Domestic Interests Color Region’s Reaction to Egypt Coup

Opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood welcome its overthrow in Egypt, even if they’re on opposite sides in Syria’s civil war.

Turkey's foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in London, England, March 7
Turkey’s foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in London, England, March 7 (FCO)

The Arab Gulf states and Syria’s Bashar Assad may be on opposite sides in a proxy war that pits the region’s majority Sunni Muslims against Shia Iran yet both welcomed the Egyptian military’s overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government on Thursday.

Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were all quick to congratulate Egypt’s new president, Adli Mansour, the former chief justice who was installed by the army to lead a transitional government until elections can be held.

Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, who was elected with a 51.7 percent majority last year, was removed from office after millions of Egyptians had poured into the streets of Alexandria, Cairo and other major cities to demand his resignation.

Especially Saudi Arabia abhors the Muslim Brotherhood which questions the monarchy’s legitimacy at home. In Syria’s civil war, where the monarchies of the Persian Gulf support Sunni groups that are battling the secular regime of President Assad, the Saudis prefer the more fanatical Salafists whose views are similar to their own Wahhabism. Qatar is believed to have send arms to Muslim Brotherhood fighters in Syria but recently had to take a backseat to its bigger neighbor in coordinating Arab support for the Syrian opposition.

Saudi Arabia, locked in a struggle for regional hegemony with Iran, was alarmed by the fall of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak in early 2011, seeing the veteran president’s demise as yet another Sunni strongman collapsing after Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was deposed by the Americans in 2003. Hussein and Mubarak had helped the Saudis check Iran’s ambitions.

The kingdom has enthusiastically backed Syria’s uprising because its president is Iran’s only Arab ally. His downfall would stunt the rise of a “Shia Crescent” spanning Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

Yet Syria’s Assad is also glad to see the Muslim Brotherhood go from Egypt when the group is part of the rebellion against his own government.

Assad hailed Morsi’s ouster as proof that Egyptians had discovered the “lies” of the Muslim Brotherhood. “What is happening in Egypt is the fall of so-called political Islam,” he said in an interview that was published on Thursday. “This is the fate of anyone in the world who tries to use religion for political or factional interests.”

The only Middle Eastern countries to signal concern were Iran and Turkey. A Foreign Ministry spokesman in Tehran cautioned against “foreign and enemy opportunism” in Egypt. Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu told reporters, “It is unacceptable for a government, which has come to power through democratic elections, to be toppled through illicit means and even more, a military coup.”

Davutoğlu’s apprehension may stem from large demonstrations that took place against his own Islamist party in Turkey last month. Like their Egyptian counterparts, liberal and secular Turks are wary of what they perceive as an increasingly authoritarian government that, backed by a slim majority of the population, imposes its religious values on the whole of Turkish society.