The last year has not been kind to the forces of political Islam. Where before they seemed to be positioned to change the face of governance, for better or for worse, across the Arab World, they are now routinely suppressed by security forces, prosecuted as terrorists, and generally pushed out of the legitimate political sphere throughout the region. This shift has been led and largely driven by a close working partnership among three “moderate” Arab states – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Egypt. Working together, they have systematically disrupted and persecuted the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, its counterparts elsewhere, and countless other similar groups throughout the region, using a variety of tactics and coordinated actions. These actions range from dubious legal proceedings and propaganda to outright physical intimidation and military action.
Interestingly, we’ve seen this movie before. The partnership struck by Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Cairo against Islamist groups bears a strong resemblance to the Holy Alliance, a loose coalition of European monarchies formed in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars to stifle and suppress democratic uprisings throughout the region. Like the actions of the “moderate” Arab camp today, the Holy Alliance was born out of chaos, a fear of losing control, and, most of all, the overriding necessity of regime survival. The parallels between the two are many, and do not bode well for the future of the Middle East.
Striving for Stasis
The Holy Alliance came into being after a geopolitical earthquake just as disruptive in its time as the Arab Spring – the Napoleonic Wars. Driven by an explosive mixture of republican rhetoric and military genius, imperial France under Napoleon Bonaparte shook Europe to its foundations, carving out a Continent-spanning empire before its eventual defeat. The experience left many of the victorious powers very concerned about the potential of further democratic outbreaks to unleash such destructive forces again, forces that they might be unable to contain a second time. This concern led Czarist Russia, Hapsburg Austria, and Prussia to form a Holy Alliance with the explicit mission of suppressing republicanism and secularism throughout Europe.
The Alliance members worked closely to respond to a number of developments over its lifetime, restricting academic freedom and political discussion in the German principalities, brutally crushing democratic and nationalist revolutions throughout Europe during the 1848 Springtime of Nations, and generally acting to ensure the survival and continued influence of the great empires. They marshaled all the forces at their disposal in their efforts to maintain the status quo, using traditional diplomacy, spying and subversion of nascent democratic movements, and military action as they deemed necessary. For a time, their efforts met with success, keeping disintegrative forces at bay at home and abroad. However, in victory they sowed the seeds of their own defeat. The democratic desires of people throughout Europe could not be denied forever, and the international order the Holy Alliance was formed to preserve eventually crumbled. In the light of perfect hindsight, the attempts by Russia, Prussia, and Austria to preserve the old ways can be seen for what they were – a dead end.
A New Alliance
Two centuries later, a similar pattern is playing out in the Arab World. The chaos and temporary Islamist ascendency sparked by the Arab Spring revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, and Libya clearly was very concerning to leaders in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. While their countries remained untouched by large-scale protests or political change, they perceived in the rise of popular Islamist forces a direct threat to the legitimacy and stability of their rule. With the return to power of the Egyptian military and the Mubarak-era “deep state” under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the corresponding weakness of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, proponents of the old Middle Eastern system saw their time to strike.
Like the actions of the “moderate” Arab camp today, the Holy Alliance was born out of chaos, a fear of losing control, and, most of all, the overriding necessity of regime survival.
Within days, it became clear that a war had been declared against Islamist forces throughout the region. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi demonstrated their commitment to a secularist, authoritarian restoration in Cairo immediately after the fall of the Morsi government, pouring in $8 billion in combined aid. Simultaneously, leaders and diplomats from both states went on the offensive worldwide to soften any international reaction against Egypt’s new leaders and ensure that security forces had a free hand to deal with protesting Muslim Brothers and their supporters. The new Holy Alliance was born.
Since then, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE have coordinated closely on measures to combat their mutual Islamist foes. Within Egypt, the government has arrested Brotherhood members and alleged supporters en masse, sentenced hundreds to life in prison or death, and ensured that the top leaders of the movement are unable to move and act freely. Cairo and Riyadh have coordinated in declaring the Brotherhood a terrorist organization, and Egypt recently went so far as to legally dissolve the Brotherhood’s political wing, in effect banning it from the public sphere. In every case, an action by one Alliance member has been accompanied by supportive statements from the other two, providing mutual reinforcement and political cover.
With a measure of internal security achieved and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood effectively removed from the political scene, the members of the new Holy Alliance, like their counterparts in post-Napoleonic Europe, have turned their attention to events elsewhere in the region. Within the last year, Alliance countries have made their influence felt region-wide. They have stepped up their aid to relatively moderate rebel elements in Syria, worked to support trusted political groups in Lebanon, and intervened with increasing boldness and force in the widening civil war in Libya. In the most recent example of such actions, the UAE and Egypt worked together to launch multiple airstrikes on Islamist forces battling a secular militia in Tripoli, making a strong statement of their intentions and willingness to act. Further such actions seem certain, given the combined resources and motivation of the three countries.
The Devil We Know
The new Holy Alliance is here to stay for the foreseeable future. In many ways, policymakers in the U.S. have already adjusted to its stance, dropping earlier objections to the heavy-handed treatment of the Muslim Brotherhood by the Egyptian military and continued foreign aid to Cairo. They have once again grown comfortable with the idea of a Middle East monitored and stabilized by wealthy and activist authoritarian client states, seeing this as vastly preferable to any likely alternatives.
In the short term, such a view of the Alliance-led backlash has some merit. U.S. foreign policy and national security policy have to function in the here and now, and a relatively pliant and orderly Middle East avoids many a headache inside the Beltway. Moreover, the unprecedented success of the Islamic State in carving out and holding a state-sized swath of territory in Syria and Iraq demonstrates the danger posed by the more virulent and radical forms of political Islam. The stability sought by Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Cairo is in many ways a necessity. However, concerned onlookers and American leaders should not allow short-term calculations to completely drive events. Like the efforts of the original Holy Alliance, this campaign of relentless suppression and persecution of groups deemed a threat to regional stability carries the seeds of its own failure.
The anti-Islamist campaign being conducted by Cairo, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi can shove popular energies and Islamist groups into a box, but it cannot keep that box closed forever .If the Saudi, Egyptian, and Emirati governments continue on their current trajectory, they will gain short-term stability at the cost of long-term regional paralysis and political ferment. All the long-term issues that led to the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011 – stalled economies, predatory states, and angry populations, and many more – will remain fixtures of the regional landscape. An energetic pursuit of repression and political control by the Alliance will maintain a façade of normality for a time, and populations where enforced stability reigns will be unwilling to risk rocking the boat. But the day of reckoning will inevitably come. When it arrives, the results will likely play out on an even grander scale and in a more destructive fashion than in the 2011 uprisings.
Doomed to Repeat?
Looking to the future, the question must be asked: can this cycle be broken? Can the powerful vested interests in the United States and the Middle East that bias the discussion in favor of stability at the cost of sustainability be overcome? It certainly will not be easy. Each of the partners in the new Holy Alliance have powerful and existential motivations for the course they have set, and will not deviate from it lightly. However, there are flickers of hope. Not every intervention undertaken in the name of fighting Islamist forces is necessarily negative in impact. Egypt’s involvement in the reunification of Lebanon’s Dar el-Fatwa institution and the selection of its new Mufti demonstrates a softer touch, aimed more at structuring the terms of the conversation rather than silencing one of the voices entirely. If such “light touch” interventions can be emphasized and made the norm, the long-term viability of the region will be enhanced. In addition, there are still opportunities for more moderate Islamist groups in Tunisia and Jordan to showcase the kind of societal integration that the Middle East sorely needs. Absent such admittedly long-shot eventualities, however, the future of the region looks grim.
Daniel Lakin is an analyst of Middle Eastern security and international affairs, focusing on the changing roles of Turkey, Iran, and the United States in the region.