An edited version of this piece was published at Newsweek Middle East edition.
In 2011, according to the ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey, “living in a democracy” was the most important desire for 92% of respondents. A mere four years later, however, 39% of Arab youths believed democracy would never work in the Arab world, and perceived ISIS, not dictatorship, as their most pressing problem.
Powerful states seem to share the perception, bombing ISIS as a short-term gestural response to terrorism, re-embracing ‘security states’ in the name of realism – concentrating on symptoms rather than causes.
How did the bright revolutionary discourse of 2011 turn so fast to a fearful whisper? Jean-Pierre Filiu’s “From Deep State to Islamic State” – a passionate, sometimes polemical, and very timely book – examines “the repressive dynamics designed to crush any hope of democratic change, through the association of any revolutionary experience with the worst collective nightmare.”
For historical analogy, Filiu evokes the Mamluks, Egypt’s pre-Ottoman ruling caste. Descended from slaves, these warriors lived in their own fortified enclaves, and considered the lands and people under their control as personal property. Filiu sees a modern parallel in the neo-colonial elites – militarised elements of the lower and rural classes – who hijacked independence in Algeria, Egypt, and Syria (and, in different ways, in Libya, Iraq, Tunisia and Yemen).
The medieval Mamluks claimed spiritual authority by protecting (actually holding hostage) the heir to the defunct Abbasid Caliphate. Their modern proteges claim the authority of the popular will, also held hostage, as periodically demonstrated by staged plebiscites.
At first the neo-Mamluks redistributed wealth from the old oligarchy, but then closely guarded the spoils. Both their privatisations and nationalisations are more correctly described as expropriations.
Perhaps more useful than the Mamluk parallel is an image Filiu borrows from 1990s Turkey: the ‘deep state’ of the title – a power nexus of organised crime, business, and the military-intelligence security sector, which solidifies most obviously in response to revolutionary challenges.
Opaque military budgets facilitate profiteering, as do military adventures – Egypt in 1960s Yemen, for instance, or the Syrian ‘locusts’ during the occupation of Lebanon. The PKK’s heroin labs in the Bekaa valley provided a particularly lucrative perk for Syria’s ‘shabeeha’ – regime-approved smugglers then, counter-revolutionary paramilitaries now. Closed borders (as between Morocco and Algeria) may be bad for development, but they boost smuggling revenues and so benefit the ruling clique.
As protection-racketeers, the “security mafias” profit from peace as much as war. The Egyptian army receives American billions in return for its truce with Israel. Syria, meanwhile, milked both the USSR and the Gulf for being a ‘frontline state’ respecting the rules of the regional game.
They offer both their own subjects and the West a security deal against demons of their own invention, and the West has long been consistent in its support for the false stability they market.
After driving Saddam Hussain’s army from Kuwait in 1991, the US nevertheless permitted Saddam’s use of helicopter gunships to repress a popular uprising.
Later that year the Algerian regime cancelled elections which the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was poised to win. The state armed pro-regime militias, banned the FIS, arrested its leaders, killed hundreds of protestors, and rounded up opponents, secularists included, accusing them of ‘terrorism’. In this climate the jihadist Armed Islamic Group (GIA) emerged; it slaughtered thousands of innocents. The army was accused of “military complicity or waging a ‘dirty war’ against the population”. At least 100,000 died. The experience “transformed profoundly an Algerian public who had learned in the hardest manner possible how to stay docile”.
It is an oft-repeated pattern. The Mamluks will provoke chaos, even civil war, to guard their thrones.
Filiu describes the rebound of Egypt’s deep state in 2011/12 – a “tripartite alliance between militarised intelligence, politicised judiciary and criminal gangs” which manoeuvred to defend its priviliges while neutralising the revolution’s democratic urges.
Mubarak-era grandees funded the liberal-led Tamarod movement, whose protests against the (Muslim Brotherhood’s) incompetent and authoritarian President Morsi culminated in General Sisi’s July 2013 coup. This counter-revolution was achieved with millions on the streets, Air Force planes painting smoke hearts in the skies above them. Cairo’s chronic power cuts and gasoline shortages, Filiu writes, “disappeared with a speed that gave credit to the thesis of an organised destabilisation.”
August 2013 was a pivotal moment: before it, revolutionary hopes for dignity and freedom; after it, despair, terror, and rising jihadism. In Egypt the Rabia massacre marked the start of the liquidation of the Muslim Brotherhood, then repression of leftists, liberals and workers. Sisi’s rhetoric associated all opposition with jihadism in the Sinai – a threat greatly exacerbated by the army’s iron fist tactics against the marginalised Beduin there. And on August 21st, Sisi’s ruthlessness was exceeded by the Syrian regime’s, when it murdered 1400 Damascenes with sarin gas.
No action was taken against Assad, who continues to enjoy his sponsors’ largesse. Sisi likewise, though Filiu warns, “the tragic spiral into which he is dragging Egypt, and possibly Libya, could prove more devastating than all the previous Mamluk adventures.”
In Libya, using the same war-on-jihadism rhetoric, the Sisi-backed Tobruk government has until recently attacked distant Tripoli but ignored nearby Derna, held by ISIS. And in Syria, Assad and Russia, mouthing the same words, focus their fire on democratic-nationalist rebels but generally leave ISIS alone.
The Assad regime has long played this game. In the early months of the revolution, while it was assassinating peaceful, non-sectarian activists, it released hundreds of jihadists from prison – including Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, leader of Jabhat al-Nusra. Now Assad – an arsonist dressed as a fireman – offers his tyranny’s collaboration against terrorism. Far too many are taking the offer seriously.
It should be clear by now. In Algeria, Egypt, Syria and elsewhere, the alternative to popular participation is not ‘stability’ but terror. The alternative to democratic Islamism is not secularism, but jihadism.
We need an approach like Filiu’s – less naive, more attuned to context, less willing to fall for the tyrants’ tricks. An approach which recognises that sovereignty belongs to people, not to states or the gangsters who seize them.