It didn’t take long for Syria’s embattled President Bashar Assad to crow over the downfall of fellow Arab leader, Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi. Within hours of Morsi’s detention by the Egyptian military, Assad gave an interview to state-owned newspaper al-Thawra, in which he lambasted the Muslim Brotherhood’s “lies” to the Egyptian people and the political group’s inability to deliver on its promises. Never mind that Assad faces a popular revolt at home, one that has seen the deaths of some 93,000 Syrian citizens, the millions turning out on the streets to overthrow the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt were the true revolutionaries, he told the newspaper (whose name, coincidently, translates as “The Revolution” in Arabic). What’s going on in Egypt, he told the newspaper, represents “the collapse of so-called political Islam. Whoever brings religion to use for political or factional interests will fall anywhere in the world.” Anywhere, it can be assumed he means, but Iran, the world’s only true theocracy, which also happens to be his biggest backer.
In Lebanon, the pro-Syrian, Hizballah-run al-Akhbar newspaper echoed Assad’s exultation in an editorial, calling the Morsi government’s overthrow, “the end of the caliphate dream,” in reference to the oft-cited goal of some fundamentalist Muslims to establish an Islamic kingdom spanning North Africa and the Middle East ruled entirely according to the laws of Islam. Hizballah, which has sent thousands of its own fighters to defend Assad’s regime in Syria, may not openly support the idea of a caliphate, but as the original Party of God (the literal translation of the name), it is no stranger to political Islam.
In Saudi Arabia the gloating may have been tamped down a little, but King Abdullah was one of the first Arab leaders to congratulate Egypt’s caretaker President Adli Mansour, even before he was sworn in on Thursday. For the past two years, since Saudi Arabia sided with the rebels opposing Assad’s regime, the two countries have become bitter enemies. So what is it about the Muslim Brotherhood’s version of political Islam that unites the rivals in hatred? Fear that the Brotherhood’s power exposes their own lack of legitimacy.
Assad’s father, former President Hafez al-Assad, spent most of his years in leadership hunting down and massacring Muslim Brotherhood groups in Syria for their challenge to his power. As an Alawite, a minority sect that is an offshoot of Shia Islam and is largely disparaged as heretical by Sunni religious leaders, the former President feared the Brotherhood’s power in the mosques. Today the remnants of those groups have joined with other Islamists to become Bashar Assad’s most formidable foes on the battlefield. Their ideologically driven organization (what better fighters than those willing to die for God’s cause?) lends them tactics and strength that the fractious, secular-leaning Free Syrian Army leaders lack.
In Saudi, where the Muslim Brotherhood has been banned, the fear is not so much Sunni Islam, which both the Brotherhood and the Saudi leadership share, but the political nature of the group. The Brotherhood says a monarchy has no place in Islam, and has long sought to overthrow the royal family to turn Saudi Arabia into an Islamic republic.
Saudi Arabia and Syria under both Assads embraced Egypt’s former strongman President Hosni Mubarak for his violent crackdown on the Brotherhood. When he was ousted, and the Muslim Brotherhood gained power for the first time in Egypt, both countries were presented with a quandary. Now that Morsi has been ousted, those worried about the reach of the Brotherhood’s influence in their own countries can breathe a sigh of relief. And sometimes that sounds like schadenfreude.