Democracy, Salafi Style

One of Saudi Arabia's most popular hardline clerics just embraced democracy. Should we worry, or applaud?

The Muslim Brotherhood has so far emerged as the clear political winner from the popular uprisings that have seized the Arab world. In Egypt and Tunisia, its affiliated political parties have either won power outright in democratic elections. But the Brotherhood isn't the only movement mixing faith and politics in the new Middle East: Salafis -- hardline conservatives who model their lives on Prophet Mohamed and the first three generation of Muslim leaders following his death -- are setting aside years of theological opposition to democracy to participate in the political game.

This sea change was driven home earlier this week when Saudi Salafi heavyweight Sheikh Salman al-Awdah took to his Twitter feed and Facebook page to proclaim: "Democracy might not be an ideal system, but it is the least harmful, and it can be developed and adapted to respond to local needs and circumstances." Although Awdah notably made his announcement on his English and not Arabic social media platforms, where his audience numbers in the millions rather than the tens of thousands, the sentiment is still positively Churchillian -- echoing as it does the late British prime minister's maxim: "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried."

Awdah's pronouncement is significant due to his history and popularity within the Salafist milieu. He was one of the key leaders of Saudi Arabia's sahwa ("awakening") movement, which butted heads with the House of Saud most prominently during the Gulf war in the early 1990s. During those years, key Saudi religious scholars and sahwa activists signed two petitions admonishing the Saudi royals for their reliance on the United States, and calling for the creation of a shura ("consultative") council that would grant greater authority to the religious establishment to determine whether legislation was truly in line with Islamic law.

The House of Saud viewed these letters as a direct threat to its power, and consequently arrested Awdah and other sahwa figures in 1994. Awdah would not be released until 1999. Although he has not been as overt in his criticisms of the regime since his release, he is not part of the official religious establishment and has a level of independence, which has afforded him the ability to maintain a large following without being viewed as a lackey of the government.

Osama bin Laden was one of the young Saudis deeply affected by Awdah's stand against the Saudi regime in the early 1990s. The al Qaeda chief viewed him as an intellectual mentor, and allegedly told his former bodyguard Abu Jandal that if Awdah had not been imprisoned, he would not have had to raise his voice up against the Saudi ruling family.

The al Qaeda leader's admiration highlights Awdah's influence among not only mainstream Salafists, but some of the more radical wings of the movement. Awdah himself was never an al Qaeda sympathizer. He would rebuke bin Laden in 2007 during Ramadan, saying, "My brother Osama, how much blood has been spilt? How many innocent people, children, elderly, and women have been killed ... in the name of al Qaeda? Will you be happy to meet God Almighty carrying the burden of these hundreds of thousands or millions of victims on your back?"

Prior to the Arab uprisings, the large majority of Salafis viewed democracy as contrary to Islam. The crux of the Salafist argument is that electing legislators to create laws infringes upon the sovereignty of God, who is the only valid sovereign in the world. Therefore, by establishing the supremacy of democracy, one is putting humans on the same level as God and thus one is worshipping another. As a consequence, one is no longer truly a Muslim because one's beliefs have slipped into polytheism. The burgeoning Salafist parties across the Middle East, however, show the monumental shift away from this doctrinaire position.

But Awdah's remarks are an acknowledgment of the changing political landscape in the Middle East. The list of legal Salafist parties in Arab countries making the transition to democracy continues to grow. Egypt has three Salafist parties, which together hold roughly 25 percent of seats in parliament, while Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen have one each. With these parties quickly becoming accepted players in the political game, this new era could see the proliferation of political movements established by formerly non-politicized Salafis.

Awdah's comments may resonate further in countries still living under the yoke of authoritarian rulers than those undergoing a political transition. If he is more outspoken in the coming months or years, especially in Arabic, it could reinvigorate past failed attempts to reform, or even unseat, the House of Saud. That possibility, however, still remains beyond the horizon -- in the short term, the kingdom appears stable.

Democracy has exposed Salafis to a difficult question: Do they maintain their doctrinal purity or attempt to truly influence their destiny -- a path that was closed to them under authoritarian regimes? It appears that some Salafis have had the foresight to see the necessity of joining the process.

Of course, taking part in the democratic process does not make one a liberal in the Enlightenment sense. Important questions remain about Salafi groups' shift to democracy. Is it pragmatic or a true ideological commitment to democratic principles? Will joining the process liberalize such parties to the extent that they could provide more competition in the election process, or will it create a populist push between Islamist parties to prove who is truly following God's will? It is still too early to assess the answers to these questions one way or the other, but the result of Salafis' participation in the political game will likely vary by country, depending on the local context.

Salafis' participation in the political game also raises important policy considerations the United States should take into account. True, the U.S. government, and the West in general, have few points of ideological agreement with these Salafi movements. For example, all of the Salafi parties would like to end interest-based banking, which they view as haram, and have a very narrow view of the rights of minorities, women, and homosexuals. But bringing them into the mainstream political process holds the possibility of drawing individuals away from the more extreme jihadist interpretations of Salafism. These movements may be troublesome political players, but democracy provides a more positive outlet for change than violence.

Awdah's remarks highlight an important ideological shift within the Salafi movement over the past year and a half. It suggests that the United States should continue to pursue a policy that helps and encourages the emerging Arab democracies to open up so that individuals within them can shape their own futures. Salafis are poised to become key political players in the new Middle East, and should be given the space to continue their ideological evolution.



Oh, Brother

Why Egypt's new Islamist president is keeping the Saudis up at night.

Mohamed Morsy's young presidency in Egypt hasn't started all that smoothly. It's largely been characterized by a series of standoffs with the Egyptian military, including this week's controversial court case on the legality of an assembly tasked with drafting the country's new constitution. But Morsy is also performing a less publicized high-wire act in trying to court vital benefactors in the Persian Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia. How this endeavor plays out could prove just as consequential for his political survival.

Since Morsy became president last month and resigned from the Muslim Brotherhood, he has worked hard to ease tensions with jittery Gulf countries. Dubai's police chief has been warning Gulf leaders since March that local Brotherhood cells "want to stir the streets" against them, but Morsy's real challenge is to reassure a visibly nervous Saudi Arabia, which lost its key ally Hosni Mubarak to Egypt's popular uprising. In an effort to secure Saudi aid, Morsy has done all the right things: pledging not to export Egypt's revolution, describing the Gulf countries' security as a "red line" that should not be crossed, and making the kingdom his first foreign destination as president last week.

So far, Morsy's overtures appear to have placated the Saudis, who have continued sending Egypt financial support. But while there are similarities between the Brotherhood's ideology and Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi brand of Islam -- both are Sunni, religiously zealous, and critical of Western influence in Muslim countries -- it's safe to say that the Saudis preferred Egypt's old order.

As a Sunni Islamist who came to power through democratic elections, Morsy challenges the autocratic system that Saudi Arabia's rulers have been fighting tooth and nail to uphold. Just last year, the Saudis doled out nearly $130 billion in aid packages to their citizens to assuage discontent. But they did not simply rely on cash to save themselves. The kingdom's leaders also preempted planned "day of rage" protests in March 2011 by sending thousands of troops to Shiite-majority provinces, locking down the capital, and unleashing loyal clergy to threaten potential protesters with violence.

Those measures brought some calm to Saudi Arabia, but not for long. Violent protests erupted last week in the Eastern Province -- home to the country's oil and most of its Shiite population -- after security forces shot and arrested prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr for instigating "sedition." With restless Shiite citizens in the region already chafing at the state's discrimination, Saudi authorities poured gasoline on the fire when they fatally shot two men during the demonstrations. More than a week later, crowds are still taking to the streets in protest and showing no signs of letting up.

The Shiite question is just one of several reasons why the Saudis worry about the future of Egypt. Long before Morsy's election, the Saudis were nervous that Shiite Iran would exploit Egypt's transition. Although Egypt and Iran severed diplomatic relations in 1980 because of Egypt's close relationship with Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and its signing of a peace treaty with Israel, the two countries have maintained economic ties. One example is the Misr Iran Development Bank, a joint venture that was founded in 1975 and survived the next 30 years of turmoil in the Egyptian-Iranian relationship. Today, U.S. Treasury officials suspect that Iran may use the bank as a means of skirting international sanctions on its nuclear program.

Saudi anxieties only deepened in February when Egypt allowed Iranian naval ships to pass through the Suez Canal -- an act Mubarak's regime prohibited. In May, Morsy said that he hoped to have "relations" with Iran during a televised interview with Egypt's CBC network, though he was careful to not specify what type of relationship he wants with Iran and to emphasize that the relationship would not come at the expense of Gulf countries' security (Iran's Fars News Agency later quoted Morsy as saying that he wanted to strengthen ties with Iran to strike a strategic "balance" in the Middle East, in a purported interview that Morsy vehemently denies giving).

In response to these growing concerns, the kingdom is doing what it always does: throwing petrodollars at the problem. In June, the Saudis gave Cairo $1.5 billion toward the state budget (the Financial Times has reported that the Egyptian government expects a budget deficit this year of 7.6 percent). The kingdom, which currently funds more than 2,300 projects in Egypt and maintains investments there that are estimated to be worth anywhere from $12 billion to $27 billion, also provided Cairo with a $750 million credit for Saudi oil imports, $230 million for a range of water and agriculture projects, and $200 million for Egyptian businesses.

These goodwill gestures come on the heels of an April spat in which the Saudis arrested Egyptian lawyer Ahmed al-Gizawy on charges of smuggling narcotics into the kingdom, sparking large-scale protests near the Saudi embassy in Cairo. In response, Riyadh quickly postponed negotiations over a $2.7 billion aid package to Egypt, closed its embassy and consulates in the country, and recalled its ambassador.

For Egypt, which is battling an official unemployment rate of around 12.6 percent, ending the dispute was critical. An estimated 1.6 million Egyptians work in the kingdom and provide important remittances to their families back home  -- the Central Bank of Egypt estimated that these remittance flows amounted to $785 million in 2006. And bilateral trade between the countries reached a record $1.2 billion during the first quarter of 2012, with Egyptian exports to Saudi Arabia totaling $528 million.

Eventually, the Saudis restored relations and agreed to deposit $1 billion in Egypt's central bank and sign other financial agreements, but not until a Brotherhood-led parliamentary delegation traveled to Riyadh and apologized directly to King Abdullah. As for Gizawy, he remains in a Saudi prison and is slated to stand trial this Wednesday.

Amid all this, the Saudis remain deeply ambivalent about Morsy. Since his election victory, Saudi and Saudi-owned pan-Arab news outlets have complained that challenger Ahmed Shafiq's campaign was undermined by mistrust and intimidation, and that Iran may be able to manipulate Morsy. They have also questioned Morsy's current affiliation with the Brotherhood, in light of his resignation from the group after assuming the presidency, and one paper speculated that he might mishandle touchy foreign-policy issues such as clamping down on "Tehran's support for local groups and attempts to spread the Shiite ideology" in Egypt.

The Saudi-Brotherhood relationship has always been complicated. The Saudi royals -- led by King Abdullah, who is formally known as the "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques" -- fancy themselves the leaders of the global Muslim community, and rely on clerics to shore up their rule and command political submission from their people.

The Brotherhood, by contrast, originated in Egypt as a response to Western colonialism and decadence, which its founder, Hassan al-Banna, felt were degrading Muslim societies. The Brotherhood relies on religious pretexts to advance a populist political movement.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Saudis embraced their common ground with the Brotherhood, encouraging thousands of its members to emigrate from Egypt, Iraq, and Syria to the kingdom as a means of counteracting Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser's pan-Arab socialist advances. The Brothers quickly became influential in Saudi society and particularly in the education system, where they composed a large portion of the university faculty.

At first, the alliance was mutually beneficial, but Brotherhood activists soon challenged the kingdom's political establishment. The most infamous byproduct of Saudi exposure to the Brotherhood was Osama bin Laden himself, who took inspiration from Palestinian Brother and jihadi theorist Abdullah Azzam's lectures in Jeddah during the early 1980s. After the outbreak of the first Gulf War in 1991, the Saudis suffered another Brotherhood-induced headache from the Sahwa ("Awakening") clerics, a group of ultraconservative Islamists who directly challenged the monarchy over the "infidel" U.S. military presence on the Arabian Peninsula.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, the late Saudi Crown Prince Nayef blamed all his country's problems on the Brotherhood. Those charges only intensified in 2003 when bin Laden's foot soldiers carried out attacks inside the kingdom for the first time. In the ensuing years, the Saudis appeared to regain the upper hand in their struggle to contain "deviant" interpretations of Islam, breaking up local al Qaeda cells, arresting or killing suspected militants, launching a "counter-radicalization" program, and monitoring thousands of mosques, schools, and websites.

But the Arab uprisings that began last year reversed that momentum, toppling several Saudi allies and heralding the rise of Brotherhood movements across the Middle East. The Saudis reacted with immediate alarm. Following Mubarak's overthrow, according to Egypt Independent, the Saudi government pulled all public school books that mentioned Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna from circulation because they incited "violence."

With this troubled Saudi-Brotherhood relationship hanging over his head, Morsy is walking a delicate line with Riyadh. The Saudis are ambivalent about his Islamist credentials, but they also want to thwart Iranian aspirations in the Arab world. Their main goal now is to pull the new Egypt into their sphere of influence.

Luckily for them, Morsy desperately needs Saudi money to repair Egypt's economy and has virtually no choice but to accept the terms that come with it. Unlike Iran, the Saudis are free to sell their oil. And for now, they have Morsy exactly where they want him: over a barrel.