The Arab citizen is an elusive species who lives in the margins of his or her society. The popular uprisings, known as the Arab Spring, beginning in Tunisia and spreading across the Middle East have led to a mixed result of progression to and regression from democratic self-determination in the last four years. Most people remain excluded from the corridors of power. On a national plane, regimes, mostly unelected, seek to gain the acquiescence (or subjugation) of the Arab citizen through an assortment of methods involving coercion, propaganda, persuasion and patronage. Broader global and regional forces have exerted pressures on restricting the scope of political activities. Geopolitical jockeying appears to compound the contradictions tugging the Middle East between authoritarianism and democracy after the unleashing of the popular uprisings. A unipolar world, American power remains unrivalled in size and muscle, continues to shape the neighbourhood of the Middle East. Security has often, although not always, obscured the search for democracy in the region.
Fissures in the Middle East
The Middle East has long been the object of regional and global rivalries. Since Napoleon’s ill-fated attempt at creating an empire in the ‘Orient’, brashly claiming to be a Muslim and a liberator of Egypt’s Muslims, the presence of the West made itself increasing felt not simply culturally but also militarily and politically. Power and ideology were variously intertwined. Local rulers have had to contend with the empires of the day. Two centuries of interaction between Arabs, Persians, Berbers, Turks and Kurds on the one hand and Western political actors led to the formation of a system of nation-states privileging the identities of some while keeping others in the shadows awaiting the right moment to bloom in the open air of self-determination.
What may look like sovereign nation-states in the Middle East turn out upon closer scrutiny to be ongoing political constructions largely dependent on military, political and financial backing from regional and global actors. Political bargains have been made in the Persian Gulf between Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar, previously including Saudi Arabia, with the USA in the form of the latter’s military bases. A drop in the ocean compared to the over hundred American bases throughout the world. Nonetheless, the strategic implications of these bargains are not mere window dressing for a superpower with pretensions of empire but to simultaneously guarantee the integrity of the sheikhdoms in the Gulf from regional threats and safeguard essential oil and natural gas supplies from real or imagined perils. Great Britain’s historic relationship with Bahrain has enjoyed a recent boost in relations through the planned creation of a military base on the island amid the clampdown on protests for greater freedoms by the Shi’a majority.
The irresistible sweep of the Arab Spring over the Middle East has added a new element of power with a legitimacy all of its own. Democratic aspirations were being worked out in cyberspace and the public squares of Arab capitals and towns. The powerful symbols of the Tunisian Muhammad Bouazizi and the Egyptian Khaled Said inspired many young Arab citizens to identify with the suffering and humiliation meted out by their regimes. And the subsequent fall of a number of these regimes, particularly Ben Ali’s and Mubarak’s in Tunisia and Egypt respectively, emboldened protesters on the streets of Benghazi in Libya, Manama in Bahrain and Deraa in Syria.
Regional rivalries intervened in the crumbling of gerontocracies or dictatorships. The ephemeral post-dictatorship regimes made up of Islamists in Tunisia and Egypt had been welcomed by ‘revisionist’ powers in the Middle East such as Turkey and Qatar whose geopolitical interests are not necessarily staked on the status quo. The regional hegemons of Israel and Saudi Arabia viewed with suspicion the presidency of Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, and welcomed the military coup which got rid of him with subdued elation in Tel Aviv and financial aid from Riyadh. Claims of involvement of Saudi Arabia in this coup purportedly revolve around Prince Bandar bin Sultan’s ‘diplomacy’ who has since been removed from his remaining positions of influence by the new Saudi King, in its run-up. No apparent ideological kinship binds the current regime in Cairo with the Saudis except the opposition to an Islamist government determined to build bridges with Turkey, Iran and Qatar in a move away from the geopolitical ties between the bygone Mubarak regime and the Gulf states. Billions of dollars have been poured into the coffers of the Egyptian state seemingly strengthening the hand of the army in the face of any internal opposition or external objections. In return, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi has reiterated that the Gulf security is a ‘red line’, in reference to the sheikhdoms in the region, which occurs against the backdrop of the perceived menaces to emerge from Islamism, terrorism and Iran. The threat of military intervention in Yemen from the head of the Suez Canal may reflect an assertive Gulf-Egyptian axis, reflecting Saudi interests, in response to the increasing clout of Shi’a Houthi rebels and their take-over of Sanaa.
Perceived existential threats to the status quo in the Middle East were at the top of domestic and foreign policy agendas. The backlash against Islamists is accompanied by the rolling back of the victories of the Arab Spring, motivated by the fear of the domino effect of democratic transitions, whether revolutionary or reformist. From vicious acts of state-violence to legislation banning mass demonstrations, the ability of the Arab citizen to reclaim the ground of citizenship, rather than be a subject and experience subjugation, has receded. Realpolitik has restored, to a large degree, the status quo of unaccountable governments beyond the reach of ordinary people and renewed, interestingly, the previous Cold War role of Russia to counterbalance the USA by the latter’s own traditional allies. Conspiracies abound in some circles in Egypt about America’s reputed alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood, but the myth of American and Gulf support for Islamists is dispelled by reality. Despite the Obama administration’s refusal to classify the overthrow of Morsi as a coup d’état which would demand the suspension of military aid of 1.5 billion US dollars, only a part of which was withheld, it has been treated frostily.
The very public overtures by the Sisi regime towards Russia can be seen to be a signal of dissatisfaction from one of the closest allies, the Egyptian army, of the USA in the Middle East. Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, publicly conveyed his support for Sisi to be president in early 2014 prior to the erstwhile defence minister’s declaration to run for the position. A joint Russo-Egyptian agreement in February 2015 to build a nuclear plant follows arms deals worth over 3 billion dollars. Closer coordination between Russia and Egypt under the leadership of two purported strongmen is not a return to the ideological polarisations of the Cold War but an indication of the increasing autonomy of regional Middle Eastern powers. No global conflict between the USA and Russia is in the offing. Instead, Saudi disapproval about America’s foreign policy, particularly the P5+1 and Iran nuclear negotiations, is expressed through closer ties with Egypt in political, military and financial terms while the latter pursues military agreements with Putin’s Russia and interferes militarily in Libya much to the chagrin of Washington.
Regional stability, energy supplies, nuclear weapons, the threat of terrorism and the lack of democratisation in the Middle East continue to influence how the USA interacts with regional actors. While most Arab states have managed to weather the storm of the Arab Spring, at very high costs in the areas of lives and legitimacy, the nuclear issue has the potential to bring about a reconciliation of two bitter opponents after decades of mutual hostility. A thaw in US-Iranian relations could very well alter the status quo by reaching into overlapping issues such as heightened cooperation in post-conflict Iraq and Afghanistan to confront the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL) and the Taliban respectively, the security of the sheikhdoms neighbouring Iran, and finding a political solution in Syria. And one possible consequence for American foreign policy could be less a reliance on ‘moderate’ Arab states.
Failing States, Pretenders to the Caliphate and Sectarianism
The on-going regional conflict in Syria poses a seemingly insurmountable quagmire bordering Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan. In the heart of the Levant, a failing state has introduced a set of new dynamics. Millions have been dispossessed after a bloody crackdown by Bashar al-Assad’s forces on protests and the subsequent involvement of regional and global powers backing local actors. 3.7 million refugees fled Syria and more than double are internally displaced persons (IDPs). Many live a precarious existence with large numbers of children not receiving an education worthy of the word and have become for all intents and purposes a lost generation. New kinship ties of post-modern origin, based on a rootless sense of religious identity and cruel violence, have challenged the sovereignty of the Syrian modern state. National boundaries have been breached. Sub-national actors, namely militias, have filled in the gaps created by the absence of government motivated by a variety of goals and ideologies.
A self-styled ‘Caliphate’ has been established by ISIL (known by the acronym Daesh in local Arabic parlance) under the obscure Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi which lacks the classical juristic qualification of the bayah (oath of allegiance) from the one billion Muslims which constitute the ummah (Islamic community) or from its representative figures, if any could be forthcoming or exist in the first place, in the form of ahl al-hall wal-aqd (those who loosen and bind). Over 120 prominent religious figures have rejected the claims of ISIL in an open letter addressed to al-Baghdadi published in September 2014. The group is made up of militias filled with foreign fighters, hitherto living on the edges of their societies (ethnic minorities and teenagers in Western countries and marginalised elements in Syria and Iraq), rather than being a state as such. Ostensible oppression of Syrians and Iraqis is not so much an issue to rally around as the creation of a theocratic entity supposedly implementing the Shari’ah. A sectarian agenda is being implemented targeting the ancient mosaic of religious and ethnic minorities of the Middle East dating back before the pre-Islamic era.
King Abdullah’s warning of the rise of a ‘Shi’a Crescent’ in 2004 now haunts the present. This narrative of a sharp divide between Sunnis and Shi’as has played on the fears of an unbroken semi-circle of Shi’a influence from Lebanon to Iran through Iraq. In recent years, another fissure has thus opened between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims. Foreign fighters, both Sunni and Shi’a, are locked in battles in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. While ISIL has attracted disaffected Sunnis from all the world, militias have emerged composed by Shi’a fighters dedicated to fight groups fighting Bashar al-Assad and ISIL’s presence in Iraq. One notable militant group Abu Fadl al-Abbas, made up of Shi’a volunteers from Iraq, Iran and Lebanon, is dedicated to protect the holy shrines revered by Shi’as like Sayyida Zaynab in Damascus but appears to be fighting outside the capital. Overt religious affiliations have complicated the political picture in Syria and the rest of the Middle East overriding the notion of sovereignty. Such a clash of the sectarian divide has galvanised the citizens of the Middle East and beyond on a set of loyalties in a flagrant dismissal of the aspiration of the democratic ideal of the equality of the citizenry.
Outlawing the Arab Citizen
The very act of protesting is received with a deep sense of angst by Middle Eastern regimes. Deep apprehension of the spiralling out of peaceful demonstrations leading to the fall of the head of state exists with the shocking precedents of Tunisia and Egypt. Yet the receding of the gains of the Arab Spring has occurred at the heels of the return of the ‘ancient regime’: civilian, military and security figures. A psychology of fear now plagues Arab citizens. From terrorism to patriotism, national politics has been reduced to defending a vague ‘national interest’ cloaking a set of power relations combining vested business interests, political bargains and social privilege. To be an Arab citizen has meant the navigating of treacherous waters where the calls for human rights and liberty are drowning.
In Bahrain, mass demonstrations began around the now demolished Pearl Roundabout in Manama. A coalition of interests including the ruling family, the security forces and Saudi troops have combined in Bahrain to put an end to these demonstrations. Further, many protesters and those defending them, lawyers and human rights activists like Nabil Rajab, have faced the full brunt of the state apparatus from the security services to the judiciary. The stripping of citizenship is being used as part of the punitive resources of the regime to crackdown against dissent. Elsewhere in Egypt, a political game of musical chairs has seen a number of the supporters of the coup against Morsi being excluded from a share in power. Prominent liberals such as Ahmed Douma are in prison for the simple act of protesting and Mohamed ElBaradei, who was an advocate of reform in the lead-up to the ousting of Mubarak, is no longer in Egypt after leaving in a climate of media vilification. A new state-led corporatism of sorts is emerging on the Egyptian political stage. A realignment of interests and actors under the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces (SCAF) is underway based on populism: principally the military, the police and judiciary. The ‘two revolutions’, 25th January 2011 and 30th June 2013, provide the ideological impetus for this coalition of interests. The state is the sole patron, inspired by the idea of the strongman or enlightened despot, in the name of the unity for the sake of the nation or al-watan. All else is to be subordinated.
While the state’s official corporatism does indeed trumpet the ‘two revolutions’, the interests of the army does not in fact lie with the taking place of a genuine revolution. Social-wide changes affecting the economy and politics would inevitably unravel the Egyptian political order with the army at the apex of the pyramid. The opening decades of the 21st century is entirely different from the period surrounding the 1952 ‘Free Officers’ revolution. What began as a coup by a cadre of mostly junior-ranking military officers soon saw the redistribution the wealth of the upper classes in a show of state force and socialist ideology. Gamal Abdel Nasser and his fellow would-be revolutionaries were bitterly opposed to privilege and power which concentrated land and wealth in the hands of the few. A massive relocation of both was pursued. Currently, those firmly in charge of the army lead an organisation benefitting from crony-capitalism and a major recipient of foreign aid. No material incentive exists for giving up a business empire, a veritable military-industrial complex, for a radical economic policy which would be a fundamental prerequisite for a revolution. Actually, a pro-capitalist campaign has been initiated by the Sisi government seeking to attract foreign investment for an ailing Egyptian economy. Thus, a conservative regime is firmly ensconced in the geopolitical and economic status quo.
One major casualty of this status quo has been, noted in the criminalisation of the freedom to protest, so evident in the unrelenting violence in Rabaa al-Adawiya against largely unarmed civilians subject to the full force of the state. After the events of summer 2013, the realising of revolution has become more of a distant dream. A cycle of violence has ensued. No alternative to the narrative of brute force is entertained seriously by the state or those locked in a battle with it in the Sinai region. Upcoming parliamentary elections in March and April of this year portend to a further restricting of the access to power. Egypt’s largest political movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, is banned with unanswered questions about the partiality of the judiciary while Mubarak-era crimes and individuals remain largely unpunished. Its leaders have received death sentences in tenuous judicial procedures. Free and fair elections in this environment will be virtually impossible. Although Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh’s Strong Egypt Party is going to boycott, along with other movements and parties, the elections to parliament, coalitions led by former military officer Sameh Seif el-Yazal and the billionaire-tycoon Naguib Sawiris have announced their intentions to run.
The location of Egypt in the Arab imaginary is central to the fate of the Arab Spring in a horizon filled with authoritarianism. Populism and corporatism are curtailing the democratic aspirations and realities of the Arab citizen. Worn-out platitudes of the need to unite in the face of terrorism while sacrificing liberty will continue to undermine the broader efforts to confront ISIL and other militant groups intent on robbing the Middle East of the right of the freedom of conscience. The individual is sacrificed at the idols of jingoism and theocracy. And despite the attacks on the freedom of association afflicting the Middle East, calls continue unabated for bread, freedom and social justice.
Dr Mohammed Moussa received his doctorate on renewal in the Islamic tradition from the University of Exeter. He is a Muslim Institute Fellow. One of his chief interests, among many, is the Arabo-Islamic heritage as part of a broader and richer experiment called humanity.