Courtney Freer, research officer at LSE Middle East Centre:
In the post-Arab Spring Middle East, regional blocs have increasingly coalesced around ideological poles, rather than purely strategic interests, perhaps as a consequence of perceived American retreat as the regional hegemon. The rise of Islamist groups over the course of 2011-2012 has also had a considerable impact on foreign policy objectives, especially since Islamist agendas like that of the Muslim Brotherhood have transnational roots. Although the present era is by no means the first instance in which foreign policy has been used to promote ideology, this practice seems to have accelerated with the isolation of Iran, fears of a Shi‘i controlled Iraq, and the onset of the Gulf crisis. Further, the American retreat from the region, whether perceived or genuine, has left more space for regional powers to come to the fore, with Saudi Arabia intensely focused on spreading its sphere of influence.
This recent focus on ideology, however, does not completely eliminate political pragmatism in the foreign policy realm. Indeed, we have seen shifting alliances depending on issue. For instance, enhanced relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel reflect shifting ideological concerns, with the Iranian threat considered more serious than the Israeli. Further, in light of the GCC crisis, states like Qatar and Turkey, traditionally understood to be driven by Islamist ideology, have become friendlier with Iran due to similar understandings of the regional balance of power. Personality-driven foreign policy of the type found in the Gulf states is particularly flexible, as demonstrated by the variety of stances taken on by countries at different times or even by a single country over time depending on political priorities.
While some analysts insist that regional events have affected domestic policies, I would posit that the inverse is true, with regional rivalries having played a relatively limited role compared to domestic political environments, especially when it comes to the treatment of Islamists. Indeed, it is no coincidence that those states most vehemently opposed to political Islam are the same ones in which Islamist movements were allied with political reform movements–Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Bahrain, the fourth member of the quartet isolating Qatar for its ties with Islamist groups, is an anomaly, since most opposition in that country comes from Shiite segments of the population for whom Brotherhood ideology is irrelevant, and since Bahrain is geopolitically too dependent on Saudi Arabia to risk diverging when it comes to Islamists.
Events like the coup in Egypt in 2013, the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, and talks of a unity government in Palestine can be considered part of a broader move towards the renunciation of political Islam on a regional level, yet it remains unclear how much support they have at a grassroots level. The Palestinian unity talks have more of an international angle, since a unity government would aid reconciliation efforts backed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States.
In my view, neither Islamist nor secularist forces are likely to meaningfully alter their priorities drastically in the face of new regional blocs. The trend of increased cooperation across ideological lines in the foreign policy sphere is likely to continue to emerge at the domestic level, wherein the tempering of Islamist agendas has helped unite cross-ideological opposition movements agitating for domestic political reform. As domestic security environments become increasingly restrictive, this cross-ideological cooperation becomes more likely, as we have seen most recently in Jordan.
Accordingly, I believe that Muslim Brotherhood affiliates throughout the Middle East, still the most relevant Islamist groups in the region, will continue to focus on their individual national environments, as these are the areas in which they are mostly likely able to effect change. Public renunciation of formal ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, as affiliated groups in Morocco and Tunisia have done, does not mean that such organizations do not continue to represent the ideas or political goals supported by the Muslim Brotherhood–particularly the Islamization of society. Even as the president of Bahrain’s Muslim Brotherhood tried to distance his organization from the central Brotherhood, he admitted that “it is the ideology we follow.” Islamist ideology of the type promoted by the Brotherhood thus remains influential, with members of the group in parliament in eight states of the Middle East, though the transnational structure affiliated with it has been on the decline for decades.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia under Mohammed bin Salman is very self-consciously focused on promoting so-called “moderate Islam” to stem the tide of international terrorism, with the United Arab Emirates similarly oriented. These policies, as I noted above, concern domestic policy more than regional dynamics, as they seek to separate religion and politics, and will continue to allow for the crackdown on potential sources of dissent. On the regional level, such a policy also allows for the continued isolation of Iran as a theocracy yet excuses greater cooperation with Israel.
And yet, the future of Islamist movements does not depend on regional events, as we have seen with the ebb and flow of Islamist movements in the past. In the face of regional, and even domestic threat, they move, go underground, and, ultimately, adjust, depending on domestic circumstance. While the brand itself may suffer, at least in the short to medium term, its ideology is not likely to become less important in the long term.
Those states in the region that have banned the Muslim Brotherhood, yet are not facing internal crisis (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates) will continue to link the movement, by virtue of its initially transnational aims, to terrorist organizations, which will also give them a wider remit to shut down other types of domestically powerful Islamist movements. In those states undergoing severe internal conflict (Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen), Muslim Brotherhood affiliates will continue to play a role in reconstruction yet they are more likely to be pulled into the violence, as are many non-Islamist actors in these states.
States in which openly Brotherhood-linked groups continue to participate in parliamentary elections (Algeria, Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, and Kuwait) will likely continue to afford these organizations freedom to do so, provided they do not contest a plurality of seats in parliament or become too closely linked to other elements of broader political opposition. The more crackdown results, the more likely cross-ideological coalitions will form and strengthen.
Ultimately, the localization of Islamist movements is likely to continue, making it more difficult for regional powers to speak about the transnational power of Islamism. As Islamist groups come to resemble political parties more than Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the moderate Islam approach may require greater tolerance of these groups in domestic and foreign policy contexts.