Egypt crisis: Cautious reactions from Middle Eastern governments

Middle Eastern governments have reacted cautiously to events in Egypt, preferring to wait until a new Egyptian government emerges before having their say.

But behind the official veil of silence, many Arab leaders can hardly contain their glee at the fall of President Muhammad Mursi and his Islamic Brotherhood movement.

Because of its official claims to represent the dispossessed throughout the Arab world, the Brotherhood was widely regarded as a menace by Middle Eastern monarchies, and particularly the Gulf sheikhdoms. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the rulers of the United Arab Emirates were the first to express their support for the fall of the Brotherhood in Egypt.

Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the UAE foreign minister, issued a statement on Wednesday hailing the “great Egyptian army’s role as the country’s unbreakable shield”, and promising “all necessary help to the sisterly Egyptian nation”.

Other Gulf monarchies avoided public communiques, although the state-controlled media in Saudi Arabia gave prominence to what it called “sensational revelations” about alleged secret negotiations between the deposed administration of President Mursi and Iran; this was a hint that Saudi Arabia views Mr Mursi’s fall as beneficial for the wider interests of the Arab world.

The only Gulf monarchy not to express its satisfaction at the unfolding events is Qatar, which poured an estimated US$10 billion (S$12.7 billion) of financial aid into Egypt, and has been the main Arab backer of the Brotherhood even before Mr Mursi came to power. The Qataris assumed that their support for Mr Mursi will be translated into broader regional influence; now, however, they have little to show for their money. And worse may still come: news from the Egyptian capital indicate that the Cairo offices of Al Jazeera, the Qatari-financed pan-Arab TV station, were shut on the orders of the Egyptian military. That may not prevent Al Jazeera from continuing its reporting from Egypt, but it will certainly hamper the network’s ability to run live broadcasts from the country. Hamas, the radical Palestinian group in control of the Gaza Strip, is another potential loser from the changes in Egypt: to all intents and purposes, Hamas was established by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and has always looked to Egypt for inspiration. But the Hamas leadership has decided that its safest course now is to distance itself from Egypt altogether: “We only care about stability in Egypt regardless of who is in charge”, said on Wednesday Mr Ahmad Yousef, one of Hamas’ top leaders.

Meanwhile, Mr Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority - which was never very close to Mr Mursi - called on all Palestinians “not to interfere in internal issues of Arab countries”, code-words which were translated as a tacit blessing for the Egyptian military’s takeover of power.  But it was in Israel that Mr Mursi’s overthrow was received with the biggest concern. That represents an ironic turn of events, since the election of Mr Mursi last year prompted fears among Israeli leaders that Egypt would move to cancel the 1979 peace accord between the two countries. Since then, however, Mr Mursi proved to be surprisingly pragmatic: he brokered a ceasefire between Israeli and Hamas forces last November, and toned down the anti-Israeli rhetoric among his Brotherhood supporters.  Israel fears that all these fragile achievements may now be squandered, and that extremist Islamic groups could take advantage of the chaos to launch attacks from either Egypt or the Gaza Strip. “Instability is bad for Israel, period”, says Mr Eli Shaked, a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt.  Ultimately, however, all Middle Eastern governments know that whatever they say or do has little impact in Cairo. “Let the Egyptian people determine what’s best”, advises Professor Elie Podeh, an Egypt expert at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.