Repressed and marginalized for decades, the Arab Spring gave Muslim Brotherhood-linked political parties a new lease on life, as they sought to use the regionwide revolutions and elections as a springboard into political power.
Despite enjoying initial success in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Syria, these factions are being targeted once again. In addition to its traditional foes—namely the Egyptian government, the Assad regime in Syria, and the Saudi royal family, the Muslim Brotherhood has encountered a new adversary: The United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Yet, unlike Saudi Arabia, which has even cooperated with the Yemeni branch, the UAE is completely hostile to any manifestation of political Islam.
Though the Muslim Brotherhood is often wrongly perceived as a transnational organization, it is largely divided into national movements.
Though the Muslim Brotherhood is often wrongly perceived as a transnational organization, it is largely divided into national movements that focus on domestic success and adapt to their country’s political environment. Branches are also usually ideologically different.
The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt in 1928, by religious leader Hassan al-Banna. Initially it sought to provide social services and restore a sense of identity to Egyptians disenfranchised and impoverished by British colonial rule. Its ideas soon spread, and branches developed across the region, often facing crackdowns in states it operated in.
Many of the present-day Muslim Brotherhood-linked factions do not coordinate with one another as one transnational movement. Some branches, such as those in Tunisia and Yemen, even deny such ties, while others in Egypt or Syria are more open about their Muslim Brotherhood ties.
The UAE’s hidden hand had supported this counterrevolution, providing much financial and other support to the military.
The Muslim Brotherhood had unprecedented success in Egypt’s first free presidential elections in 2012, until it was once again crushed and isolated the following year in a coup from the Egyptian military, which had acted as a shadow government since overthrowing the British-backed monarchy in 1952. The UAE’s hidden hand had supported this counterrevolution, providing much financial and other support to the military, which has since sought to root out the Brotherhood.
Abu Dhabi then turned its attention to Tunisia, where the soft and pro-democracy Islamist party Ennahda had soared into power following the country’s successful Jasmine revolution. Fearing that Ennahda, which had Muslim Brotherhood inspirations, could be an ally of Egypt’s Brotherhood, and a successful transition could inspire more Islamist parties regionally, the UAE sought to empower the secular, reactionary Nidaa Tounes party.
This initially weakened Ennahda, forcing it into a power sharing coalition in the 2014 Presidential elections. Subsequently, Abu Dhabi reportedly unsuccessfully encouraged Nidaa Tounes to launch a power-seizing coup in Tunisia to replicate the Egyptian model.
Closer to home, in Yemen, the UAE hired former US Navy seals to carry out assassinations on leading members of Al Islah, a soft Islamist party. Furthermore, it has backed the separatist Southern Transitional Council in Yemen, which is also hostile to the Brotherhood.
As with Tunisia, Abu Dhabi had not successfully marginalized the Yemeni faction, but its hardline actions there reveal its antagonism towards the movement.
In Sudan, in 2019, the UAE backed the Transitional Military Council seeking to create an authoritarian anti-Islamist regime in the country, which would cleanse the government of Islamist elements from the era of Omar Bashir.
What explains the UAE’s desire to crush the Muslim Brotherhood?
These are some of the factions Abu Dhabi has portrayed not only as terrorist organizations, but akin to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. So, what explains the UAE’s desire to crush the Muslim Brotherhood?
In a recent article for the New York Times, Robert Worth, who had met with Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ), gave a portrayal of his vision for the Middle East, highlighting MbZ’s claims that as a young figure he was taught about freedom of religion and this later inspired his opposition towards the Muslim Brotherhood.
Worth’s article simply echoes Emirati narratives and pretexts for its foreign policy and hides the sinister motives behind Abu Dhabi’s regional ambitions. Particularly as MbZ has pursued an increasingly assertive foreign policy, which involves more than targeting the Brotherhood.
At home, the UAE has had its own Muslim Brotherhood-linked group, also called al Islah (same name as the Yemeni group). Despite Islah denying its Muslim Brotherhood ties, the Emirati government has treated it with suspicion and tied it to the faction.
Excluding Bahrain, the Arab Spring hardly impacted Gulf Cooperation Council states. However, it did inspire peaceful calls for reforms in the UAE. Several figures including intellectuals, activists, and lawyers had advocated for reforms in the country. Among them were members of Islah. The UAE therefore sought to crush the faction and launched a crackdown on it, while simultaneously ending the possibility of reforms.
Was Abu Dhabi tying the prospect of reforms and elections with Muslim Brotherhood success?
“If an election were held tomorrow, the [UAE] Muslim Brotherhood would win.”
In 2006, MbZ himself suggested to US diplomats that “if an election were held tomorrow, the [UAE] Muslim Brotherhood would win.” Dubai’s police chief in 2012 warned of an “international plot” from the Brotherhood to overthrow regional governments, portraying it as a greater threat than Iran.
The UAE’s evident fear of the Muslim Brotherhood explains why it has launched an overseas crackdown, perceiving that success of Islamist factions in the region could inspire others elsewhere, and trigger calls for reforms within the UAE. It has used its considerable wealth and diplomatic reach to target any area it senses the slightest trace of Brotherhood presence.
Human rights organizations have indicated that repression within the UAE has soared as the government seeks to contain any potential growth of political Islam through force.
After all, the UAE has its own rigid system, which differs from that of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideal regime. It also sees the Muslim Brotherhood posing a threat to the traditional authoritarian status quo across the Middle East and North Africa region. The UAE has continuously built ties with such political actors following the Arab Spring, including Egypt’s government led by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Sudan’s military, and Libya’s Khalifa Haftar.
Now Abu Dhabi is continuously reaching out to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, beginning with restoring diplomatic ties in December 2018. The UAE sees Assad as a counterrevolutionary bulwark against Islamist movements and democratic changes.
The UAE’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood should be seen as a crackdown on democracy too, since regional revolutions calling for government reforms initially gave rise to the faction.
The UAE’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood should be seen as a crackdown on democracy too, since regional revolutions calling for government reforms initially gave rise to the faction. As long as Abu Dhabi possesses such an irrational fear of political Islam, real democratic change regionwide will be sabotaged.