Qatar's ties with the Muslim Brotherhood affect entire region
The alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar is becoming a noticeable factor in the reshaping of the Middle East. There are several striking aspects to this evolving and deepening relationship.
First, note that the Brotherhood is barely involved in Qatari domestic affairs. The arrangement is akin to the one between Qatar and Al Jazeera, the biggest Arab television channel, which is based in Doha. The station covers news throughout the Arab world but refrains from covering controversial events in Qatar.
As a formal organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood in Qatar dissolved itself in 1999. Jasim Sultan - a former member of the Qatari Brotherhood - has explained in a television interview that this decision was justified because the state was carrying out its religious duties.
Mr Sultan supervises the Al Nahdah (Awakening) Project, which involves training, publishing and lecturing about public activism. Last August, he wrote an article asking Egyptian Islamists to change their discourse and move towards "partnership thought" instead of concentrating on "infiltrating the society to control it". Mr Sultan is active in training Islamists in Egypt and other countries on how to function within the institutions of democracy.
The second point of interest about Qatar and the Brotherhood is that the relationship was formed and is maintained largely through personal ties, which play a vital role. Doha has hosted individual activists, providing them with refuge and employment.
Yusif Al Qaradawi, a Qatari national and resident of Egyptian origin, is a good example. He is the head of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, and his television programme on Islamic laws and principles has made him a star on Al Jazeera. His current relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood is not clear, but he has been a leading member, and is highly respected by its members around the world.
One striking example of his influence is a recent photograph of him with Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minster of Hamas in Gaza. (Hamas is an arm of the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood.) In the image, Mr Haniyeh, during a recent visit to Qatar, is bowing and kissing Mr Al Qaradawi's hand in a show of respect.
To better understand the role of Qatari-Islamist harmony in the Arab revolutions, consider the Academy of Change, headed by Hisham Mursi, an Egyptian paediatrician and British national living in Doha. News reports identify him as the son-in-law of Mr Al Qaradawi.
Mr Mursi has been active in Egypt's revolution from the very beginning. When he was arrested in the early days of the protests, Muslim Brotherhood websites campaigned for his release. His organisation takes a special interest in non-violent protest tactics; he has written manuals on the subject. He acknowledges, on the Academy of Change's website, that he benefits from the cooperation of Mr Sultan.
Another example of personal ties involves Rafiq Abdulsalaam, Tunisia's foreign minister. He is the son-in-law of Rashid Al Ghanouchi, the head of Ennahda, Tunisia's Muslim Brotherhood party. Mr Abdulasalaam was formerly the head of the Research and Studies Division in the Al Jazeera Centre in Doha.
An example from Libya is Ali Sallabi, described last December by The Washington Post as the "chief architect of Libya's most likely next government". Mr Sallabi has lived in Qatar for several years.
A third point to understand is what Qatar provides for the Brotherhood. There are strong indications of media help, political training and financial support. The role of people like those named above offers circumstantial evidence of such support. Further, key staff members of Al Jazeera have had - and maintain - close connections to the Muslim Brotherhood. These include the previous general manager, Waddah Khanfar, the head of the Amman office, Yasser Abu Hillaleh, and the Egyptian TV presenter, Ahmad Mansur.
Last August, Nevin Mus'ad, a politics professor at Cairo University, told the Egyptian daily Al Shorouq that she was surprised to notice that the university was offering a training course on democracy and human rights, organised by the National Human Rights Committee of Qatar. She said bearded men wearing the jilbab (Islamist dress) were organising the entrance of participants, most of whom were wearing Islamist dress. The women were veiled.
In Libya, Mr Sallabi - who is known also for his connection to Mr Al Qaradawi - told reporters that he had asked the Qatari leadership for assistance during the early stages of the Libyan revolution.
Last year Al Akhbar, a Lebanese newspaper close to Hizbollah (Damascus's strong ally), said the rift between Qatar and the Syrian regime occurred when Doha attempted to convince Syrian President Bashar Al Assad to form an interim ruling council including Muslim Brotherhood representation.
The fourth factor helpful in understanding the Qatar-Brotherhood alliance involves what Qatar stands to gain.
First, the relationship ensures that Islamists will not criticise Qatari government policies or be active there. Second, as Islamists head towards power in several countries, Qataris are in position to expect special economic and political treatment in each. Third, Qatar will be well-positioned to mediate between Islamists and their rivals, and also between Islamists in general and the West. The Afghan Taliban, for example, are now expected to open an office in Qatar. Such developments offer Qatar greater international influence.
Dr Ahmad Jamil Azem is a visiting fellow at the University of Cambridge's faculty of Asian and Middle East studies
Updated: May 18, 2012 04:00 AM