Middle East’s shifting alignments

Split over Egypt crackdown underscores growing policy differences between US and some longtime regional allies.

Egypt s opposing groups call for a mass rally to support new government
For now at least, Egypt's military sees the Gulf Arab states, except Qatar, as more reliable allies [EPA]

Across the Gulf, governments that have long been hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood rushed to praise last week’s security crackdown on supporters of deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, which left more than 800 people dead.

Bahrain welcomed the effort to “restore security, stability and public order”; the United Arab Emirates praised the security forces for their “self-control.”

“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, its people and government, stood and stands today with its brothers in Egypt against terrorism,” King Abdullah said in a statement read on state television.

It was a stark contrast with the US, which condemned the massacre but largely in rhetorical terms.

In a brief statement on Thursday, US president Barack Obama announced that the US was pulling out of a joint military exercise with Egypt scheduled for next month, but made no mention of changes to the $1.3bn in annual aid for the Egyptian military.

“While we want to sustain our relationship with Egypt, our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back,” he said.

The split underscores growing policy differences between the US and many of its longtime allies in the Gulf, not just in Egypt but around the region.

It also helps to explain why Egypt’s leaders ignored the American government and moved brutally to clear two pro-Morsi sit-ins last week.

For now, at least, the Gulf countries – with the exception of Qatar – are perceived as more reliable allies.

In the days after Morsi’s removal, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE pledged $12bn in aid. But the interim government in Cairo could be taking a gamble by risking its aid from America, which analysts believe makes up 20 percent of the military’s budget.

Aid from Washington has been a constant for three decades, while the recent flood of Gulf money may be shorter-lived.

“It dwarfs the $1.3bn in military aid that the US gives Egypt,” said Gregory Gause, a professor of political science at the University of Vermont who writes extensively on the Gulf.

“But by definition Gulf aid is fickle. It’s given on a short-term basis, and it can be taken away, if the price of oil goes down … or if the new Egyptian government takes foreign policy stances the Gulf doesn’t like.”

The US had hoped to find a peaceful resolution to Egypt’s political crisis.

William Burns, US deputy secretary of state,  spent several days in Egypt earlier this month meeting military and political leaders, along with members of the Muslim Brotherhood, including the group’s jailed strategist, Khairat al-Shater.

European Union foreign policy Catherine Ashton, one of several EU officials working with the Americans, met Morsi himself.

By August 6, the US and the EU thought they had brokered a deal, according to State Department staffers.

The Muslim Brotherhood would reduce the size of its protests, and in return the military would release two jailed Islamist leaders: Saad al-Katatni, the speaker of the dissolved lower house of parliament, and Aboul Ela Madi, the leader of the moderate Wasat party.

But the prisoners were never released, and the next morning the Egyptian government announced that foreign mediation had failed.

The deal fell through, analysts and diplomats say, partly because the interim government in Cairo saw no consequences in rejecting it.

A foreign-brokered agreement would be difficult to sell to the Egyptian public at a time of heightened nationalism and xenophobia.

The generals also doubted that the US would actually respond to a harsh crackdown by cutting off their credit card.

The White House, after all, spent several tortured weeks after Morsi’s overthrow trying to avoid labelling it a coup, which would have automatically prompted an end to military aid.

In the end, Obama administration lawyers decided not to decide, neither calling it a coup nor saying that it wasn’t.

“It’s clear that a focus of US policy was trying to prevent this [massacre],” Stephen McInerney, the executive director of the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy, said.

“But the effort can’t really be considered serious unless they laid out clear consequences.”

Alienation fears

Administration officials were reluctant to lay down an ultimatum because they feared alienating another segment of the Egyptian elite.

Many liberals grew hostile towards the US during Morsi’s rule because they felt the US was becoming too close to the Brotherhood.

That relationship did not improve after Morsi’s removal, but the administration’s refusal to label it a coup burned bridges with the Brotherhood.

“They feel like the only relationship they have left is with the military,” McInerney said.

“They acted out of fear that, if they try to use the aid as leverage, if it’s not successful, they will lose the relationship.”

Egypt’s military may also have defied the US because it felt emboldened by support from the Gulf.

In mediating the crisis, the US tried to enlist the help of two regional allies: Qatar, which was among the staunchest supporters of Morsi’s government; and the UAE, which had a frosty relationship with Morsi.

In public, they urged reconciliation. But in private, the Emiratis may have delivered a different message, diplomats say, and the $12bn in aid promised last month signaled that the Gulf would back the interim government.

“The idea that we could have had some kind of US-EU-Gulf initiative to defuse the crisis was just not in the cards,” Gause said.

Hostile to Brotherhood

The staunch support comes as little surprise: most of the Gulf’s governments have long been hostile to the Brotherhood, fearing that it could threaten their rule by inspiring similar movements at home.

Activists in Saudi Arabia say the government has cracked down on Brotherhood supporters since Morsi’s removal.

Sixty-one members of a Brotherhood-affiliated group were jailed last month in the UAE.

The one outlier is Qatar, the main backer of political Islamists in Egypt and across the region for the past two-and-a-half years.

Khalid al-Attiyah, the Qatari foreign minister, condemned the crackdown on Saturday while on a visit to Germany. “We in Qatar are extremely concerned about the high number of victims. We are devastated by the violence,” he said.

Rhetoric aside, however, Qatar’s actual response is difficult to predict.

Last month it cautiously welcomed Egypt’s new interim government, and it delivered a shipment of free natural gas to Egypt earlier this month, part of an aid package announced during Morsi’s tenure.

Risky reliance

Relying on the Gulf carries risks for Egypt, however. Saudi Arabia and its neighbours could replace the money lost if the US decides to cut off military aid.

But they cannot replace the military hardware which Egypt buys with that aid, nor the training which Egyptian officers receive from the US military.

The regional aid could also fizzle out if Egypt breaks with the Saudis on foreign policy – though that seems unlikely at the moment – or if Gulf governments need to spend the money at home on their restive populations.

Backing the crackdown in Cairo also carries political risks for the Gulf, particularly the Saudi royals.

Dozens of Saudi religious leaders signed a statement last month condemning Morsi’s removal as a “sinful criminal act” that went against the “will of the people”.

Hundreds of Saudis have taken to Twitter to denounce Abdullah’s statement, meanwhile, tagging their posts “the words of King Abdullah don’t represent me”.

“I’m with the Egyptian people,” read one tweet posted on Saturday.

“God, free your land from the agents of the West, the enemies of the Islamists.”

Source: Al Jazeera