Hamas this morning denied claims that its Political Bureau chief, Khaled Mashaal, was being expelled from longtime ally Qatar. The initial report came just days after seven leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood were expelled from the country, having sought refuge from an Egyptian government crackdown.
That move naturally lead to speculation that Qatar might take a similar move against Hamas, which is the Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood, but a Hamas spokesman dismissed reports of Mashaal’s impending departure as mere attempts to “sow tension and confusion”. For the time being at least, Mashaal looks set to remain in Doha.
Yet according to Professor Hillel Frisch of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA) – an expert on political Islam and particularly the Muslim Brotherhood – he may not be there for much longer.
Qatar’s decision to give the Muslim Brotherhood the boot “does not bode well at all” for Hamas, he says, and adds that it’s only a matter of time before Mashaal follows suit – whether he is expelled outright or simply pressured into moving. Worse still for Hamas, when that break in relations does occur the terrorist group can expect to see its pool of funding shrink considerably.
On the surface, Doha’s sudden rejection of the Brotherhood is surprising, given that the Qatari government has long been the Islamist movement’s top financial sponsor and political supporter. Even Qatar-based Al Jazeera TV is widely seen in the Arab world as a mouthpiece for the Brotherhood – an association which led it to be banned in Sisi’s Egypt.
So what lies behind this apparent about-turn?
Arab Spring ‘counter-revolution’
Frisch describes the current crackdown on the Brotherhood across the Middle East as part of a “counter-revolution” by regional powers in reaction to the series of Arab uprisings once optimistically termed the “Arab Spring”, likening it to the way in which European powers reacted to the 19th Century French Revolution. Combating the Muslim Brotherhood – “a popular movement which won elections in Egypt, the major Arab state” – is the main test for counter-revolutionary Arab governments, as it is a prime example of the way in which political Islam has ridden the waves of revolutionary fervor in the region to challenge existing regimes.
As such, recent years have seen the formation of an anti-Brotherhood alliance including nearly all of the major Arab states in the region, from secular Egypt to Wahhabi Saudi Arabia. Such counter-revolutionary efforts throughout history have seen various levels of success, but “in this case it’s been very successful so far,” he notes, citing the overthrow of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt and the general decline of the Islamist movement’s fortunes since then.
Until now only one “recalcitrant actor” refused to join that counter-revolutionary coalition: Qatar.
It is crucial to understand why Qatar’s ruling family – hardly a band of revolutionary religious zealots – chose to back the Brotherhood in the first place. Small in size and population, the gulf peninsula state has sought to project power and punch well above its weight internationally by utilizing its seemingly endless oil revenue to buy friends and influence. The Brotherhood, which until recently was clearly on the ascent and had (and still has) a presence in most Arab countries, seemed like the perfect proxy for power-projection. Indeed, apart from backing the Egyptian branch, Qatari money helped fund Muslim Brotherhood-linked rebel groups in Syria – although those groups too have recently seen their fortunes wane – and of course Hamas.
And then there is Doha’s longstanding rivalry with the Saudis in particular. Qatar’s attempts to assert itself in the face of its much larger and militarily superior neighbor was already evident in its decision to pursue warm relations with Iran, in defiance of Riyadh and other Arab states. So it came as no surprise that “when the Saudis decided to suppress the Brotherhood, Qatar decided to support them,” Frisch says.
Nevertheless, growing pressure on Qatar appears to have finally encouraged its relatively new leader, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, to jettison the Brotherhood.
While threats of financial sanctions would hardly have ruffled the oil-rich state, Frisch suggests a number of other ways in which Arab states might have applied pressure. Apart from cutting diplomatic relations and starving Qatar of the international influence it craves – as has already begun after Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors to Doha – the Saudis and others could have threatened to expose Qatari connections to global terrorism, endangering relations with the west, he speculates.
In the face of such pressure, it is not difficult to imagine why al-Thani – who has already previously indicated his desire to scale back from his father’s aggressive foreign policy anyway – finally yielded.
“Qatar couldn’t care less about the Muslim Brotherhood, it means nothing to them… there is nothing sentimental in this,” just cold, hard realpolitik, Frisch insists.
“They are reassessing the strategic landscape… They realize that, particularly since the recent (ISIS) beheadings, there is a growing international sentiment against Islamism, political Islam, and they don’t want to find themselves on the wrong side,” he adds.
Moreover, the Qataris may themselves be alarmed at the rapid gains made by Islamism in the region. Perhaps noting the Saudi experience of the early 2000’s, when the jihadis they themselves nurtured turned on them, al-Thani could understandably fear becoming the next victim of a Frankenstein’s monster of his own creation.
Down but not out
It is clear then that the growing public outcry over Qatar’s support for terrorism is having an impact, “but whether this is permanent remains to be seen,” Frisch cautions. The regime’s “divorce” from the Brotherhood may be genuine, but equally could just be a temporary ruse to allay pressure.
What’s more, even if its rejection by Qatar is final, “the Muslim Brotherhood is hardly finished.”
“It has a permanent constituency in the Arab world. You can’t simply wipe them out and I don’t think anyone believes that.”
But what about Hamas? While closely linked to the Brotherhood, could Mashaal’s group be spared due to its status as champions of the fight against Israel and the “Palestinian cause”?
That’s not likely, according to Frisch.
“I think it’s all part of the same thing. If Qatar moves away from supporting the Muslim Brotherhood it’s also going to move away from Hamas, for the simple reason that all the Arabs states will say: ‘If you want to be pro-Palestinian you can support the Palestinian Authority.’ There is an alternative.”
For both Hamas and the Brotherhood the most likely place to relocate to would be Turkey, he posits. “Turkey is basically the state that is closest to reflecting the Muslim Brotherhood values and ideology.”
Indeed, Turkey’s Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently declared he would welcome the exiled Muslim Brotherhood leadership with open arms. For Hamas, the move would be perhaps even likelier given that much of its leadership is already based in Turkey – including the notorious Salah Al-Aruri, who Israeli authorities say was involved in the kidnap and murder of three Israeli teens back in June.
It would of course be a blow to the prestige of the Brotherhood and Hamas in the eyes of their mostly Arab constituency to seek refuge in a non-Arab country such as Turkey – but far more significant would be the financial cost of relocation.
“Don’t forget that there’s one thing Turkey can’t do: Turkey can’t and won’t give big money. They don’t have the kind of money the Qataris have,” Frisch notes.
Moreover, Turkey’s banking system and status as a NATO member would make it harder to directly fund Hamas, a proscribed terrorist group in Europe, the US and much of the rest of the western world.
That would only add to the financial pressure on Hamas, which is already starved for funds after falling out with its former Iranian sponsors over the Syrian civil war.
There has of course been a partial rapprochement with Tehran, but there is no doubt that Hamas, and Mashaal, are looking increasingly isolated – and precisely at a time when funds are desperately needed to recover from an exhausting conflict with Israel.
In conclusion, says Frisch, while no killer blow, “this is all very bad news for Hamas, and good news for Israel.”