Crisis in Egypt reignites the war for influence within the Arab world

Michael Stephens
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THE Egyptian Revolution’s latest twist, in the form of a military intervention to remove elected President Mohammed Morsi, has rippled across the Middle East. Muslim Brotherhood members have been rounded up and TV channels closed. Depending on whose side you are on, it is either an insidious coup or a heroic act by Egypt’s military to save its people from Islamic tyranny.

But although it holds almost 25 per cent of the Arab world’s population, the oft-repeated phrase that what happens in Egypt sets the tone for the rest of the Arab world is a little overstated. Qatar has, for example, just experienced a change of leadership that it managed without reference to Egypt. Saudi Arabia and Oman are also undergoing hand-wringing as to how to transition power to a successor generation. And the conflict in Syria will drudge miserably on regardless of who rules the roost in Cairo. The Islamist AK party governing Turkey has faced its own serious protests, but linking issues in Istanbul to the fall of the Brotherhood in Cairo would be wrong.

It is incorrect to say that, because Egypt has gone through strife, other countries – with their own political changes and problems – are fundamentally altered. But the regional players have visions for political order in the Middle East that vary greatly, and it is here that Egypt’s political crisis plays a significant role.

It is no secret that the fall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011 alarmed Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who have never fully forgiven the US for abandoning a crucial lynchpin of regional stability. The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, supported by the wealth of Qatar and the regional clout of Turkey, began to herald a new Sunni Islamic bloc in the region. The potential for Sunni Islamist politics to sweep from Tunisia to Syria suddenly began to feel very ominous.

This shift was met with suspicion in Riyadh and Amman, and with outright hostility in Abu Dhabi. The Emiratis have worked assiduously to prevent the rise of Islamic political movements at home, imprisoning citizens and activists and launching an aggressive media campaign against Qatar, the Muslim Brotherhood’s supposed financier. No sooner had Morsi been removed than Emirati foreign minister Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan offered his congratulations to the transitional replacement in Egypt Adli Mansour. Saudi Arabia was swift to follow. Qatar took rather longer to send its best wishes, although send them it did. Turkey, however, has rejected the change as an “unacceptable coup”.

With the fall of the Brotherhood comes the end of a nightmare scenario of Islamist pan-Arabism. No doubt Qatar will be smarting at its ally’s removal from power, and the Emiratis will be pleased that their arch foe has now met an ignominious end. But what happens now will be important. Egypt has serious economic problems and, whoever comes to power next will be looking for friends. A bidding war for influence in Egyptian politics could start with the Emiratis and Saudis seeking to bend Egypt’s future to their favour. The Qataris, meanwhile, will try desperately to salvage some influence from the wreckage of a failed foreign engagement.

Michael Stephens is a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute in Qatar.

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