On March 11, a little-noticed lawsuit will resume in the Kuwaiti courts to disband the Muslim Brotherhood’s local charity arm, the Social Reform Society. Al Eslah, as it is known, is accused of mixing aid with politics — at home as well as in projects abroad, such as in Egypt. The case itself is unlikely to achieve its objective and will likely linger in the courts for months. But it is a telling example of the increasingly tense debate in Gulf states over the Muslim Brotherhood’s place in politics.
After three years of escalating animosity, Saudi Arabia made its own view clear over the weekend, adding the Muslim Brotherhood to its official list of terrorist organizations and laying out strict prohibitions against participation and support. The moves followed a decision, together with the UAE and Bahrain, to withdraw ambassadors from Qatar March 6 over anger at Doha’s support for political Islam.
But Riyadh’s new rules don’t just mark the end of the organization’s legal presence in the kingdom. They also raise questions about the future of the Brotherhood in smaller Gulf states such as Kuwait and Bahrain, where offshoots operate openly as registered political and social groups.
The Saudi moves put “pressure on other states that have Muslim Brotherhood adherents, asking them to decree that the group is a terrorist organization,” said Theodore Karasik in an interview with Al-Monitor. Karasik is the director of research at the INEGMA think tank in Dubai. “Kuwait, Jordan, Syria — even in the UK and France you have adherents to this strain of thought. … There may be a real push by the southern Gulf states to create a Muslim Brotherhood-free security environment.”
In Kuwait, such pressure has put Islamists on the defensive. Kuwait’s government has called Saudi Arabia’s labeling of the group an “internal affair.” Still, popular pressure, regional norms and increased security could squeeze Al Eslah as well as the group’s political wing, the Islamic Constitutional Movement (ICM). More fundamentally, anti-Brotherhood sentiment is raising questions of whether there is a future for its movement in the Gulf political space.
The Saudi decision “will have effects across the region,” said Mohammed Al Dallal, a member of ICM and a lawyer involved in defending Al Eslah in the active lawsuit. In addition to pulling its ambassador from Qatar, Al Dallal told Al-Monitor, Riyadh aims “to make pressure on the Muslim Brotherhood and squeeze their activities — try to eliminate their rule in the region.”
Riyadh’s concerns — as well as those of Abu Dhabi and Manama — are the Muslim Brotherhood’s politics, which they see as an existential threat to their own. Those fears have grown since the Arab Spring toppled regimes in Tunis, Tripoli, Cairo and Sanaa. Islamist governments won elections in Tunisia and Egypt, and the Muslim Brotherhood dominated the original formations of the Syrian opposition in exile.
But over the last year, the group has suffered heavy losses regionally — a fact that may help explain the timing of Saudi Arabia’s decision, said Joseph A. Kechichian, senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh. He told Al-Monitor, “The Muslim Brotherhood has really taken a beating in Egypt. Gulf states want to make sure that in Syria, there is no chance that they will come to power. Better to nip in the bud before the hydra gets overwhelming.”
Half a century ago, members of the Muslim Brotherhood came to the Gulf allied with the ruling monarchies against a different threat: Arab nationalism in Egypt. Many of those who came drew from the educated classes of Cairo and naturally gravitated to education in the Gulf as well. Ministries of Education from Kuwait to Bahrain Saudi Arabia grew and modernized drawing on their expertise.
“Because they were more educated, they became the pillars of the education system,” said Mohammed Al Rumaihi, a sociologist at Kuwait University, in an interview.
In Kuwait, the Muslim Brotherhood has integrated into other parts of the state as well. Just one part of the country’s diverse political landscape, members of ICM have been elected to parliament and served in the government. They are widely believed to hold sway with the Ministry of Awqaf (Islamic endowment) and Islamic Affairs. But they have never reached a majority or even a plurality — a fact that has required them to be pragmatic about working with other political groups.
New regional pressures, however, have slowly begun to erode that dynamic. Growing numbers of newspaper columns, social media feeds and television programs now denounce the alleged aims of the Brotherhood. Public sentiment has inclined toward ridding education and other fields of the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence.
“Lately, [people] discovered that their agenda is almost the same as in Egypt, so I think in Kuwait, they are gradually moving against them,” said Al Rumaihi.
Rumors have circulated, for example, that certain members have taken payments from Qatar or others to work against the interests of the state. “In the past two days, a forged document dated January 2013 proliferated, claiming that I had received a sum from a Qatari official,” wrote former parliament member Mubarak Fahad Duwaila in Al Qabas March 10. He denies the allegation, and said he had won a court case against the original publisher of the document, proving its falsehood.
The lawsuit against Al Eslah is another example of what Al Dallal said is taking advantage of the circumstances and turmoil in the region. In addition to the broad political pressure on the Brotherhood, some individuals from among Kuwait’s Islamists have come under scrutiny for supporting more extreme elements among the Syrian opposition. Charities such as Al Eslah have not been implicated, but by association, their reputations have suffered.
Al Eslah and ICM have reacted to growing criticism by going out of their way to make the case that they are patriots. For Kuwait’s recent National Day, Al Eslah wrote a song and produced a special issue of its magazine. A statement from the organization praised the country’s emir and government, congratulating them on the day.
“Those who believe in the ideas and principles [of the Muslim Brotherhood] in the Gulf are not against the regime,” said Al Dallal. For now, he is confident that Kuwait’s constitution — the most democratic in the Gulf — will protect the group’s operations. Crucially, Kuwait is also the only country not to have ratified the Gulf Security Agreement, the document that Qatar was alleged by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain not to have complied with. If and when that does happen, it could limit Kuwait’s ability to shield groups like the Brotherhood from broader regional trends.
“Kuwait is a unique country when it comes to opposition groups; they have experience to deal with these guys,” said Kechichian. “Within the parliamentary setup, the Islamists have never been able to gain the upper hand against the government, so Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain are at ease with Kuwait, because it can handle the Islamists. The same cannot be said about Qatar.”
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