In 2011, according to the ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey, “living in a democracy” was the most important desire for 92 percent of respondents. A mere four years later, however, 39 percent of Arab youth believes democracy would never work in the Arab world, and perceive Daesh, not dictatorships, as their most pressing problem.
Powerful states seem to share this perception.
Concentrating on symptoms rather than causes, some believe that bombing Daesh as a short-term response to terrorism and re-embracing ‘security states’ in the name of realism is the order of the day.
How did the bright revolutionary discourse of 2011 turn so rapidly into a fearful whisper? Jean-Pierre Filiu’s From Deep State to Islamic State—a passionate, sometimes polemical, yet 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.”
Filiu draws this out through his masterful use of historic analogies. He summons the Mamluks, Egypt’s pre-Ottoman ruling caste of the years 1250 to 1517 C.E. to our attention. 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—militarized 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, (but in fact holding hostage) the heir to the defunct Abbasid Caliphate. Their modern protégés claim the authority bestowed upon them by the popular will, also held hostage, as periodically demonstrated by staged plebiscites.
At first, Filiu’s neo-Mamluks redistributed wealth from the old oligarchy, but then closely guarded the spoils. Both their efforts to privatize as well as nationalize 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 powerful nexus of organised crime, business, and the military-intelligence complex, which solidifies most obviously in response to revolutionary challenges.
Opaque military budgets act as an enabler of profiteering, as do militaristic adventures. Egypt in the 1960s Yemen, for instance, or the Syrian ‘locusts’ during the occupation of Lebanon are eloquent examples. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (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, for instance 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, putatively in return for its truce with Israel. Syria, meanwhile, milked both the USSR and the Arab Gulf for being a ‘frontline state,’ respecting the rules of the regional game.
Such mafias, in Filiu’s view, offer both their own subjects and the West a false security deal against demons of their own invention, whilst the West has long been consistent in its support. After driving Saddam Hussain’s army from Kuwait in 1991, the U.S. nevertheless permitted the dictator’s use of helicopter gunships to repress a popular uprising.
Later that year the Algerian regime cancelled elections that 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 profoundly “transformed …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 2011-2012, a “tripartite alliance between militarized intelligence, politicized judiciary and criminal gangs” which maneuvered to defend its privileges while neutralizing the revolution’s democratic urges.
President Hosni Mubarak-era grandees funded the liberal-led Tamarod movement, whose protests against the Muslim Brotherhood’s incompetent and authoritarian President Morsi culminated in now-President Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s July 2013 coup. This counter-revolution was achieved with millions on the streets, with Egyptian 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 organized 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 of that month marked the start of the liquidation of the Muslim Brotherhood, then followed by the repression of leftists, liberals and workers. El Sisi’s rhetoric associated all opposition with jihadism in the Sinai—a threat greatly exacerbated by the army’s iron-fist tactics against the marginalized Bedouin there. And on August 21, Sisi’s ruthlessness was exceeded by the Syrian regime, when it murdered 1400 Damascenes with sarin gas.
No action was taken against Bashar Al Assad, who continues to enjoy his sponsors’ largesse. El 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 Daesh. And in Syria, Assad and Russia, mouthing the same words, focus their fire on democratic-nationalist rebels but generally leave Daesh 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, now 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 recognizes that sovereignty belongs to the people, not to a minority of gangsters who seize it.