Last year the Muslim Brotherhood — an organization viewed with much skepticism both inside and outside Egypt, and especially in some Gulf quarters — ascended to power, first through Parliament and then the presidency.
In the spring of 2012, I decided to take a leap of faith, open a channel of communication and visit the organization to preserve the then-strong relations between Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
Following a number of phone calls, private Twitter messages and emails, I ended up meeting “the Engineer,” the second-most powerful person in the organization. Khairat al-Shater, a Brotherhood veteran who spent 12 years in Hosni Mubarak’s jails, welcomed me into his office.
During a frank and detailed conversation, he told me that the Brotherhood does not interfere in other countries’ affairs, and that they “send the most explicit assurances to the Gulf and the UAE” regarding their security (a statement since repeated publicly numerous times). The rest of the conversation was off the record; however, the messages of assurances were repeated over and over.
I left feeling genuinely assured, that is, until I realized that the Brotherhood doesn’t really have a terrific record in keeping its word.
Over the past year, relations between Egypt’s Brotherhood and the UAE have gone from bad to worse, with no end in sight. Irresponsible statements from this or that figure have only exacerbated the situation.
And yet I maintained faith that decade-old relations could be salvaged despite the rapid deterioration on the diplomatic front. I believed that before long, the political novices within the Brotherhood would realize that prioritizing the development of their own country instead of pursuing clandestine regional goals was the right path to take.
On the first day of this year, an official source told a Sharjah-based newspaper that, after years of monitoring, the UAE had uncovered an alleged underground Brotherhood cell operating in the country.
Immediately, the all-powerful Brotherhood Guidance Bureau asked the president to intervene. President Mohamed Morsy wasted no time in dispatching senior members to the UAE, along with Egypt’s intelligence chief, to “discuss the circumstances surrounding the recent arrests,” carrying a letter from Morsy to his UAE counterpart.
This sudden surge in interest in the alleged UAE Brotherhood cell becomes all the more intriguing when one considers similar circumstances that didn’t register on the Brotherhood government radar. For instance, as of last November, there were 1,401 Egyptians in Saudi jails, including Egyptian lawyer Ahmed al-Gizawy, as well as more than 350 Egyptians serving time in UAE jails, for which no similar top-level delegation was dispatched.
One Egyptian researcher noted that there is a problem with “the amount of attention the Egyptian state authorities are giving to those specific detainees.” Such a discrepancy in treatment prompted some to label Brotherhood members as first-class citizens of Egypt.
That some of the arrested individuals are Brotherhood members is not in dispute following the admission of Mahmoud Ghozlan, a Brotherhood spokesperson, nor is it the reason these individuals were detained.
Back in October, the UAE’s foreign minister alluded to what appeared to be a buildup of evidence against the clandestine cell, saying, “The Muslim Brotherhood’s thinking does not recognize borders or sovereignty of nations. So it is not unusual that the international Brotherhood organization works to make inroads upon sovereignty and the laws of other countries.”
Should it be proved that this alleged cell is indeed a clandestine operation, this would go against all the promises and assurances that Shater gave me personally.
While the UAE seems adamant that a trial on what it regards as a breach of sovereignty be held in the country, many on both sides remain hopeful that a swift solution be found to deal with this alarming spiraling in relations between Cairo and Abu Dhabi. However, as far as the UAE is concerned, the onus remains on the Brotherhood to demonstrate that its verbal assurances are translated onto the ground without delay.
Unlike other states in the region, the UAE has never interfered in Egypt’s internal affairs. Despite hosting several media zones, it has not dedicated a 24-hour, ad-free news channel to propagate a certain point of view to Egyptians, or backed a certain political party against others.
The UAE has also been a loyal friend to Egypt, hosting more than 300,000 dedicated Egyptians for decades, including numerous Brotherhood members who have prospered due to their hard work and the welcoming commercial climate in the country.
As I have previously argued, it is perhaps the case that the Brotherhood’s regional clandestine activities are being carried out by overzealous second- and third-tier members, and that the very top Brotherhood leaders — including the ones I have met — are not aware of such activities, or haven’t explicitly condoned them.
In that case, I would remind the esteemed senior Brotherhood leadership of the Arabic proverb: If you were aware, then it is a disaster, and if you were unaware, then the disaster is greater.
Sultan al-Qassemi is a commentator on Arab affairs based in the United Arab Emirates.
This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.