x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Conspiratorial inside and outside the corridors of power

The Muslim Brotherhood's comportment in Egypt, and last week's verdicts in the UAE's sedition trial, offer some interesting conclusions when examined together.

Seven days have passed since the verdicts in the trial of the 94 Emiratis accused of conspiring against the state.

"A week", former British prime minister Harold Wilson once said, "is a long time in politics." That's true - other news can push old headlines into the background.

The trial, though, will continue to be relevant to UAE society, not only because of its effect on those sentenced or acquitted, but also in the debate among Emiratis about how the country should develop.

Very few, I suspect, would argue for a reversal of the steps taken in recent years to increase popular participation in organs of government, in particular giving citizens a role in choosing members of the Federal National Council.

Whether the electorate should be enlarged more rapidly, or whether the current policy of a staged extension of the franchise is more appropriate in the UAE - this is a valid topic for discussion as the 2015 FNC elections draw nearer. There have already been strong hints that further expansion of the electorate is likely for the next FNC elections.

It's also clear that the current FNC is making good use of its power to scrutinise the performance of ministers. As I noted in this space in 2011, during the last FNC campaign, Council members have a duty to demonstrate that they can operate effectively as a scrutiny body. That will prove the wisdom of the decision to enhance the role of the Council, helping to convince Emiratis that it is a body of real relevance. I hope that in turn prompts an increase in the turnout at the 2015 elections. (Last time, it was a pitiful 28 per cent of those eligible.)

Incremental steps are the essence of the UAE's plans for greater public participation in the process of governance. And that will provide Emiratis with the opportunity to show that they overwhelmingly reject efforts to change the nature of government through the creation of a clandestine structure, such as that uncovered during the recent trial, and that they prefer a gradual, consensus-based approach.

Let me return to last week's trial verdict. Whatever the nature of the relationship between the defendants and Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, it is clear that there was a close affinity in terms of ideas. One of the tales attributed to the ancient Greek storyteller Aesop teaches that a man is known by the company that he keeps. "By their friends shall you know them."

Regardless of one's opinion about the ejection of the Brotherhood from power in Egypt last week, their behaviour in office gave a good idea of their beliefs.

Clandestine and conspiratorial when they were out of power, they brought that same approach into government, failing to recognise that governing means taking the views and needs of all into account.

Having promised not to seek the presidency, they did so. Convinced of their theological rectitude and claiming arrogantly that their opponents were somehow against Islam, they permitted - indeed encouraged - discrimination against Coptic Christians, and sought to reverse the empowerment of women.

While not overtly advocating violence in pursuit of their goals while in power, they allied themselves with groups that had engaged in terrorism in Egypt. Now, removed from power, elements of their leadership are bringing blood to the streets, encouraging members to lay down their lives, if necessary.

Egypt's political and public-security situation is still too fluid for anyone to make confident predictions about what will happen over the next few days, let alone the next few months. What is clear, however, is that the Brotherhood, having won Egypt's presidency with a wafer-thin majority in an election in which only half of the electorate participated, cast aside any thought of consensus, collaboration and conciliation, deciding, instead, to use all of the powers at its disposal to consolidate its control. In that objective, it has failed.

There is a lesson here. Clandestine organisations that conceal their real objectives under the cloak of free discussion and democratic debate are only too ready to discard that cloak if power comes within their grasp. Aesop had a fable for that too - the wolf in sheep's clothing.

The real wolves of the UAE's mountains are probably now extinct, but Emiratis are not sheep - they are well able to identify those wolves who seek to advance their ideas in the political arena.


Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE's history and culture