It is ironic that a state claiming to rule according to Islamic principles, Saudi Arabia, fears the rise to power of Islamists — both at home and in neighboring countries. One regional Islamist trend worries the Saudi leadership, the Muslim Brotherhood which has decided to engage in politics through elections and the democratic process.
Saudi legitimacy is based on an appropriation of Islamic symbols such as claims that “our constitution is the Quran” and the application of sharia. The Saudi leadership fears losing its unique Islamic credentials as Islamists in other countries reach power. It wants to remain the sole Islamic model in the Arab region. The possibility of neighboring states combining Islamist politics with democracy threatens the Saudi model and seriously alarms the Saudi state.
The Saudi government made it clear that it does not accept the rule of Islamists in Egypt or elsewhere, for that matter. Riyadh had in the past coexisted and even cooperated and manipulated the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood but since September 11, 2001 it turned against them when deceased Minister of Interior Prince Nayef held the Muslim Brotherhood responsible for terrorism in Saudi Arabia.
Hours after General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi deposed Mohamed Morsi on July 3, King Abdullah congratulated the Egyptian interim government and promised $5 billion in aid and subsidies, thus indicating his support for the change that led to removing the Muslim Brotherhood from power.
In a recent speech, King Abdullah clearly stated that he continues to back the Egyptian government in eradicating the dissent, chaos, and terrorism of those who threaten the security of Egypt, meaning the Muslim Brotherhood. Many Saudis were shocked especially after it transpired that hundreds of Egyptians were massacred in various squares in Cairo where Muslim Brotherhood supporters had been staging demonstrations and prolonged sit-ins.
While the demise of the Muslim Brotherhood had been a clear stated policy of the Saudi regime, the king’s speech was mainly directed toward an internal audience, especially Saudi Islamists of all shades. This includes an amalgamation of Brotherhood sympathizers and others. Saudi Islamists encompass a Salafized version of the Brotherhood, not to mention militant Jihadis and those Jihadis who postpone Jihad until the right conditions are ready for launching it.
All share one agenda although they may differ over the strategy that allows them to achieve it, namely the establishment of an Islamic state in which an umma guided by the holy book rules itself, by implication a rejection of hereditary monarchical rule. While not all Saudi Islamists openly reject the monarchy, their goal implicitly undermines the Saudi state in its present configuration. A recent development among some Islamists clearly represents a shift from theorizing the duties of Muslims to calling for their rights, represented by calls for national political representation, independent judiciary, respect for human rights, and freedom of speech. This shift was invigorated by the 2011 Arab uprisings and subsequent elections in countries like Egypt and Tunisia that brought Islamists to power.
Saudi Islamists went through a euphoric mode praising democratic transformation and hoping that the winds of change will cross the Red Sea. Yet they were not ready to call for an uprising for fear of losing everything. The Egyptian coup and the recent massacres in Egypt demonstrated beyond doubt the might of security approaches to peaceful protest.
A divided Saudi public, sectarian differences, regional rivalries, and tribal fragmentation all mitigated against the emergence of a unified Saudi Islamist protest movement. The government absorbed some of the Islamists’ euphoria when it moved its troops to Bahrain to suppress the peaceful protest movement in 2011. Moreover, Saudi full support for the Syrian uprising succeeded in deflating anger among Islamists as long as this uprising remained anchored in a sectarian discourse that depicts it as a struggle of pious Sunnis against heretical Alawis and Shiites.
Close to home, the Qatif demonstrations were God-sent, as they silenced open calls for change or democratization among the majority of Saudi Islamists. The regime deflated its own Islamists’ agitations when it engaged with Shiite protesters in the oil rich Eastern province, killing more than 16 activists in the last two years. Many Islamists blamed the Shiites for the increased repression in the country, which they themselves have suffered.
The king’s message was clear: zero tolerance for all those who use Islam to pursue political agendas, sort of an oxymoron in the Saudi context as the state itself had been manipulating, co-opting, and promoting Islam for agendas that are nothing but political. The foundation of the state itself is a process of instrumentalizing Islam to revive the Al-Saud control of vast territories, under the pretext of purifying Arabia from blasphemy, innovation, and atheism. The Muslim Brotherhood and its likes appear to be latecomers to the project of politicizing Islam.
King Abdullah’s message, supposedly meant for Egyptians, did not go unheeded among the many Saudi Islamists who abhorred their government’s support for the Egyptian coup. Since July 3, they have turned into defenders of Morsi and the Brotherhood, issuing statements on social media condemning their own government for backing the coup. A small group of activists launched an online petition to gather signatures against the aid that had been promised to Egypt immediately after the coup. Following the circulation of the petition, a couple of veteran activists such as Mohsin al-Awaji were briefly detained while many other Islamists remain banned from travel, most famous is Sheikh Salman al-Awdah whose television program “you have Rights” was abruptly stopped on an Islamist independent television channel. The government is carefully watching the hyperactivity of Islamists and their statements on television and online, which have so far strongly condemned the Egyptian coup and their own government’s unequivocal endorsement of General Sisi.
On Twitter, activists launched a hashtag clearly denouncing the king under the slogan “the king does not represent me.” So far the government has not reacted to such provocation. In fact, it may prefer to keep tweets going until they materialize in action on the ground. It may also want to monitor tweets and catch transgressors. A counter hashtag under the slogan “the king represents me” was immediately launched and the Saudi press reported that it was a great success, reflecting citizens’ loyalty to their king and agreement with his policies. The virtual war remains heated in a country where freedom of speech is still lagging behind and the king is sacrosanct. Official media falls short of even debating Saudi support of the Egyptian coup and since June it has demonized the Muslim Brotherhood in banal and unjustified articles and commentaries.
The Saudi regime is gradually pursuing a media blackout on Islamists but if their activism moves from the virtual world to reality, it is likely that a mere royal speech will not be sufficient. More brutal measures will no doubt be applied. Egypt and its coup are regular reminders to Saudi audiences that might is always right. The Saudi Ministry of Interior has mastered the art of silencing peaceful activists who call for respect of human rights and has shown its might when dispersing the small demonstrations that sprung up in various regions of the country. It stays firm when facing collective action of any kind, from sit-ins and strikes to demonstrations.
The impotence of the West and the international community that often celebrates democratic transitions vis a vis the massacres in Egypt over the last weeks will only convince Saudi Islamists that they will have to remain speechless at the moment. It is obvious that no one will come to rescue them should they engage in political change and incur the wrath of their government.
The Egyptian coup sent several messages to Saudi Islamists and their counterparts in other parts of the Gulf region, the most important one is never to trust the ballot box. This will have serious consequences in the future and may well revive the old strategies of violence as the only mechanism to pursue goals.
Saudi contribution to the demise of the Muslim Brotherhood will always be remembered by the country’s activists as a betrayal of Islam, a view that has already been voiced by many Islamists whose government prefers they remain speechless.
Madawi Al-Rasheed is visiting professor at The Middle East Centre at London School of Economics and Political Science and Research Fellow at Open Society Foundation.