Brotherhood in retreat

Jerusalem Post, 11/10

Reports surfaced this week suggesting that Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal is seeking to relocate from his current base in the Qatari capital of Doha. Hamas has indignantly rejected these claims. This shouldn’t be taken as authoritative – the movement also dismissed evidence that it was leaving Damascus in 2012 until the move was complete and could no longer be denied.

If it turns out that the Hamas leadership is indeed on its way out of Qatar, this is the latest indication of the astonishing change of fortunes that has hit the Muslim Brotherhood. History may remember 2013 as the year of the movement’s eclipse, after its very brief moment in the sun in 2011-12.

Observe: at the beginning of this year, the Muslim Brotherhood held power in Egypt and Tunisia. A Syrian insurgency dominated by militias with similar ideas to the Brotherhood and supported by the same patron (Qatar) looked to be heading for victory in Syria’s civil war.

A Brotherhood-related party was in power in Turkey, and the Emirate of Qatar had emerged as the energetic financier and enthusiastic cheerleader of the Brothers’ advance across the region.

Qatar, through its immensely popular al-Jazeera channel, had the ability to sculpt public opinion according to its will, across borders in the Arabic-speaking world.

The Brotherhood/Qatari alliance also seemed well on the way to claiming the commanding stake in Palestinian nationalism. Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the movement, had carved out the only genuinely independent Palestinian entity in the Gaza Strip.

The Palestinian cause and opposition to Israel remain key badges of legitimacy in the politics of the Arab world. Hamas, led by Mashaal, spent 2011 and 2012 relocating itself out of Damascus, and drawing ever closer to Doha. Emir Hamed Bin Khalifa al-Thani then visited Hamas-controlled Gaza in October, 2012, pledging $400 million to the Hamas enclave.

Everything seemed to be going in the right direction.

But the advance of the Muslim Brotherhood was alarming to the conservative Gulf monarchies of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Israel, too, was watching events with concern. Israel was far less vulnerable than the fragile Gulf states, but the rise of the Brotherhood in Egypt seemed to promise trouble somewhere down the road.

In the course of 2013, the advance was reversed.

Most importantly, the Brotherhood was forcibly removed from power in Egypt in a Saudi and UAE supported military coup in July. The new military regime is in the process of destroying Islamist military resistance. The Brotherhood has been declared illegal and will not be permitted to stand in future elections once the civilian political process has been reactivated.

In this age of asymmetric conflicts in which the very concepts of victory and defeat are said to be obsolete, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has suffered something that looks very much like an old fashioned, unambiguous and clear defeat.

In Qatar, meanwhile, Emir Hamed Bin-Khalifa was replaced in June by his son, Tamim. The precise circumstances and reasons for Emir Hamed’s sudden departure from power remain mysterious. Since then, Qatar has virtually disappeared from the regional stage. Its contributions to the Brotherhood in Egypt are drying up.

Hamas, alarmed by the turn of events in Egypt, is reactivating its contacts with Iran and the rival, Shia-dominated Islamist bloc led by Teheran..

In Syria, the Assad regime rallied in the first months of 2013 and its existence is no longer in imminent danger. On the Syrian rebel side, meanwhile, it is now the Saudis who are making the running – officially supporting the ‘moderate’ Supreme Military Council, and enabling the funding of Salafi organizations through private funds. The Qataris and the Muslim Brotherhood are no longer the main players.

And in the latest reversal of fortune, the Al-Nahda party in Tunisia has agreed to dissolve the government which it formed following its election victory in 2011. The government will be replaced by an administration of technocrats pending new elections. This move follows the unrest and political crisis that erupted after the assassination of opposition leader Mohammed Brahmi in July.

In Turkey, meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood related AKP is left to ponder the ruins of its plans and hopes for the region. It had expected the formation of an alliance of like-thinking MB-style Sunni Islamist regimes across the region, in North Africa, the Levant and the Gulf.

After the events of 2013, this is no longer on the cards. Instead, the AKP government must cope with angry protests by non-Islamist Turks, the loss of allies and regional isolation.

This appears to be taking its toll. A broadcast featuring Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayep Erdogan and discussing the crushing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt had to be stopped recently when the Turkish leader began weeping uncontrollably.

What all this means is that on literally every front on which it made significant advances, the Muslim Brotherhood has now stalled.

Whether or not it turns out that the reports regarding Khaled Mashal’s relocation are true, Hamas is being forced to reposition itself, and to go back to Iran cap in hand. The reason is because this movement too had placed its bets on a Qatar-financed alliance of Muslim Brotherhood oriented states which will now not come into being.

The Muslim Brothers are by no means finished. Their politics retain a natural purchase in the conservative, Sunni Arab Middle East. But the moment when everything seemed possible has decidedly passed. What looked like the potential beginning of a new age ended up as a brief moment in the sun.

The sun is now setting on the Muslim Brotherhood’s hopes of regional domination.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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2 Responses to Brotherhood in retreat

  1. Jonathan Karmi says:

    The upshot of all this is that no trend in the Middle East is inexorable. When some poor fellow self-immolates in Tunisia and it ends up in the downfall of regimes in that country, Egypt and Libya, and sparks off a civil war in Syria, then it shows the Middle East contains great latent instability. For example, no one can guess what the final outcome in Syria will be. Will it just fracture ? Will it become a federal state ? Will one of the actors re-impose dictatorship over all of its territory ? Meanwhile, Hamas turning back to Iran smacks of desperation. If Egypt blocks off the smuggling tunnels then even Iranian assistance will be of limited use if they can’t get stuff into Gaza.

  2. Queen Esther says:

    Perhaps this will pave the way to get them out of the Department of Homeland Security, etc. here in America.

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