Middle East

Egypt crisis: How regional players are responding

A supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood runs past a burning vehicle during clashes with security officers close to Cairo's Ramses Square (16 August 2013)
Image caption Cairo has been the scene of many bloody clashes in recent weeks

While the West is ambivalent about the crisis in Egypt - critical of the Egyptian generals, but reluctant to cut ties with them - some of its key allies in the Middle East suffer no such inhibitions.

Sensing a policy vacuum left by the West, they are rushing to fill it.

Saudi Arabia in particular is positioning itself as the main supporter of the military-backed regime in Cairo. In a calculated snub to Washington, the Saudi princes have declared that if the Americans cut aid, they will increase it.

This comes hard on the heels of the $12bn (£7.5bn) they pledged - with two of their Gulf allies, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates - in the immediate aftermath of the coup which overthrew President Mohammed Morsi in July.

Where the West sees a dilemma, the Saudis see an opportunity - a chance to weaken and even destroy their regional enemy, the Muslim Brotherhood.

From fear to paranoia

The situation is not without irony.

For decades Saudi Arabia used its petrodollar wealth to fund the Brotherhood and other Islamist movements around the world. But in recent years Saudi rulers have increasingly seen Islamism as a threat to themselves and their friends.

This fear turned to paranoia when one of their key allies, Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, was overthrown in 2011.

In Saudi eyes, the Obama administration had not just ditched a loyal friend, it had delivered Egypt into the clutches of the Islamists.

The nightmare of many Saudis and other Gulf Arabs was that, having conquered much of North Africa, Islamism would take over their countries, too.

As conspiracy theories go, it is scarcely persuasive.

But it helps explain the lavishness of Saudi Arabia's chequebook diplomacy - and the motives behind the arrest of dozens of Islamists in the UAE, for allegedly plotting to subvert the state.

Bucking the trend

Two regional states have taken the opposite tack. Since the start of the Arab Spring, Turkey and Qatar have backed Islamist movements in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere.

For them, the unseating of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was a shock and a setback. A foreign policy that had looked smart only a year ago now looks distinctly risky.

They are left as cheerleaders for a movement that is bruised and defensive.

Similarly, for the Islamists who lead the government in Tunis, the toppling of President Morsi was nothing short of a disaster. They have lost a key ally, at a time when the political consensus in their own country is under great strain.

Image caption Israel's priority is a regime which will put pressure on Hamas - so it favours the army generals rather than Mohammed Morsi

Meanwhile, if the Egyptian generals can count on the oil-rich Arabs, they enjoy support of a different kind - and for rather different reasons - from Israel.

The Israelis look at Egypt through the narrow prism of their security concerns. In a volatile region, they want a regime in Cairo that will put the maximum pressure on Hamas, the Islamist group governing Gaza - and that will uphold Egypt's peace treaty with Israel.

They are accordingly far more comfortable with a regime dominated by the generals than one led by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Revealingly, when a Republican senator in Washington called for US military aid to Egypt to be cut off in response to the coup, the pro-Israel lobby swung into action to contradict him.

A price to be paid

None of this means the Egyptian generals are sitting pretty.

Gulf petrodollars may help them keep the stricken Egyptian economy afloat, but will do nothing to solve its underlying problems. Indeed economists fear Gulf aid will merely be used to avoid tough decisions about much-needed economic reform.

Moreover if the generals heed the advice of their Gulf friends and choose stability over democracy - regardless of the cost in lives - there will be a price to be paid.

If they continue to treat their Western allies with disdain bordering on contempt, they will risk international isolation - and jeopardise continuing aid and economic co-operation.

What may concern them more is that if the violence continues and there is no meaningful political process - two developments many experts predict - they may begin to lose the support of the Egyptian people.

That support has hitherto been remarkably strong. But if the coup turns out to be the harbinger of counter-revolution - the crushing of all the hopes engendered in the heady days of February 2011 - the anger on the street may acquire a new focus.

Roger Hardy is the author of The Muslim Revolt: A Journey through Political Islam, and is a visiting fellow at King's College, London, and the London School of Economics.