By Courtney Freer
A UAE crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood gained widespread attention in 2012 but it began in the mid-1990s
September 11 and the second Brotherhood crackdown
The tense relationship between the Emirati government and the Muslim Brotherhood became more confrontational following the attacks of September 11, 2001. The fact that two Emiratis were involved in the incidents made the government eager to prove to the international community that it would not tolerate religious extremism of any type. As part of this effort, Emirati authorities increased internal security. The State Security Directorate arrested over 250 individuals accused of terrorism, mainly harbouring Islamist sympathies, in 2002, yet most had been released by 2004 (Saldaña, 140).
The central government also began, in 2003, hosting talks between Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Shaykh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan and the Brotherhood to persuade the organisation to stop organisational activity inside the UAE and to sever its ties with the international Ikhwan. In exchange, the central government would support the organisation and allow it to continue its work in Islamic daʿwa. In the view of Emirati authorities, if Islah were not a politically subversive group, it would not require independent organisational capacity. After months of talks, Islah rejected the government’s invitation to continue engaging in daʿwa without a formal organisational structure.
Realising that it could not force the group’s disbandment, the government tried to mitigate the Ikhwan’s influence. It transferred some 170 Brotherhood members, including 83 officers from the Ministry of Education, to other government departments. Despite this setback, the remaining three branches of Islah (Dubai, Fujairah, and Ras al-Khaimah) and the Guidance Society in Ajman continued with their activities of hosting discussions, lectures, and Quran recitation competitions, in addition to the publication of al-Islah magazine.
By the mid-2000s, it had become clear that “[t]he regime in the UAE is not friendly toward Islamists, and prominent Islamists have been arrested, barred from teaching at university, and otherwise harassed by the government” (Michael Herb, “Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates,” in Politics and Society in the Contemporary Middle East, ed. Michele Penner Angrist (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2010), 359). In such an environment, it became increasingly difficult for members of Islah to pursue their independent activities, leading some of them to join the country’s broader movement for political reform.
Facing down the reform movement
A petition, addressed to President Shaykh Khalifa and the Supreme Council of Rulers in March 2011 and endorsed by 133 intellectuals, among them Islah members, led to the most significant government crackdown on any opposition inside the UAE. The immediate catalyst for the petition was the government’s failure to introduce legislation to increase the pool of voters for the country’s only elected body, the Federal National Council (FNC). Notably, four professional organisations (the associations for jurists, teachers, national heritage professionals, and university faculty), all of which were traditionally known for their Brotherhood ties, signed the petition. This marked the first time that liberal and Islamist opposition had come together in such a public political undertaking.
In early April 2011, five of the petition’s signatories (the so-called UAE5), said to be its primary backers, were arrested. They were charged with “‘publicly insulting’ the UAE’s president, vice-president and crown prince in comments posted on an online discussion forum [….] All five were convicted in November 2011 after a trial that failed to satisfy international standards of fair trial, and sentenced to prison terms of up to three years.” Shortly after their sentencing, the five (none of whom was an Islah member) were released through a presidential pardon due to international media attention and a November 2011 report by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention condemning the arrests. Having been released, the activists continued voicing their political opinions, primarily through social media.
Hoping to stifle dissent from the civil society sector, the government also disbanded the boards of the independent Jurist Association and Teachers’ Association in 2011, both of which had supported the petition. “By summarily dismissing their executive boards and appointing government nominees to replace them, the authorities compromised the independence of the two organisations and effectively sent a warning to other NGOs to toe the line or risk opening themselves to similar government intervention.”
Hoping to deflect attention from incidents like the UAE5, the government made limited efforts to respond to domestic political opposition, while also boosting financial disbursements. The government expanded the FNC electorate to some 12 percent of the national population for the September 2011 elections, yet the body still lacks legislative authority. More significantly, the authorities granted huge public sector pay increases (in some cases up to 100 percent) and boosted welfare benefits by up to 20 percent, in addition to signing a $2.7 billion agreement to help poorer nationals pay off outstanding loans. Further, the federal government announced a new investment of $1.6 billion to improve infrastructure in the poorer northern emirates.
Islah supported the UAE5 and other imprisoned activists as the crackdown continued into 2012. Although liberal and Islamist activists had worked together on the petition, the government exaggerated links between them in an effort to dramatise the danger to the system. The government also charged that Islah exploited the controversy surrounding the UAE5 to increase its own influence, “using the umbrella of reform to reach their goals” of larger government takeover (interview with Ebtesam al-Ketbi). While the first wave of crackdown focused on the petition, the second was directed at Islah.
Government crackdown on Islah
In 2012, the government launched a campaign of arrests targeting the Muslim Brotherhood, which it considered to be the primary political threat. “It was more popular and well-known [than the liberal movement] due to its social activities. Many of its members were seen as the cream of society” (interview with Ahmed Mansoor). In April 2012, seven Islah members (the so-called UAE7), who were signatories to the March 2011 petition and whose citizenship had been stripped in December 2011, were sent to prison after they did not leave the country as the government requested.
By the end of 2012, 94 alleged members of Islah had been arrested, with 69 of them sentenced to between seven and 15 year in prison. Attorney General Ali Salim al-Tunaiji announced “the country’s national security was under threat from a group of people with ties to ‘foreign organizations and agendas’ – a clear reference to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood organization. Al-Tunaiji accused this group of plotting ‘crimes against state security’ and of opposing ‘the UAE constitution and ruling system’,” yet presented no evidence to that effect.
The government also claimed to have received confessions from imprisoned Islah members, admitting that their organisation had an armed wing and aimed to overthrow the existing order to re-establish the caliphate, an assertion not substantiated by any independent Islah documents or public statements. Islah denied all charges, stating that the organisation is “pacifist, civilian and moderate and has never, and will never, choose to take up arms.”
In addition to the series of arrests, “there was a massive media campaign; businesses, bank accounts were suspended, and people were threatened” (interview with Ahmed Mansoor). Following the UAE94 trial, another security trial was held in November 2013, wherein 10 of the 94, along with 20 Egyptians (six tried in absentia), were charged for creating an international branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and for stealing and circulating classified state documents. They were convicted in January 2014, despite complaints of being forced to make confessions under torture, and were granted sentences of one to five years, with the Egyptians to be deported immediately after serving their sentences.
Further cementing the Emirati government’s stance against the Brotherhood and in fact any independent organisation, a new anti-terrorism law passed in August 2014 updated the 2004 legislation, allowing for expanded use of the death penalty and other severe punishments. The legislation, though cracking down on violent extremist groups at a time of regional fear about an resurgence of violent jihadist activity, also “has the potential to be used against peaceful activists and government critics due to the broad ambit of its provisions, their vague definition, and the range of actions that may be considered under the law to amount to terrorism.”
In November 2014, the UAE released a list of 82 organisations that it considers terrorist groups. Although this record includes violent organisations such as al-Qaeda and ISIS, it also comprises nonviolent groups like Islah and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, in addition to advocacy organisations like the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
The extent of the Emirati Brotherhood’s popular support
The UAE government’s harsh crackdown is puzzling, considering that the Emirati Brotherhood never seemed to pose a major political threat, and certainly not the existential threat the government portrays it to be. Examination of its internal documents reveals that Islah held few political aspirations beyond enhancing the role of less forcefully, advancing popular participation in government.
Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Shaykh Mohammed bin Zayed seems convinced that the Brotherhood is a major political threat. As early as 2004, in a U.S. Department of State diplomatic cable, he maintained that the UAE contained up to 700 Brotherhood members and claimed the State Security Directorate had identified 50-60 Emirati Brotherhood members in the military. Shaykh Mohammed also estimated that some 50 to 80 percent of the 60,000 UAE armed forces “would respond to the call of ‘some holy man in Mekkah’,” going on to say that he would be “‘stoned’ by his own citizens if he pushed some subjects too openly.”
Inspired by Shaykh Mohammed’s distrust of the Brotherhood and conviction that it held sway in important sectors of political life, the Abu Dhabi-based central government, having used the petition movement as an excuse to ramp up security, has strengthened its control throughout the country. For its part, Islah, now formally disbanded and designated a terrorist group, insists that it is “an independent, patriotic group that has received no funds from abroad … [and] is loyal to the Emirati government.” The organisation continues, primarily from abroad, using its website to demand the release of its detained members and calling for the prosecution of government officials whom it believes to have tortured Islah detainees to obtain false confessions from them about the group’s militant nature.
Those inside the UAE who remain sympathetic to the Brotherhood “are very careful and keep it quiet” (interview with Dubai journalist), and there is no evidence of their influence on policy. Still, the government remains nervous, having seen the appeal of the Brotherhood’s ideology and the ability of its members to influence government ministries in the past. Although organisationally defunct, the Emirati Brotherhood maintains ideological sway over segments of the population, yet it is uncertain how large these are. Maintaining its caution toward the group, the central government is taking great care to promote secular nationalism above Islamism, even restricting the length of beards that members of the armed forces can sport lest they be mistaken for Islamists who tend to favour that look.
In its recent crackdown on local Muslim Brotherhood affiliates, the Emirati government actually contributed to the Ikhwan’s political influence, openly describing it as a serious threat to the existing order “no less dangerous than Iran.” By inflating the Brotherhood’s political importance, the Emirati government forced the dismantling of the organisation and incited hatred toward it more generally, as it was portrayed as a radical militant group dangerous to the prevailing system. In reality, the Emirati Muslim Brotherhood has been concerned primarily with adjusting social policies inside of the UAE, especially in the face of increasing secularisation and Westernisation. Its attempt to promote more conservative social practices, however, was taken to be a threat to an Emirati leadership, largely under the control of Shaykh Mohammed bin Zayed, which increasingly defines itself as progressive and secular.
As a consequence of this most recent and severest crackdown on the Emirati Brotherhood, it is unlikely that the group will publicly attempt to influence policies inside the UAE, though it will remain ideologically influential. Rather, it continues to focus on changing policy from outside the country – primarily with the aim of altering attitudes toward the Brotherhood that led to their imprisonment.
Courtney Freer is a Research Officer at LSE’s Kuwait Programme on Development, Governance and Globalisation in the Gulf States. She recently completed her DPhil at University of Oxford and previously worked as a Research Assistant at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.