Why is Egypt involved in the latest GCC crisis?

 07 Jun 2017 - 13:29

In a move that is sure to have far-reaching consequences, three Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries - Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain - and Egypt announced on Monday that they would sever diplomatic ties with Qatar. The acting countries, who were later joined by a few of their regional partners, didn’t leave their motivations to the imagination. The collective decision was explicitly billed as part of these nations’ broader fight against terrorism; the Saudi Arabia-led axis accuses Qatar of supporting terrorist groups.

Given that it is not a GCC country, Egypt’s inclusion on this short list of nations may, at first glance, be perplexing. But a statement by the Saudi Arabian Press Agency (SPA) offers important insights into Egypt’s motivations for wanting to isolate Qatar. SPA said that Qatar embraces “various terrorist and sectarian groups aimed at destabilising the region, including the Muslim Brotherhood group, Daesh (ISIS), and Al-Qaeda, promoting the ethics and plans of these groups through its media”.

I’ll leave aside the suggestion that the Qatari government has embraced the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) and Al Qaeda - it hasn’t - and focus instead on the statement’s references to Qatari “media” and the Muslim Brotherhood. Insofar as Egypt is concerned, these are the two most important aspects of Monday’s diplomatic decree.

The Qatari “media” alluded to in the statement is an obvious reference to Al Jazeera, Qatar’s most important, powerful, and well-known media outlet, a network that has long been considered a thorn in the side of autocratic Arab governments, including the current Egyptian administration, which has taken issue with the network’s coverage of Egyptian affairs.

The statement’s reference to the Muslim Brotherhood is equally important. The Brotherhood briefly governed Egypt (in 2012 and 2013) following the country’s 2011 Arab Spring protests, which led to the overthrow of dictator Hosni Mubarak. Context is important to understanding the Egyptian government’s displeasure with both the Qatari government and Al Jazeera.

Egypt’s current government, led by President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, came to power on the heels of a summer 2013 military intervention. The Egyptian military, led at the time by Sisi, billed its intervention as a glorious “revolution”, a response to a popular demand to save Egypt’s true citizens from the “terrorist group” that had hijacked Egypt’s revolution. But, while the Egyptian military considers itself to be the saviour of the Egyptian people, political scientists and mainstream international news outlets have consistently labelled the military intervention a “coup”, much to Sisi’s chagrin. [The Sisi government went so far as to propose legislation criminalising use of the “coup” label to describe the military’s intervention.

What happened after the coup that overthrew Egypt’s first-ever democratically elected president, the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, is also critical to understanding the present political rift. Sisi moved to carry out an intense campaign to eliminate both the Brotherhood and all forms of political opposition from Egyptian society.

To a great extent, he has been successful. Sisi has consolidated power; and human rights groups and political scientists contend that Sisi is responsible for the worst human rights violations in modern Egyptian history, including large-scale massacres of unarmed protesters, mass death sentences, draconian legislation, and mass arrests - including of Al Jazeera (and other) journalists - among other acts of repression.

To the Egyptian government’s dismay, Al Jazeera has offered up intense coverage of the rights violations, as well as of some of the Sisi administration’s political failures. The Sisi government has said that Al Jazeera’s critical coverage constitutes a pro-Brotherhood position. But this is a problematic conclusion to draw. Al Jazeera’s coverage of Egypt has been similar in tone to the New York Times, the Guardian, CNN, and the BBC, all of whom, incidentally, have been accused in Egypt of being pro-Brotherhood. As far as the Egyptian government is concerned, anything short of labelling the 2013 intervention a revolution and labelling the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation, constitutes treachery.

It is important to note that the current Egyptian government’s displeasure with Al Jazeera and Qatar runs deep, and did not begin in 2013. The Sisi regime is part and parcel of Egypt’s “deep state”, a mere extension of the Mubarak regime, which was no fan of Al Jazeera. Like many of their autocratic partners in the Arab region, Sisi and the rest of Egypt’s military brass opposed Al Jazeera’s coverage of the 2010-2011 Arab Spring protest movements that led to the ousters of Egypt’s Mubarak, Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. Given the fact that Al Jazeera is a Qatari government-owned network, it is not difficult to see why Egypt - and its allies in the Saudi-led axis - take issue with Qatar.

It is also important to point out that, while the Brotherhood is a deeply flawed socioreligious movement badly in need of reform (and also in disarray, given that many of its members have been killed or arrested), it is not a terrorist organisation. The Brotherhood is the most studied Islamist group in the world. I am pretty well acquainted with the academic literature, and I am not aware of a single scholar who considers the Brotherhood to be similar to Al Qaeda or ISIL (which, incidentally, has denounced the MB as apostates).

The Saudi-led axis’ position that the Muslim Brotherhood is ISIL-like is more about the Brotherhood’s political prowess than it is about violent extremism. After Ben Ali and Mubarak fell quickly in Tunisia and Egypt, respectively, autocratic Arab governments were terrified that the Brotherhood, possibly the most popular political movement in the region, could sweep into power. The UAE and Saudi Arabia largely financed Egypt’s coup and have been strong supporters of Sisi’s campaign to bury the Brotherhood.