Foreign assistance in the form of media advice, political training and financial aid is proving to be “a noticeable factor in the reshaping of the Middle East,” writes Ahmad Jamil Azem, a Cambridge University analyst.
But it’s not the kind of democracy assistance you may be thinking of.
It is the “evolving and deepening relationship” between Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood that is reforming the region’s political contours, Azem notes.
While $60 million in democracy assistance caused a crisis in US-Egyptian relations, prompting accusations of interference in Egypt’s domestic affairs, financial assistance to the region’s Islamist groups, estimated by one analyst at $1 billion, has barely caused a ripple.
The liberal Egyptian politician Amr Hamzawy recently complained that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states are funding the Muslim Brotherhood, while other observers have highlighted Qatar’s support for former jihadists in Libya and for Islamist groups across the region. Gulf-based funding for the Brotherhood, ultraconservative Salafists and other Islamist groups reportedly far exceeds international assistance to democratic actors, and while Islamists routinely attend Western-funded training and avail themselves of other forms of democracy assistance, the Islamists’ largely undisclosed assistance is distributed on strictly sectarian lines.
Qatar is providing lavish funding and assistance, largely through a network of key individuals that has striking parallels with the more transparent world of democracy assistance. The Qatari-Islamist nexus even boats its own Gene Sharp in the shape of Hisham Mursi who teaches non-violent protest tactics at his Doha-based Academy of Change.
The activist network includes Jasim Sultan (right) whose Al Nahdah (Awakening) Project, which provides training and publications on political activism. Sultan advised Egypt’s Islamists “to change their discourse and move towards ‘partnership thought’ instead of concentrating on ‘infiltrating the society to control it,” writes Azem, who notes that “Sultan is active in training Islamists in Egypt and other countries on how to function within the institutions of democracy.”
Sultan is known as an Islamist revisionist or modernist who has questioned the Brotherhood’s traditional verities and dogmatic slogans like “Islam is the solution.”
“When other people hear us saying ‘Islam is the answer…’ they have the right to ask: ‘If Islam is the answer, then what is its answer to the failure of the organizations that were founded by ‘Islamists’,” he has argued.
“They have a right to ask: ‘If Islam is the answer, then why is there so much failure in Muslim societies where Muslims are making concerted efforts? Doesn’t Islam have an answer? Then what is that answer?’’
Sultan half-heartedly supported Western intervention in Libya but takes a standard conspiratorial line on democracy assistance from Western sources.
“I think people accept foreign help when their very existence is at stake,” he told Al-Jamaa Al-Islamiya, the Egyptian Islamist group. “Human beings when faced by a multiple evils usually choose the lesser one until they get better chance reach a better position to make total change.”
But democracy assistance only demonstrates that the West has “come to a conclusion that it is no longer possible to continue controlling the Arab world using the old means, so they are coming up with smart ways to deal with Arab communities by focusing on the needs of these societies instead of imposing certain policies on them.”
Another key figure in the network is Rafiq Abdulsalaam, formerly the head of Research and Studies in Doha’s Al Jazeera Centre. The author of the United States of America: Between Hard and Soft Power, Abdulsalaam is Tunisia’s foreign minister and son-in-law of Rashid Al Ghanouchi, the head of Ennahda, the country’s leading Islamist party.
His appointment as minister of foreign affairs was widely seen “as a result of Qatari interference” in Tunisian politics, writes Anna Mahjar-Barducci.
“Now the emirate has pledged Tunisia $500 million to help shore up its faltering economy. Some commentators welcomed this move, saying that Tunisia is collapsing and desperately needs the money,” she notes. “But others harshly denounced it, saying it would be more helpful if Qatar simply extradited Bin Ali’s son-in-law, Sakhr el-Materi, who is suspected of plundering $5 billion from the Tunisian treasury – 10 times more than the sum Qatar has pledged – and who has found refuge in that country.”
Libya’s Ali Sallabi, who has been described as the “chief architect of Libya’s most likely next government,” is another key protagonist in the Qatari-funded network, says Azem.
“In the emerging post-Qaddafi Libya, the most influential politician may well be Ali Sallabi,” the New York Times reports. But that’s not a prospect that appeals to at least one of his former associates:
Fathi Ben Issa, a former Etilaf member who became an early representative on the Tripoli council, quit his position after learning that the Muslim Brotherhood members who dominate that body wanted to ban theater, cinema and arts like sculpture of the human form. “They were like the Taliban,” he said. “We didn’t get rid of Qaddafi to replace him with such people.” The final straw, he said, came when Etilaf began circulating a proposed fatwa, or decree, to bar women from driving.
Referring to Mr. Sallabi, Mr. Ben Issa, who said he has received death threats since breaking with the Islamists, retorted: “He is just hiding his intentions. He says one thing to the BBC and another to Al Jazeera. If you believe him, then you don’t know the Muslim Brothers.”
Perhaps the single most influential individual in the Qatari-Ikhwan nexus is Yusif Al Qaradawi, head of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, and host of a popular Al Jazeera TV show on Islamic laws and principles.
“One striking example of his influence,” says Azem, is a recent photograph (right) with Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minster of Hamas (the Palestinian arm of the Brotherhood) in Gaza, in which Haniyeh is “bowing and kissing Al Qaradawi’s hand in a show of respect.”
Qatar’s generous support for the Brotherhood’s various national wings and operations isn’t entirely disinterested, writes Azem:
First, the relationship ensures that Islamists will not criticise Qatari government policies or be active there. Second, as Islamists head towards power in several countries, Qataris are in position to expect special economic and political treatment in each. Third, Qatar will be well-positioned to mediate between Islamists and their rivals, and also between Islamists in general and the West. The Afghan Taliban, for example, are now expected to open an office in Qatar. Such developments offer Qatar greater international influence.
Qatar isn’t the only source of largesse, of course.
The region’s Salafi parties have proven to be “formidable,” analyst William McCants notes in a new Brookings report, in part because they have drawn support from “charitable institutions with broad geographical reach, popular satellite channels, and deep pockets that are allegedly filled with Gulf petrodollars (estimated by one analyst at $1 billion).”
The Kuwait-based Revival of Islamic Heritage Society is a “particularly influential source of largesse,” he writes in The Lesser of Two Evils: The Salafi Turn to Politics in Egypt.
“The society was the subject of some controversy recently, McCants notes, “when news reports revealed that it had donated $19 million to Ansar al-Sunna, the Egyptian Salafi institution mentioned above that has strong ties to the Salafi Call. (Critics charged that foreigners were influencing the Egyptian elections.)”
It seems that democracy assistance practitioners’ stress on non-partisan support for democratic processes rather than outcomes has a way to go before it becomes the accepted norm.