Having risen to power in the wake of the Arab Spring, the global Muslim Brotherhood finds itself for the first time in control of real territory. They rule in Egypt, in the form of the Freedom and Justice Party, and through the MB-aligned or connected Ennahada party in Tunisia. The Brotherhood’s armed Palestinian wing, Hamas, continues to control Gaza. The Brotherhood is now working to secure control of Libya through political maneuvering and street violence, after they suffered a disappointing showing in the first post-Qaddafi election. In Syria, Ghassan Hitto, a Texas IT consultant with Muslim Brotherhood connections has secured the position of Interim Prime Minister and is recognized as such by the West. The Muslim Brotherhood has also moved from covert to overt activities in Syria.
However, the territories the MB find themselves possessing (or on the verge of possessing) are internally disordered and economically destitute.Egypt itself is bankrupt and faces severe famine.
This fact creates a dichotomous situation for the Ikhwan. In the short-term, the Brotherhood requires economic assistance to stave off disaster in Egypt; aid which is most likely to come from the West, and through Western-dominated institutions like the IMF. In the long-term, however, only control of the oil-rich Gulf States, most especially Saudi Arabia, will provide the Brotherhood with the financial wherewithal to survive. For that reason they must continue with their revolutionary aims and succeed in overthrowing the gulf monarchies, or risk losing what they have gained thus far.
This requires the Brotherhood to carry out a delicate balancing act, whereby they must maintain the mask of “moderation” with which they continue to deceive most western governments, while at the same time they must redouble their efforts to overturn the existing order of the Middle East. This balancing act creates for them difficulties on two fronts.
First, they face a challenge from the remaining monarchies, most notably the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The monarchs are well aware of the MB’s ultimate intentions, and have pushed back aggressively, targeting MB-linked Islamist political parties and organizers for arrest, as in the U.A.E. The Gulf Cooperation Council is also reportedly moving against MB front companies in Saudi Arabia and Sudan, which are part of the Brotherhood’s fundraising network for Hamas. Of course, such fundraising activities were previously known to the Gulf States, but were tolerated for decades, as long as the fundraising was for terror directed against Israel. They are being opposed now only because of the threat posed by the MB to the monarchs. Ironically, it is from these decades of supporting the work of the Brotherhood abroad that the Gulf States are able to act effectively in hampering subversive Brotherhood activities.
Saudi Arabia is also actively working to undo MB influence in Syria, working to oust Hitto from the position of Prime Minister, using influence gained through their contribution of funds and arms to Syrian rebels.
Second, the MB faces a challenge from Al Qaeda and other Salafi jihadi groups, most particularly in the Sinai, but also in Syria. This is a delicate situation for the Ikhwan. On the one hand, they are ideologically-aligned with such groups, supporting the institution of Sharia law, and jihad against infidels (most especially Israel). And in Syria especially, the fervor and tactical expertise of Al Qaeda forces operating under the Al Nusra banner are vital to defeating Assad, without which no MB rule can follow.
However, lawlessness in the Sinai, and the jihadi rocket attacks launched against Israel from the Sinai and from Gaza, risk immersing the MB in a conflict for which they are not prepared, and harm the “moderate” reputation they’ve built up with Western capitals. But, efforts to control jihadi activity risk harming the MB’s appearance within Islamist circles.
This difficulty should not be understood, however, as meaning that the Muslim Brotherhood is moderated by power or that it can be relied upon to constrain jihadi elements. Instead it is better to understand that, from the point of view of the MB, as rulers of a legitimate Islamic state, they retain the right to declare when and where jihad will be fought.
In this sense, we should understand that any actions the MB takes against Salafi or jihadi groups are more in line with the sort of punishments meted out against over-enthusiastic troops who charge into battle without an order, rather than actual opposition to the Salafi goals and methods.
Indeed, in large part where Al Qaeda has challenged the Brotherhood for failing to be appropriately aggressive in advancing from political (dawah) to military (jihad) operations, it is the Brotherhood which has shifted its position accordingly.
In response, to protect U.S. national security interests in the Middle East, the best American policy would be one which exploits these MB challenges as aggressively as possible. As the MB’s most pressing concern is maintaining their grip on what they control while seeking to expand rapidly, anything that delays their expansion, or hastens the collapse of their regimes, is useful.
With that in mind, it would be ideal to either terminate aid to Egypt entirely, or to strictly condition aid on the basis of such concepts as promoting civil and human rights and requiring public declarations of support for peace with Israel, as both would be anathema to the Brotherhood. That would force the MB to choose between their ideological imperatives and their financial needs. The MB will almost certainly choose ideology, but any equivocating will continue to hamper their relations with the Salafi elements, and thereby cause them embarrassment. This may weaken their efforts abroad, particularly if it results in infighting in places like Syria between pro-MB and Al Qaeda forces. In Syria, under no circumstances, should the U.S. provide military assistance to the rebels.
Further, in every MB-controlled territory, the U.S. should also support whatever elements of civil society oppose the MB within that territory, particularly when the MB’s regional ambitions are being (correctly) painted as being a hindrance to economic reform or prosperity.
Unfortunately we are unlikely to see the U.S. pursue such a plan, as the Obama Administration remains invested in the false notion that the Brotherhood may serve as a bulwark against Al Qaeda. Unless that view changes, and soon, any opportunity to exploit these challenges may prove fleeting.
Kyle Shideler is the Director of Research and Communications at the Endowment for Middle East Truth (www.Emetonline.org).
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