The Qatar crisis and the myth of Arab unity

The Qatar crisis and the myth of Arab unity

Following U.S. President Donald Trump’s tweet on June 6, in which he took credit for the Saudi-Egyptian move on Qatar for himself, it can be said that the options before Emir of Qatar Thamim al-Thani are more limited than the day before. On May 21, Trump said he signed an arms deal worth $110 billion with King Salman of Saudi Arabia, adding that the funding of radicalism would not be tolerated.

Al-Thani took office from his father in 2013 after a bloodless palace coup only a week before the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Egypt President Mohamed Morsi was toppled by his Saudi-backed chief of staff, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is the current president of Egypt. In the close-circuit autocracies of the Middle East, al-Thani should know from experience that the same thing may happen to him if he does not take any steps to sooth the complaints of Qatar’s neighbors, which accuse it of siding with Iran and supporting terrorist groups.

The Pentagon’s statement about having no plans to relocate the Central Command (CENTCOM) base for the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) from Qatar shows that the Americans feel confident of their military presence in the country, with or without the incumbent Emir. 

This amounts to a very a sad situation for al-Thani. It seems that the best way for him to keep his chair safe is to stop cooperating with Iran over Arab affairs, to stop supporting al-Qaeda affiliated groups in the Syrian civil war, and to stop harboring the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is considered a terrorist group by its neighboring countries.

The debate here is not whether or not the Brotherhood is a terrorist organization. Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan, for one, rejects that idea and says it is an ideological movement. Influential think tanks in the U.S. also argue that it would be inappropriate to designate the Brotherhood, despite all its ideological radicalism, a terrorist group.

The debate here is that the Middle East is going back to its Cold War settings. The U.S. - and seemingly an significant number of European countries - prefer as partners oppressive Arab regimes over democratic ones (after the disappointment of the Arab Spring), so long as they maintain silence in their own backyard, regardless of the methods they use. 

Developments also show once again that the concept of Arab unity, or the concept of the “Islamic world,” is little more than wishful thinking, even a myth. It simply doesn’t exist. “Speak on behalf of the Islamic world” has no reflection in real politics or real life.

The Turkish government got carried away with the winds of the Arab Spring, thinking it could lead to Islamist thought dominating in Muslim-majority countries through democratic elections, like the example of the Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) in Turkey which had support from the U.S. and the EU in its early stages. It drew a connection between itself and the Muslim Brotherhood with its tradition of staying away from terrorism and its grassroots support in certain Muslim countries like Egypt, Tunisia and Syria.  

However, in Tunisia, Rached Ghannouchi was the first Islamic leader to realize that in pluralist societies it is not possible to rule the country with sharia law, and reconciliation is necessary. In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood government was unable to digest power, despite all pleas for “patience” by Erdoğan’s AK Parti.

After the Brotherhood-linked government collapsed in Egypt, the Brotherhood network in Syria also disintegrated and many of its younger elements joined more radical and armed groups like ISIL and the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra.

Now the civil war in Syria and Iraq is entering new phases with advances by U.S.-backed groups and the balancing factor of Russia, which is enjoying a comeback after a long pause since the end of the Cold War.

Its time for Ankara to make a new assesment of the changing balances in Turkey and take careful steps in order to not jeopardize the national interest. It is no secret that there is a certain sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology within the AK Parti, but the stance of Erdoğan and the government over the last two days perhaps shows that they will not get carried away with their sentiments. That is certainly the way it should continue.