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Analysis: Some Gulf rulers wary of U.S. shifts on Islamists, Iran

By Andrew Hammond and Rania El Gamal
DUBAI | Wed Sep 5, 2012 10:35am EDT

(Reuters) – The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and its ideological affiliates in the Arab Spring uprisings has stoked fears among Gulf Arab governments that the United States may one day abandon its traditional allies as it warms up to Islamists.

While the ruling families in the Gulf are currently vital U.S. allies who buy large amounts of American military hardware and facilitate a significant U.S. military presence, some are apprehensive Washington may apply pressure on them to accommodate Islamists who could end up challenging their exclusive rule.

In a number of colorful online outbursts, Dubai’s outspoken police chief Dhahi Khalfan has warned of an “international plot” to overthrow Gulf systems of government with Western complicity. The Brotherhood, manipulated by the United States, is working to take over the Gulf by 2016, he said.

“Today the Americans are mobilizing the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab nation, for the benefit of America, not the Arabs,” he wrote on his Twitter account on Sunday. “There is an American plan that has been drawn up for the region.”

Though Khalfan insists his tweets are his personal views, analysts and diplomats say they reflect largely unspoken concerns among the United Arab Emirates’ ruling elite about the regional popularity of the Islamists and the possibility that the West will sympathize with them as political underdogs.

They also reflect fears among the region’s Sunni Muslim rulers that, despite being Sunni itself, the Brotherhood is soft on their arch enemy Shi’ite Iran. Egypt’s Islamist President Mohammed Mursi tried to dissipate such fears at a Tehran conference last week by condemning Iran’s ally Syria and urging attendees to back rebels trying to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.

Despite pockets of Western-style liberalism in cities like Dubai, most Gulf ruling elites seek to project an image of Islamic conservatism.

So the threat they see is not religious or social but political: the Brotherhood advocates playing by the rules of parliamentary politics as a path to government, threatening inherited rights to rule and state-backed clerical establishments.

An opposition movement that gains ground in Gulf states could perhaps find the U.S. administration newly disposed to speak out in its favor.

Such an opposition has already emerged in the UAE, where more than 50 Islamists linked to Brotherhood thinking have been arrested since late last year. So far Washington has kept mum.

“While the U.S. security umbrella protects the UAE against threats from Iran, Washington would be much more reluctant to support a widespread crackdown against a local opposition movement,” said analyst Ayham Kamel of the Eurasia Group.

“This is making the political leadership in the UAE much more nervous about domestic threats,” he said.

The Brotherhood also has potential to draw support from Gulf Arabs who may see their countries’ foreign policies as overly pro-Western and are concerned about the social influence of their large Asian and Western expatriate communities.

SEEKING U.S. REASSURANCE

Washington was initially hesitant to openly support the uprisings that toppled Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, partly because of concerns they could bring Islamists to power.

President Barack Obama’s administration has since overcome its reluctance, and has made extensive efforts to engage Egypt’s Brotherhood over the past year.

Analysts say Washington is simply pursuing realpolitik given the new power centers in the region.

“I don’t think the West is keen on having a bunch of Islamists coming to power in the Gulf anytime soon,” said Michael Stephens, researcher at the Royal United Services Institute based in Doha. “It’s more the case that Washington is working with who they can work with, because Islamists are in power and they have to be dealt with.”

U.S. officials said privately that they addressed the Gulf’s concerns last year after Mubarak fell and that subsequent conversations have not focused on the issue. They declined to go into specifics.

“Gulf governments realize both the United States and Iran will want to have relations with the new regimes,” said Ghanem Nuseibeh, senior analyst with Cornerstone Global. They just needed to be reassured that those regimes’ gain was not their loss, he said.

Diplomats said they were confident that building good ties with the Brotherhood was unlikely to strain the long-term strategic relationship between the U.S. and Gulf states.

“They (the Gulf states) need the Americans to protect them against Iran. Iran is the biggest worry for them in the whole region right now,” one Gulf-based Western diplomat said, asking not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.

YES, BUT …

Still, rumblings persist.

Saudi Arabia, which has long seen itself as insulated from political Islam because of its promotion of more conservative Salafi Islam, is feeling less secure these days, said Abdulaziz Alkhamis, a London-based Saudi analyst.

“After the Arab Spring they (the Islamists) are rising again. They start to use Islamist political rhetoric to gain publicity in the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia,” he said.

Prominent clerics such as Awadh al-Garni and Salman al-Odah, viewed as sympathetic to the Brotherhood, have become more outspoken, cheering Islamist gains in social media.

Brotherhood-linked Islamists are well-established in Kuwait, where parliamentary politics is most advanced in the Gulf. And in Bahrain the government has drawn closer to the Minbar party, another group inspired by the Brotherhood, as it shores itself up against a protest movement dominated by Shi’ite Islamists.

The angst over what the United States plans for the region is at its most public and visceral in Bahrain, whose government Obama has urged to enter dialogue with leading Shi’ite opposition group Wefaq, citing the group by name.

Sunni clerics and commentators in official media regularly raise the fear that Washington, currently at odds with Tehran over its nuclear program, is plotting to create a Wefaq-led government in a regional reordering of power that would open a new page of cozy ties with Iran.

TV presenter Sawsan al-Shaer denounced a “Satanic alliance” between Tehran and Washington in an article in the al-Watan daily last month, claiming Wefaq was a “Trojan horse, used by the U.S. administration and Iranian regime to redraw the region.”

The wild card in the region is Qatar. It has actively promoted the Brotherhood and its affiliates, giving them coverage widely seen as positive on its satellite broadcaster Al Jazeera.

At an early stage in the uprisings Doha stuck its neck out much further than other Gulf states in its support for protests in Egypt and Tunisia, and then rebel movements in Libya and Syria, supporting those among them close the Brotherhood.

Earlier this year the Dubai police chief railed against Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi, a popular Brotherhood-linked Egyptian cleric based in Doha who criticized UAE policy towards Islamists on Al Jazeera. Khalfan threatened to arrest the cleric if he ever entered the country.

Alkhamis said opinion in Saudi Arabia was split over whether Qatar’s close links to the Islamists was a smart move to keep a close eye on a rising movement whose historical time has come, or a ruse to sow discord for its neighbor and sometime rival.

“The Qataris say that if we don’t have the Brotherhood (operating) openly then they will go underground and that it’s not against Saudi Arabia, but the Saudis are not happy with this,” Alkhamis said pointing to Qatar-backed Islamist seminars. “Some think the Qataris are not an honest friend, but have an agenda.”

(Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn in Washington and Raissa Kasolowsky in Abu Dhabi; Editing by Sami Aboudi and Sonya Hepinstall)

Reuters

Insight: In Sinai, militant Islam flourishes – quietly

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By Tamim Elyan
NORTH SINAI, Egypt | Sun Apr 1, 2012 6:08am EDT

(Reuters) – The group of 50 young men who had blocked off access to a small international military base in the Sinai desert would say nothing of who they were but their appearance held a few clues.

Dressed in army fatigues and armed with AK-47s, they wore the long beards of the hardline Islamists who are increasingly a law unto themselves in this part of Egypt.

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Quietly, barely noticed by outsiders fascinated by upheavals in Cairo and other Arab capitals, they are building a presence in Sinai that might offer a new haven for anti-Western militancy at the strategic junction of the Mediterranean, Africa and Asia.

When finally one of the men broke a silence that hung heavy on the barren plain, it was to explain to a reporter their demands: for the government to release five comrades jailed for bombings of tourist resorts in Sinai more than six years ago.

“We are ready to die under tanks for this,” he said, refusing to give his name and saying little else beyond muttering Islamic mottos as he toured the positions the militants had established to surround the base, inconveniencing dozens of troops from the Multinational Observer Force, a unit set up in 1979 to monitor Egypt’s U.S.-brokered peace treaty with Israel.

Under a rare rainy sky on a Thursday night in March, the men would only speak with the permission of a man they simply referred to as “sheikh”. A wolf’s cry pierced the otherwise tranquil scene outside the remote base that is home to foreign peace observers including Fijians, Americans and Spaniards.

Not a shot was fired in anger, however, and the next day, the group lifted their eight-day siege. It was not because they feared arrest or attack by the authorities. But instead they had secured their demands. The government agreed to free the men accused of being part of a group which carried out the 2004 and 2005 attacks that killed some 125 people at the Red Sea beach resorts of Sharm el-Sheikh, Dahab and Taba.

It was a scenario unthinkable a year or so ago.

But with Hosni Mubarak‘s removal from power after three decades, government authority has collapsed in much of Sinai, leaving a vacuum where Islamist militant groups are flourishing, posing a security risk to Egypt, neighbors including Israel, and the Suez Canal, the busy waterway linking Asia and Europe.

In Sinai, an arid peninsula the size of Ireland but home to fewer than a million people, groups at the extreme fringe of the Islamist spectrum are expanding, even as Islamists long outlawed by the state enter the political mainstream in Cairo, where they now dominate parliament and are poised to enter government.

In towns where police stations have stood deserted since Mubarak was swept from office after a popular revolt, hardline Islamists are imposing their own authority. They are preaching a strict interpretation of Islam that has brought with it religious intolerance of a kind that shocks even some of the more conservative forces in the Muslim world.

Hardliners were blamed for bomb attack last year on a shrine revered by Sufi Muslim mystics – the kind of attack more familiar in restive Pakistan Egypt.

Though some of the militants here appear to be inspired by al Qaeda, experts do not yet believe the network is operating in the peninsula that separates Africa and Asia. But as time passes and the Egyptian state in far-off Cairo struggles to assert itself, there seems a growing risk they may align more closely with the global movement now led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, himself an Egyptian, though long assumed to be based abroad.

Egypt has already paid an economic price for lawlessness in Sinai – a pipeline exporting natural gas eastwards to Jordan and Israel has been blown up 13 times in the last year.

There are fears the economic impact could run deeper still. With its Red Sea resorts, Sinai’s southern province is one of the main assets of a tourist industry that employs one in eight Egyptians and would be hit hard by more insecurity.

“I’d say there is genuine potential for this threat to grow and become a much bigger issue than it is now,” said Henri Wilkinson, head of intelligence and analysis at the Risk Advisory group.

“I suspect al Qaeda … sees great opportunity in Sinai.”

“SOMETIMES VIOLENCE IS THE WAY”

For now, militant Islamist influence has been restricted to mostly impoverished towns in northern Sinai. Some are drawing on the example of groups that made Egypt a pioneer in the world of extremism as they seek to impose their vision of Islamic law.

One group calls itself Al-Tawhid wal Jihad, the name first taken by al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq. Blamed for the Sinai bomb attacks in 2004 and 2005, the group was accused last year of launching an attack on a police station in the town of el-Arish in which five members of the Egyptian security forces were killed.

Another is Takfir wal Higra, a name first heard in Egypt in the 1960s when the country emerged as a breeding ground for militant Islamist ideas that spread beyond its borders and supplied ideological fuel for al Qaeda and others.

Takfir wal Higra believes that even Muslims, if they do not share its beliefs, are infidels. The group’s influence has grown in northern Sinai in the last year, locals say. “Sometimes violence is the way to achieve your objectives,” said a man in his 30s who joined the group a year ago.

He comes from a mountain village outside el-Arish, the main town in northern Sinai where residents have long complained of neglect by the Egyptian state.

Wearing a short beard, jeans and a black jacket, the Takfir wal Higra recruit declined to be named as he recounted stories of how members of the group from one family had forced their parents to separate after declaring their father an infidel.

“I am ready to participate in blowing up the pipelines … attacking police stations,” he said. But when pressed about his goals, he appeared uncertain, blending vague talk of freeing Jerusalem from Israeli control with the idea of establishing an “Islamic emirate” in the Sinai Peninsula.

In Sheikh Zuweid, a few kilometers (miles) from the border with the Palestinian Gaza Strip, that idea appears to have become a partial reality.

A newly renovated but empty police station in the town’s central square is a powerful symbol of the collapse of state control. Slogans daubed on walls declare Sinai an independent Islamic state.

THE POLICE LEFT, AND NEVER CAME BACK

“The police left the city on January 29, 2011 at 4 p.m. heading to Cairo and never came back,” said Saeed Eteg, a liberal political activist from Sheikh Zuweid, recalling the day the state disappeared at the height of the uprising against Mubarak.

Sheikh Zuweid is a collection of mud brick buildings connected by a network of predominantly dirt roads. Locals say both state neglect and the collapse of traditional structures of tribal authority have allowed the spread of hardline influence.

Here, clerics apply their own interpretation of Islamic law at sharia courts independent of the state. “Decisions are for Allah alone,” declares a banner outside one of the courts.

“People need someone to solve their disputes and they found the answer in religious courts,” said Hamden Abu Faisal, a Salafi cleric who doubles as a judge in Sheikh Zuweid.

The Salafis are Muslims with a puritanical approach to their faith inspired by the official Wahhabi ideology of Saudi Arabia. Their brand of political Islam is a step removed from the more pragmatic, modernist Muslim Brotherhood, the biggest party in the Egyptian parliament, which is more moderate in its approach.

A Salafi group, the Nour Party, is the second largest party in the parliament following Egypt’s historic free elections late last year. It eschews violence in pursuit of its goal of tighter application of sharia religious law in the country of 80 million.

But even the Nour Party is beyond the pale for some in Sheikh Zuweid. Mohsen Abu Hassan, a member of the party, says he was declared an infidel by one young man, a member of Takfir wal Higra, during an election campaign rally in the town last year.

“There is a phenomenon we must confront,” Abu Hassan, now a member of parliament in Cairo, told Reuters.

“We shouldn’t turn a blind eye.”

A pile of rubble at a local shrine bears witness to the lengths to which zealots will go to impose their vision on how religion should be practiced here. On May 15 last year, five men blew up the shrine revered by Sufi mystics, whose beliefs are viewed as heretical by the puritanical Islamists.

A white flag raised by the Sufis flutters over what is left of the shrine of Sheikh Zuweid, viewed as one of the earliest Muslims in Egypt and after whom the town is named.

“WE DON’T FEEL LIKE EGYPTIAN CITIZENS”

Abdel Wahab Mabrouk, governor of North Sinai province, says religious groups are behind the trouble but denies the presence of al Qaeda or what he described as other “terrorist elements”.

But Israel is worried. It is building a barrier along its 266 km (165 mile) border with the peninsula. One Israeli officer described the frontier today as “a hot border”. Last August, Israel blamed Islamist militants from Sinai for attacks which killed eight Israelis. An Israeli counterstrike which left five Egyptian border guards dead did nothing to ease tense relations.

Israeli authority held sway in Sinai after it captured the region in the 1967 Middle East war. A theatre for more tank battles in 1973, the peninsula was restored to Egyptian control by the 1979 peace agreement brokered by the United States.

One of Israel’s concerns is that its Palestinian enemies in the Gaza Strip, including the governing Hamas Islamists, could use Sinai as a back door for attacks on southern Israel.

But the ideas spreading in Sinai could also present a threat to stability in Egypt itself and to Hamas, which looks to the Muslim Brotherhood for ideological inspiration and which has waged its own war against al Qaeda-inspired militancy in Gaza.

As in other waves of Islamist militancy that have swept Egypt in the past decades – it was Islamist gunmen who killed peacemaking President Anwar Sadat in 1981 – experts believe heavy-handed police tactics have only made the problem worse.

The security forces’ campaign to find the culprits in the 2004 and 2005 Sinai bombings has left a bitter taste. Police staged mass arrests, even rounding up suspects’ wives to force them to hand themselves in.

“THE MOTHER OF ALL PROBLEMS”

For the most part, South Sinai is a different story from the northern region. Bedouin in the mountainous south on the Red Sea maintain a nomadic lifestyle that differs to the urban development in the north, where many have settled in towns along the Mediterranean coast and have mingled with outsiders from Egypt’s Nile Valley heartlands and from neighboring Gaza.

Yet in southern Sinai, which is more sparsely populated than the north, Bedouin have similarly been alienated by years of state neglect and oppression. They too are staging acts of rebellion, though not in the Islamist form found in the north.

Seeking the release of jailed relatives, Bedouin have kidnapped two Americans, three Koreans and two Brazilians in the last two months, believing it is the only way they can get the Cairo government’s attention. They did not ask for ransoms and all were released unharmed after talks with the authorities.

The Bedouin say traditional tribal structures in the south have guarded against the infiltration of violent militant ideas. But their grievances against the state are just as profound.

The Bedouin say they have not felt the benefit of the income brought by tourist resorts such as Sharm el-Sheikh, which have given many thousands of jobs to Egyptians from the Nile Valley.

“We don’t feel like Egyptian citizens,” said Sheikh Ahmed Hussein, a member of the Qararsha tribe, one of the biggest in the southern Sinai. A government report compiled in 2010 said a quarter of all Sinai’s population of some 600,000 did not carry a national ID card. The Bedouin, who make up the bulk of that number, are not allowed to own land or serve in the army.

Sensing the urgency of the problem, the military-appointed government of Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri has taken action in the few months since it took office in November.

Seeking to alleviate tensions, Ganzouri has ordered the retrial of those imprisoned after the Sinai bombings. He also ordered the revival of development projects in the region, including a railway and a canal to supply water to central Sinai.

Abdullah Abu Ghama, a member of parliament from Sinai, says it cannot come too soon:

“The state has to speed up the process of development,” he said. “If not, the mother of all problems will occur and extremists will increase in numbers.”

(Editing by Tom Perry and Alastair Macdonald)

Tunisian Islamists to do well in first "Arab Spring" vote

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By Andrew Hammond and Tarek Amara

(Reuters) – Islamists are expected to do well in Tunisia‘s first democratic election Sunday, 10 months after the ouster of autocratic leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in a popular uprising that set off protest movements around the Arab world.

The Ennahda party will almost certainly win a share of power after the vote, which will set a democratic standard for other Arab countries where uprisings have triggered political change or governments have tried to rush reforms to stave off unrest.

Sunday’s vote is for an assembly which will draft a new constitution to replace the one Ben Ali manipulated to entrench his power. It will also appoint an interim government and set elections for a new president and parliament.

Polls open at 2 a.m. EDT and close at 2 p.m.

The mother of Mohamed Bouazizi, the young man whose self-immolation last December set off the Tunisian revolt, said the elections were a victory for dignity and freedom.

“Now I am happy that my son’s death has given the chance to get beyond fear and injustice,” Manoubia Bouazizi told Reuters. “I’m an optimist, I wish success for my country.”

Ennahda, banned under Ben Ali who is now in exile in Saudi Arabia, is expected to gain the biggest share of votes. But the Islamist party will probably not win enough to give it a majority in the assembly and will seek to lead a coalition.

The North African country’s elite fear the rise of Ennahda puts their secular values under threat. The Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) has centered its campaign on stopping the Islamists, vowing to seek alliances to keep it out of power.

Ennahda has been at pains to assuage the concerns of secularists and Western powers, fielding several women candidates including one who does not wear the hijab, or Muslim head scarf, and promising not to undermine women’s freedoms.

Tunisia was a pioneer of secular modernization among Arab and Muslim countries in the post-colonial period, banning polygamy, equalizing inheritance rights, giving women the right to vote and discouraging the veil.

Fundamentalist Islamists known as Salafists have attacked a cinema and a TV station in recent months over artistic material deemed blasphemous. Ennahda says they have nothing to do with them, but liberals do not believe them.

Observers says Ennahda’s intentions are not clear. Its election campaign has scrupulously avoided offering policy details that mark it out as much different from its rivals.

At a final election rally Friday, Suad Abdel-Rahim, the female candidate who does not wear a veil, said Ennahda would protect women’s gains.

But illustrating the party’s contradictions, many of the books on sale on the fringes of the rally were by Salafist writers who believe women should be segregated from men in public and that elections are un-Islamic.

“In the country’s interior, where it’s more conservative, they use different rhetoric,” said commentator Rachid Khechana. “It’s about stopping culture from outside, moral corruption of youth, defending Islam, which they say has Shura (consultation), not democracy.”

“ARAB SPRING” REPERCUSSIONS

An Ennahda victory would be the first such success in the Arab world since Hamas won a 2006 Palestinian vote. Islamists won a 1991 Algerian election the army annulled, provoking years of bloody conflict.

Ennahda’s fortunes could bear on Egyptian elections set for next month in which the Muslim Brotherhood, an ideological ally, also hopes to emerge strongest.

Libya hopes to hold elections next year after a protest movement that transformed into an armed rebellion with NATO backing managed to oust Muammar Gaddafi. Unresolved violent conflict continues in Syria and Yemen, and many other governments have begun reforms to avoid civil unrest.

With so much at stake, there are concerns that even the smallest doubt over the legitimacy of the Tunisian vote could bring supporters of rival parties onto the streets.

Ennahda’s leader, Muslim scholar Rachid Ghannouchi, riled opponents this week when he described the party as Tunisia’s biggest and warned that the Tunisian people would start a new uprising if they suspected any poll rigging.

Prime Minister Beji Caid Sebsi said in a televised address Thursday that Tunisians should vote without fear of violence or cheating, a feature of Ben Ali’s police state.

“No one can doubt the elections, they will be transparent and clean. Rigging will not be possible. The ballot boxes will be open to everyone,” Sebsi said.

The government says 40,000 police and soldiers are being deployed to prevent any protests escalating into violence. Shopkeepers say people have been stockpiling milk and bottled water in case unrest disrupts supplies.

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