Thu 4 Jul 2013
All eyes and ears are focused on Egypt with the ouster of President Morsi after massive street demonstrations and with the direct removal from office by the Egyptian military. Euphemisms and wishful political spin aside, this was a coup. The heads of state in the United States and Europe are now doubt breathing a sigh of relief, although watching a democratically elected leader pushed aside without ballots is not something to discuss very loudly in public. The pundits are weighing in on the failure of Morsi, that he failed to represent all Egyptians and was pushing too hard and too singularly for a Muslim Brotherhood agenda that would unravel decades of Egypt’s secular dynamics. Nathan Brown has an astute analysis at The New Republic. But missing from the headlines are two other coups that can be excused as non-coups. Last week the emir of Qatar, Shaykh Hamad, resigned and handed over control of the wealthy emirate to his son, Tamim, who has been well groomed for the job. Given that Hamad had come to power in a bloodless palace coup while his father was out of the country, this could be seen as coup avoidance. Obviously, father and son get along together quite well. But the third case was announcement of an attempted coup in the seemingly stable United Arab Emirates. On Tuesday, while crowds were milling in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and chanting for the end of Morsi’s regime, the Federal Supreme Court of the UAE announced that 94 Emiratis had been accused of plotting a coup. Some 56 were given jail terms of 3-10 years and 26 were acquitted.
Three coup scenarios in just a little over a week! Is this the eternal Arab Spring or just an “Indian summer” for the Middle East? Or should we rename the political tsunami that began in Tunisia and has spread across the region the “Arab springboard”? On the surface the three cases noted here would seem to have little in common. Regime change is hardly novel in the Middle East for the past century, but the age of military dictatorships seemed to be coming to an abrupt end after the fall of Ben Ali, Moubarak, Qaddafi, and Ali Abdullah Salih, not to mention the earlier removal of Saddam Hussein. The lone survivor is Bashar al-Asad, who has so far managed to hold on to power, although greatly diminished and irretrievably tarnished. For all the complaints about Morsi, he was not a dictator, at least not in the usual sense. Whether or not the army put him into power a year ago, or simply let him out of his opposition cage to fail miserably, he was a weak figurehead from the start. Shaykh Hamad of Qatar and Shaykh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan are not dictators who came to power through the military ranks, but royalty in the old sense. They are more or less installed for life, until another family member plots a takeover. Shaykh Hamad wisely avoided such a scenario for Qatar, but it now seems that Shaykh Khalifa is not as stable as used to be thought. The wealth that fuels the economy and fills the pocketbooks of Qatari and Emirati citizens suggests that a popular rebellion and call for democracy are unthinkable in both cases. But the wealth is certainly an attraction for family politics.
If there is a lesson from all three coups, it is the obvious pragmatic observation that politics always trumps religion. This is especially evident in Egypt, where the head of the Salafis in Egypt joined the shaykh of al-Azhar and the Coptic Pope on stage with the military general who took de facto control of Egypt yesterday. The rivalry between the Brotherhood and the Salafis shows just how varied the so-called “Islamist” factor is in Egypt. Ordinary Egyptians may sympathize with much of the morality preached by conservative Islamic political parties, but dogma quickly gives spiritual indigestion when there is little food on the table and no prospect for a job. There is a sense that Morsi failed because he was pushing too conservative an agenda, but behind this it is clearly the economic doldrums of Egypt that sealed his downfall. As tourism declined and Morsi attempted to steer Egypt away from dependence on Western consumerism, there were far too many unemployed. Although little is yet known about the alleged plot in the UAE, which involved a number of high-ranking individuals, rumor has it that the main concern was with the Brotherhood and other conservative groups acting in the Gulf. The Muslim Brotherhood is illegal in the UAE, so it is unlikely that Morsi’s removal has caused any worries in Abu Dhabi.
Qatar has tried to have it both ways, supporting conservative causes when it serves their interests, but also adapting to Western consumerism likes kids in a toy store. It has about as much resonance with conservative Muslims in other countries as caliphal Baghdad did to the old guard in Mecca and Madina. Shaykh Hamad carved out a role as a mediator, to the point of allowing the Taliban to set up an office in Doha. All the Gulf States, of course, are afraid of Iran’s export of shi’a views, since this might encourage the shi’a minorities to rebel against their shaykhly overlords. No country in the region is more fearful of its large and boisterous neighbor than the tiny island of Bahrain, which has felt the wind of the Arab Spring and reacted swiftly to quell it. It is simplistic to think that religious difference is a cause of this fear. It is not about how you pray and which traditions of the Prophet Muhammad are reliable, but how to hold on to power by building huge mosques and nurturing sympathetic religious officials. The Egyptian cleric al-Qaradawi is not about to bad mouth the emir of Qatar any more than the shaykh of al-Azhar will repudiate the Egyptian military. The nonsensical notion that there is no separation of church and state in Islam is laughable to any historian of the region. There is always a competing set of interests that more often than not pits the rulers against the devout. It is not that the state is the church, but the state controls the church and not the other way around. The Islamic Republic of Iran is no exception, which is why it is so feared by other Muslim states in the region.
So where will the next coup attempt be? Stay tuned; bad weeks come along all the time and not just in the spring.