Islamist Threat Unmasks Emirates Policy Shift as Immunity Fades
When the military seized power in Egypt in July, the cable of congratulations from the United Arab Emirates took less than an hour.
A day earlier, judges in Abu Dhabi had sentenced 69 people to jail for plotting to destabilize the desert nation. They were alleged members of Islah, an Islamist group the government says has ties with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Next month, 30 Egyptians and Emiratis will go on trial accused of setting up a branch of the Brotherhood in the U.A.E.
“It needs to crush the Brotherhood in Egypt to crush the movement at home,” said Ghanem Nuseibeh, the London-based founder of Cornerstone Global Associates, which advises clients on risk in the Middle East. “Since the Brotherhood is based in Egypt, the fight had to happen on its home turf.”
Dubai and neighboring Abu Dhabi, the U.A.E.’s two richest emirates, are known more for their skyscrapers, luxury hotels and malls than Islamists. The relative immunity from regional conflict was key to attracting investors, tourists and expatriates. Yet away from the glitz, the fight against Islamists represents a shift in foreign policy, said Nuseibeh.
The U.A.E. pledged $3 billion in aid to Egypt since the military took over and encouraged the crackdown on Brotherhood officials. Egyptian Prime Minister Hazem El Beblawi will start a three-day visit to the U.A.E. on Oct. 25, Egypt’s state-run Middle East News Agency reported yesterday.
Egyptian Social Solidarity Minister Ahmed El-Boraie issued a final decree on Oct. 9 disbanding the Brotherhood, which was formed in 1928 to espouse the adoption of Islamic law.
The Brotherhood wants to “control our economic resources,” Ali bin Tamim, a scholar in Abu Dhabi and secretary general of the Sheikh Zayed Book Awards, said in an interview in the city. “And now, after the Arab Spring and their brief rule in Egypt, we have a clear idea what they can do to a country whenever they manage to take it over.”
Egypt’s deposed former President Mohamed Mursi and his government are accused of tailoring laws to favor their supporters and failing to revive the economy and create jobs. Tunisia’s ruling Ennahda party, a political Islamist group, has faced criticism over its handling of the economy and what the opposition sees as a lax response to rising extremism.
Mursi was Egypt’s only democratically elected civilian president since it became a republic in the 1950s. Security forces and his supporters have been clashing across Egypt, killing more than 1,000 people since July. Brotherhood supporters say the crackdown, which includes arrests and the freezing of assets, is politically motivated.
As far as the U.A.E. government is concerned, Islah wants to lift the ban on political parties and is seeking more power in Gulf states ruled by Sunni-Muslim royal families. The suspicions over political Islamist groups also predate Middle East uprisings and the Brotherhood’s rise to power in Egypt.
In a meeting with the former assistant to the U.S. President for homeland security and counterterrorism in April 2006, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan expressed concern about the influence of the Brotherhood in the U.A.E., according to classified diplomatic cables released by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.
The meeting, whose details couldn’t be independently confirmed, took place three months after Islamist group Hamas won legislative elections in the Palestinian territories, and about four months after the Brotherhood became Egypt’s largest opposition group.
Six years later, the Brotherhood’s rise to power in Egypt and Tunisia supported by Qatar revived concern that the Islamist group may destabilize the Emirates, the largest economy in the Arab world after Saudi Arabia.
Yet Emiratis are unlikely to back a group that jeopardizes their lifestyle, said Lori Plotkin Boghardt, a fellow in Gulf politics at the Washington Institute.
“The U.A.E. doesn’t have huge domestic security threats,” said Boghardt. Emiratis think “we’re wealthy, we’re comfortable, we have a lot of foreign workers doing some of the work we don’t like. They don’t want to rock the system.”
The U.A.E. was anxious that Qatar was offering financial support for the Brotherhood across the Arab world, said Boghardt. Qatar, home to Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Egyptian-born cleric widely known as the Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, extended about $8 billion in aid during Mursi’s year in power.
Since the Egyptian military took power in July, there’s been a shift in policy involving Qatar too.
Egypt said it would return $2 billion to the country, while Egyptian Oil Minister Sherif Ismail said his ministry is no longer communicating with Qatar over further gas shipments. The Al Mal newspaper reported last month Qatari Diar Real Estate Investment Co.’s Sinai project was put on ice.
Shortly after Mursi was toppled, the three countries together pledged $12 billion of aid. Kuwait last month sent Egypt $2 billion of deposits, Egypt’s state-run Al-Ahram newspaper reported, citing central bank Governor Hisham Ramez. Egypt expects more aid from Gulf nations, Ramez said Sept. 29.
“Gulf monarchies are generally uncomfortable with the Brotherhood” because the group believes “there’s no monarchy in Islam,” said Mostaque. “The U.A.E. used to just take away passports of Brotherhood members, but the recent jail terms that you see is a dramatic change.”
The 69 people the U.A.E. sentenced to seven to 15 years in jail on July 2 were part of a group of 94 with alleged links to Islah accused of establishing secret cells to seize power.
“When the military took powers away from Mursi, you could almost hear this collective sigh of relief,” said Boghardt at the Washington Institute. “The U.A.E. was so anxious about the rise of the Brotherhood in Egypt because the U.A.E. in particular saw this group as the most significant threat in terms of its own domestic security.”
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