“The Muslim Brotherhood is not going anywhere” – Interview with Sultan Al Qassemi, Part 1

International Law

By Danny BürkliSultan Al Qassemi is a prominent Arab voice on Twitter and a prolific commentator on current affairs in the Middle East. We sat down with Sultan to talk about the recent events in Egypt (part one) and the politics of democratization in the Gulf states (part two).

foraus: Egyptian President Morsi was ousted in July. Was this a coup?

Sultan Al Qassemi: It was a popularly backed coup. It satisfies all the requirements to be labeled a coup, but there was a significant popular push for it. I think that the U.S. damaged their credibility by not having labeled it a coup.

foraus: The mediation efforts have failed earlier this week. What will happen now?

Al Qassemi: There are only two scenarios: both sides launch mediation efforts, either before or after a blood bath. These really are the options you have. Ultimately, you will have to go through the negotiations and mediation, because the Muslim Brotherhood are not going anywhere. Even if you disperse them through a blood bath and send them off, they will congregate somewhere else. As the spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood said, “This is an organisation built for 86 years under oppressive regimes. That is the nature of the organisation, that is our comfort zone. They just pushed us back into it.” The question really is, will there be mediation before or after loss of life, but there will be mediation. There’s no other way out of it.

foraus: What is the SCAF’s [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] plan at this point?

Al Qassemi: They want to sideline the Muslim Brotherhood and hold elections as soon as possible. They don’t want to be in power. That’s why they put this veneer on with a civilian president who seems to be powerless, since people pay more attention to the military commander. I think that they want out of this as soon as possible. They want at least to be perceived to be out of power. That’s their number one priority. They will never completely exit the political scene though; they have not exited the political scene since 1952.

It is very likely that it will take another decade or two for the army to be sidelined. When Morsi tried sidelining them over the last year, they felt threatened. He tried to do what Erdogan did, but Erdogan did so 80 years after the establishment of the Turkish Republic. It was a process that took years, negotiations and finding allies within the army. But the Muslim Brotherhood, who are already probably the most despised group in Egypt, tried to pull the rug out from under the cart of the military and the military would not have it.

foraus: What is your assessment of the Obama administration’s role in this?

Al Qassemi: This is really part of the continuous “nonsuccesses” of Obama who has a dismal foreign policy record. His credibility in the region is wafer thin. In the case of Egypt he has succeeded in angering both the liberals and the Islamists. It really isn’t the case that if both are angry with you, then you’re right because both are angry with you for legitimate reasons. He’s a very ineffective president in the Middle East. This huge generational shift is taking place under his watch and he was not only unprepared for it, but also not prepared to deal with it to protect the interests of his own citizens.

foraus: What should he have done then?

Al Qassemi: Initially Obama, for example, could have engaged with the Brotherhood in a stronger way to force them to bring in the liberals. They could have avoided this coup. They could have said, “We will stop aid unless you include liberals and seculars in your government. We will stop aid unless you reconsider.” They could have put pressure on the Qataris during those days, asking them not to support the Muslim Brotherhood too much unless they reform. The Americans didn’t and that’s why you had a coup. Definitely, it’s a step back, even though I’m not too keen on the government run by the Brotherhood. But it is a step back that rather than having them voted out of office, they had them kicked out and made them look like victims. It establishes a precedent that when a large number of people come out in the street, they can topple a democratically elected leader.

I think the Gulf States – the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the ones who support the new government – should put pressure on this government to hold elections as soon as possible because things won’t calm down unless there are elections. They have the leverage now. Between them they gave Egypt US$12 billion. Until there are elections, Morsi is still the last, and the only, democratically elected leader. Additionally, the longer they wait, the more people will begin to forget how miserable life was under the Muslim Brotherhood and they’ll start saying, “Well, life is miserable under the Army-backed regime as well.” They might change their minds, once again, and vote for the Brotherhood.

…part two of the interview will follow

Sultan Al Qassemi (@SultanAlQassemi) is a prominent commentator on Arab affairs and a masterful Twitter user. He is also the founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation and a non-resident fellow at the Dubai School of Government. Sultan lives in the United Arab Emirates.

Danny Bürkli (@dannybuerkli) is a recent graduate of Stanford’s International Policy Program and part of foraus’ Peace and Security working group.