In January, the United Arab Emirates arrested a group of Egyptians on suspicion of forming a Muslim Brotherhood cell in the country, prompting tensions with the Muslim Brotherhood-led Egyptian government. In an email interview, Frederic Wehrey, a Middle East program senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, discussed Egypt-UAE relations.
World Politics Review: What has been the trajectory of relations between Egypt and the UAE since the fall of Hosni Mubarak?
Frederic Wehrey: Throughout 2011, bilateral relations were strained by mounting concern in the UAE over Egypt’s potential warming to Iran. For their part, Egypt’s new leaders have cast a wary eye on the Persian Gulf states because of their previous support for the Mubarak regime. Moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is angered by the Emirates’ sheltering of Mubarak-era figures, most notably the defeated presidential candidate and former Prime Minister Ahmad Shafiq. More important, however, is the UAE government’s concern that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood may seek to export its ideology and political program to the Gulf. Emirati officials have stated repeatedly that the Brotherhood does not recognize national boundaries and sovereign rulers, and is seeking to use local sympathizers, like the al-Islah NGO, to undermine the stability of the UAE. At its core, these worries reflect a broader unease in the Gulf with the contagion effect of the Arab uprisings.
A key catalyst for the current standoff was a threat by Dubai Police Chief Dahi Khalfan in February 2012 to arrest the popular cleric Yusuf Qaradawi for criticizing the UAE’s expulsion of Syrians who demonstrated outside the Syrian Consulate in Dubai. A Brotherhood spokesman in Egypt then threatened that the “entire Muslim world” would react against the UAE if Qaradawi were arrested. From this point on, relations quickly spiraled downward, culminating in the Emirates’ Jan. 1 arrest of 11 Egyptians alleged to be members of a Brotherhood cell.
WPR: What is the significance of the UAE's arrest of Egyptian members of the Muslim Brotherhood?
Wehrey: The arrest is the starkest example yet of a growing trend in the Emirates of silencing any hints of organized political opposition. At the diplomatic level, the arrests have catapulted a simmering war of words into a diplomatic crisis. It has also handed Qatar an opportunity to exert its regional influence as a mediator -- although Emirati commentators argue that Qatar is hardly a neutral third party, given its support for Brotherhood groups across the region and its recent $2.5 billion bailout loan to Egypt.
WPR: What are the prospects for resolving the dispute and for moving the broader bilateral relationship onto a more constructive footing?
Wehrey: The relationship is likely to be buffeted by continued turbulence, but I believe the overall trajectory can be repaired due to shared strategic interests. Both states share a mutual threat from Iran -- the much-feared warming of relations between Egypt and Iran has not materialized. The Emirates recognize that Egypt’s centrality in Arab affairs is an important counter to Iran, as well as a hedge against an overbearing Saudi Arabia. For its part, the Brotherhood is keen to attract Gulf investment. A key first step is for both sides to avoid strident and provocative statements that fuel the rancor that currently afflicts the relationship.