in Arab states, Brotherhood leaders have straggled towards exile in Turkey. Among the rank and file, many are said to have drifted into the arms of jihadists, working as technicians, teachers, and doctors—sometimes as fighters—for Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. That may not be the outcome Gulf rulers intended.

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