top of page

The Middle East and North Africa: A 30-minute whirlwind tour

The Middle East and North Africa: A 30-minute whirlwind tour

By James M. Dorsey

Lecture at the Lee Kwan Yew School of Public Policy, 3 March 2016

No free lunches

What the dramatic and bloody developments in the Middle East and North Africa demonstrate is that there are no free lunches. These developments are the product of short sighted policies of on the one hand major players in the international community – the United States, the former Soviet Union and currently Russia as well as Europe and China – and on the other hand of primarily dictatorial regimes or a minority of democratically elected governments like Israel who see merit in exploiting opportunity that allows them to avoid healing festering wounds.

The popular revolts that swept the Middle East and North Africa in 2011 toppling leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, sparked the civil wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen, Saudi military interventions in Bahrain and Yemen, and the rise of jihadism with today the Islamic States at its epicentre, were a response to decades of autocratic, arbitrary rule that failed to produce in national, economic and social terms. That autocratic rule benefitted from the support of the international community. The West saw autocracy as a guarantee for stability while countries like the Soviet Union at the time, Russia today and China never really adhered to values of democratic change.

Many have commented that the revolts demonstrated that the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict despite Arab and Muslim claims to the contrary was not at the core of problems in the Middle East and North Africa. They point to the fact that the conflict did not figure prominently in the events of 2011 and has not been key to developments since. That is true. The fallacy is that the conflict never was at the core of regional issues. Israel-Palestine figures less prominently in the developments because it no longer can serve autocrats as a lightning rod that distracts from the real domestic and regional issues. It did however serve to aggravate problems. The lightning rod backfired. Arab military and political incompetence coupled with divisions among Palestinians and Israeli intransigence ultimately served to undermine the legitimacy of autocrats who failed to perform on what a vast majority in the Middle East and North Africa saw as an issue of national importance and pride and fundamental justice.

All of this summarily explains why the Middle East and North Africa is in transition. It positions the events of recent years as a rejection of corrupt and failed autocratic rule. What it doesn’t explain is why the transition has taken such a violent turn and produced brutal and ruthless forces that range from the Islamic State to the regimes of Bashar al Assad in Syria and the Al Sauds in Saudi Arabia that are willing to pursue their goals and remain in power at whatever human, social, economic and political cost.

Middle Eastern and North African exceptionalism

The uprisings of 2011 caught government officials, journalists and analysts across the globe by surprise. They were until then enamoured by what became known as Arab exceptionalism, the apparent ability of Arab autocrats to buck the global trend towards democracy. Arab leaders appeared to be immune to popular aspirations and able to maintain their grip on power with no credible forces able to challenge them. That myth was shattered in 2011.

That is not to say that Arab exceptionalism is a fallacy. It isn’t. However, what it represents is something very different from what officials and pundits thought it meant. The nature of Arab exceptionalism becomes evident in the exploration of the answer to the question why political transition was relatively successful in Southeast Asia with the popular revolts in the Philippines and Indonesia and military-led political change in Myanmar and why it is so messy and bloody in the Middle East and North Africa.

The answer in my mind lies in four factors – the military, civil society, management of religious and ethnic conflict, and the role of regional powers. In a whirlwind, what this means is that Southeast Asia had militaries, at least parts of which saw change as serving their interest. No Arab military with the exception of Tunisia took that view. Despite repression, Southeast Asia was able to develop some degree of robust civil society, the Middle East and North Africa by and large hasn’t. Southeast Asia has seen its share of ethnic and religious conflict but has often been able to negotiate an end to those disputes. The Lebanese civil war being the exception, the Middle East and North Africa has seen such conflicts as a zero sum game. And finally Southeast Asia is lucky not to have a Saudi Arabia, a counterrevolutionary forced with the temporary wherewithal to stymie change at whatever cost.

A decade of defiance and dissent

All of this means that there is increasingly little space to push for change. Regimes respond with violence to demands of change. Don’t’ forget that revolts like those in Libya, Bahrain and Syria started as peaceful mass anti-government protests that were confronted brutally. Libya sparked foreign intervention to prevent a bloodbath, Saudi Arabia and the Bahraini regime turned Bahrain into sectarian strife and the regime of Bashar al Assad is willing to fight a horrendous civil war to retain power.

All of this takes place in a decade of defiance and dissent. Across the globe, people have lost confidence in the system and their leaders. Donald Trump is an expression of that. The last time this happened was in the 1960s. The difference between then and now is that then there were all kinds of worldviews on offer: anti-authoritarianism. Anarchism, socialism, communism and in the Middle East and North Africa, Arab nationalism and Arab socialism. Today, the only thing on offer are radical interpretations of Islam.

Human rights activist and former Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki asked in a recent Wall Street Journal interview why Tunisia had educated people with jobs joining IS. His answer was: “It’s not the matter of tackling socioeconomic roots. You have to go deeper and understand that these guys have a dream—and we don’t. We had a dream—our dream was called the Arab Spring. And our dream is now turning into a nightmare. But the young people need a dream, and the only dream available to them now is the caliphate.”

What this means is that identifying the root causes of political violence demands self-inspection on the part of governments and societies across the globe. It is those governments and societies that are both part of the problem and part of the solution. It is those governments and societies that are at the root of loss of confidence.

Further troubling the waters is the rise of a public and private anti-terrorism industry that sees human rights as second to ensuring security and safety; has a vested interest in couching the problem in terms of law enforcement and counter-terrorism rather than notions of alienation, marginalization, socio-economic disenfranchisement, youth aspirations and rights; is abetted by autocratic Middle Eastern and North African regimes that define any form of dissent as terrorism; and is supported by a public opinion that buys into support of autocrats and some degree of curtailing of rights as a trade-off for security.

Tackling root causes

Analysts and policymakers have identified a range of causes for the breakdown of the traditional order in the Middle East and North Africa, ranging from a desire for greater freedom and social justice to the fragility of post-colonial regional states as a result of autocratic failure to engage in nation rather than regime building that gave rise to ethnic, tribal and sectarian strife, to inherent flaws in colonial border arrangements at the time of the demise of the Ottoman Empire such as the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Treaty of Sevres. All of those notions contain kernels of truth but they have contributed to it becoming common place to pay lip service to the need to tackle root causes of the crisis in the Middle East and North Africa as well as of political violence, and that can mean almost anything.

Translating the need to tackle root causes into policy is proving difficult, primarily because it is based on a truth that has far-reaching consequences for every member of the international community no matter how close or far they are from IS’s current borders. It involves governments putting their money where their mouth is and changing long-standing, ingrained policies at home that marginalize, exclude, stereotype and stigmatize significant segments of society; emphasize security at the expense of freedoms that encourage healthy debate; and in more autocratic states that are abetted by the West, Russia and China reduce citizens to obedient subjects through harsh repression and adaptations of religious belief to suit the interests of rulers.

The result is a vicious circle: government policies often clash with the state or regime’s professed values. As a result, dividing lines sharpen as already marginalized, disenfranchised or discriminated segments of society see the contradiction between policies and values as hypocritical and re-confirmation of the basis of their discontent. Western nations, for example, in the fall of 2015, deferred to Saudi Arabia’s objections to an investigation by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) into human rights violations by all sides during the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen in which thousands of civilians were killed. Media reports documented, a day prior to the Western cave-in, a British pledge to support Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s foremost violators of basic human rights and purveyors of sectarianism, in the Council. The kingdom, at the same time, objected to references to gay rights in the United Nations’ newly formulated Sustainable Development Goals.

Inclusiveness is the answer

Creating a policy framework that is conducive to an environment in the Middle East and North Africa that would favour pluralism and respect of human rights and counter the appeal of jihadism and emerging sectarian-based nationalism is not simply a question of encouraging and supporting voices in the region, first and foremost those of youth, or of revisiting assumptions of Western foreign policies and definitions of national security. It involves fostering inclusive national identities that are capable of accommodating ethnic, sectarian and tribal sub-identities as legitimate and fully accepted sub-identities in Middle Eastern and North Africa, as well as in Western countries, and changing domestic policies towards minorities, refugees and migrants.

In the case of the international community’s effort to defeat IS, inclusiveness means, for example, that victory has to be secured as much in Raqqa and Mosul, IS’s Syrian and Iraqi capitals, as in the dismal banlieues, run-down, primarily minority-populated, suburbs of French cities that furnish the group with its largest contingent of European foreign fighters; in the popular neighbourhoods in Tunisia that account for the single largest group of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq; in Riyadh, seat of a government whose citizens account for the second largest number of foreign fighters and whose well-funded, decades-long effort to propagate a puritan, intolerant, interpretation of Islam has been a far more important feeding ground for jihadist thinking than the writings of militant Islamist thinkers like Sayyid Qutb; and in Western capitals with Washington in the lead who view retrograde, repressive regimes like those of Saudi Arabia and Egypt as part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

Focussing on root causes that are at the core of both the crisis and deteriorating, if not total disrespect of, human rights, means broadening scholarly and policy debate to concentrate not only on what amounts to applying Band-Aids that fail to halt the festering of open wounds but also to question assumptions made by the various schools of thought on how to solve the problem. The facts on the ground have already convincingly contradicted the notion that Western support of autocracy and military interventions primarily through air campaigns despite paying lip service to ideals of democracy and human rights could counter common enemies like IS. It has so far produced only limited results. Respect for human rights has, in many Middle Eastern and North African nations, significantly deteriorated since the 2011 popular revolts while IS is largely standing its ground more than a year into a US-led air campaign, a Russian bombing operation that began in the fall of 2015, and ground campaigns by the Iraqi government and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The group continues to advocate a regime that celebrates its rejection of pluralism and human rights and metes out relatively transparent yet brutal justice, and it poses a fundamental threat to the existence of post-colonial nation states as the world knew them, first and foremost Syria and Iraq, but ultimately also others like Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Libya.

Defeat is not the solution

Yet, even a convincing defeat of IS would not solve the problem or promote notions of pluralism and respect of human rights. Al Qaeda was degraded, to use the language of the Obama administration. In the process, it weakened a jihadist force that, despite having no appreciation for concepts of pluralism and human rights, increasingly advocated a gradual approach to the establishment of its harsh interpretation of Islamic law in a bid to ensure public support. Instead of reducing the threat of political violence, the largely military effort to defeat Al Qaeda produced ever more virulent forms of jihadism as embodied by IS. It may be hard to imagine anything more brutal than IS, but it is a fair assumption that defeating IS without tackling root causes would only lead to something that is even more violent and more vicious.

Nonetheless, defining repressive, autocratic rule and IS as the greatest threat to regional stability and security and the furthering of more liberal notions is problematic. In the case of IS, that definition elevates jihadism – the violent establishment of Pan-Islamic rule based on narrow interpretations of Islamic law and scripture -- to the status of a root cause rather than a symptom and expression of a greater and more complex problem. It is an approach that focuses on the immediate nature of the threat and ways to neutralize it rather than on what sparked it. It also neglects the fact that the ideological debate in the Muslim world is to a large extent dominated by schools of thought that do not advocate more open, liberal and pluralistic interpretations of Islam.

That is where one real challenge lies. It is a challenge first and foremost to Muslims, but also to an international community that would give more liberal Muslim voices significant credibility if it put its money where its mouth is. Support for self-serving regimes and their religious supporters, as in the case of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, reduces the international community’s choices to one between bad and worse, rather than to a palate of policy options that take a stab at rooting out the problem and its underlying causes.

A wake-up call

To be sure, change and progress towards the embrace of pluralism and universal human rights will have to originate from within Middle Eastern and North African nations. Saudi and UAE efforts to target political Islam as such that have also resonated in the West, were articulated by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Blair argued against “a deep desire to separate the political ideology represented by groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood from the actions of extremists including acts of terrorism.” He acknowledged that it was “laudable” to distinguish “between those who violate the law and those we simply disagree with” but warned that “if we're not careful, they also blind us to the fact that the ideology itself is nonetheless dangerous and corrosive; and cannot and should not be treated as a conventional political debate between two opposing views of how society should be governed.”

On that basis, it is hard to see why Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia’s puritan interpretation of Islam that is the well-spring of much of contemporary jihadist thinking, does not top the list of ideologies that are “dangerous and corrosive.” Saudi Arabia, like the Islamic State, was born in a jihadist struggle that married Islamist warriors led by an 18th century jurist Mohammed Abdul Wahab, with the proto-kingdom’s ruling Al Saud clan.

The failure of the 2011 popular revolts and the autocratic counterrevolution that they provoked, the rise of IS, increased repression and the region’s deterioration of respect for basic freedoms constitutes a wake-up call for many in the Middle East and North Africa. It has fuelled a long-overdue debate among Arabs and Muslims about the kind of world they want to live in.

In an essay entitled ‘The Barbarians Within Our Gates,’ prominent Washington-based journalist Hisham Melhelm wrote: “The Arab world today is more violent, unstable, fragmented and driven by extremism — the extremism of the rulers and those in opposition — than at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago… The promise of political empowerment, the return of politics, the restoration of human dignity heralded by the season of Arab uprisings in their early heydays — all has given way to civil wars, ethnic, sectarian and regional divisions and the reassertion of absolutism, both in its military and atavistic forms.... The jihadists of the Islamic State, in other words, did not emerge from nowhere. They climbed out of a rotting, empty hulk — what was left of a broken-down civilization.”

For his part, Turki al-Hamad, a liberal Saudi intellectual, questioned how Saudi religious leaders could confront the Islamic State’s extremist ideology given that they promote similar thinking at home and abroad. Al-Hamad argued that the Saudi clergy was incapable of confronting the extremism of groups like IS “not because of laxness or procrastination, but because they share the same ideology."

Neither Melhelm nor al-Hamad are Islamists. Yet, they reflect widespread soul-searching among Islamists and non-Islamists across the Arab world. Theirs is a debate that predates the rise of the Islamic State but has been pushed centre stage by jihadists, autocrats and misguided Western politicians alike. It is a debate that is at the core of tackling the root causes on which jihadist groups feed, and which in turn has become a primary alibi for autocrats to discount pluralism and greater freedoms. It is, however, also a debate that threatens to be squashed by a policy that focuses on military rather than political solutions and promotes status quo regimes whose autocracy chokes off opportunities for the venting of widespread discontent and anger, leaving violence and extremism as one of the few, if not the only, options to force change.

The solution is medium-term

As a result, the Obama administration’s alignment with the Middle East’s counter-revolutionary forces and targeting of groups other than IS, risks identifying the US with efforts by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt to target political Islam as such. The three Arab nations have cracked down on non-violent groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. The UAE particularly has since called for an expansion of the campaign against the Islamic State to include all non-violent expressions of political Islam. The US alignment prevents it from adopting a policy that would seek to contain IS militarily while focusing on removing the grievances on which the group feeds. It is a policy that is destined, at best, to provide a Band-Aid for a festering wound.

Moreover, in a globalized world, events in the Middle East and North Africa, and among minority populations elsewhere with roots in the region, often mutually reinforce one another. By the same token, there are no quick solutions or short cuts. The key is the articulation of policies that over the medium term can help generate an environment more conducive to more liberal change rather than the continuous opting for knee-jerk reactions to events and facts on the ground as was evident in Tunisia’s response to a June 2015 attack on a tourist resort, Kuwait’s reaction to the bombing of a Shiite mosque at about the same time, and France’s answer to an almost simultaneous assault on its territory by a lone wolf.

Tunisia deployed 1,000 armed policemen to tourist sites even as tourists left the country en masse, and closed 80 mosques suspected of hosting radical clerics; a move that was likely to push militants further underground. Kuwait, which displayed a remarkable degree of inclusivity with Sunnis and Shias joining hands in their condemnation of the bombing of a Shiite mosque that left 27 people dead and more than 200 others wounded, looked at adoption of a stringent anti-terrorism law while France passed legislation that authorised sweeping surveillance. None of these measures address the sense of hopelessness and willingness to rebel that potentially pervades predominantly young Muslim in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe, and is reinforced by increased prejudice sparked by violence and brutality perpetrated by Muslim extremists.

As a result, Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington DC, the 2011 Arab revolts, the rise of IS and attacks in Paris, Ankara, Beirut, Tunisia and Kuwait, have served to undermine efforts at greater inclusiveness and assurance of equal rights and opportunity - such as Europe’s pursuit of multiculturalism - and sparked violent counterrevolutionary efforts by Arab autocrats. The result has been, in the Middle East and North Africa, fractured states and increased repression that seemingly places pluralism and respect of human rights in the realm of wishful thinking. Autocratic and Western responses to jihadist attacks and propaganda play into the militants’ hands by feeding an already existent sense of rejection among disenfranchised and marginalized youth as well as ethnic and religious minorities. All of that is fed by growing intolerance, suspicion of the other, stereotyping, and a feeling of not being welcome among minority groups, and it is strengthened by sectarian policies adopted by Middle Eastern and North African governments.

Ironically, US President George W. Bush concluded, shortly after the 9/11 attacks, that Al Qaeda was as much a product of US support for autocratic Arab regimes as it was the result of politically bankrupt Arab leaders. The acknowledgement amounted to an admission of failure of a US policy designed to maintain stability in a key geostrategic and volatile part of the world and led to Bush’s ill-fated initiative to promote democracy in the Middle East and North Africa.

Where to look?

One place to look for alternative approaches is Norway. In contrast to most reactions to political violence and expression of pro-jihadist sentiment, Norway’s response to right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik’s traumatic attacks in 2011 that killed 77 people stands as a model for how societies can and should uphold concepts of pluralism and human rights. Norway refrained from declaring war on terror, treated Breivik as a common criminal and refused to compromise on its democratic values. In doing so, Norway offered a successful example of refusing to stigmatise any one group in society by adopting inclusiveness rather than profiling and upholding the very values that autocrats and jihadists challenge.

The result of exclusively security-focussed approaches, coupled with the exploitation of economic opportunity by autocratic Middle Eastern and North African regimes and Western governments, is an increasingly insecure region in which the creation of pluralistic societies that honour human rights seems ever more distant. Said an Egyptian Islamist militant, whose non-violent anti-government activism is as much aimed at opposing the regime of general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al Sisi as it is designed to persuade increasingly frustrated youth that there are alternatives to nihilistic violence: “The strategy of brutality, repression and restricting freedom has failed to impose subservience. It hasn’t produced solutions. Governments need to give people space. They need to prove that they are capable of addressing the problems of a youth that has lost hope. We have nothing to lose if they don’t.” The Egyptian’s inclinations pointed towards peaceful protest in favour of a more liberal society, albeit bound by Islamic morality codes; his options, however, left him little choice but to drift towards jihadism.

What to do?

Creating the kind of options that would give the Egyptian militant real choices is easier said than done and unlikely to produce immediate results. It would, among others, have to involve:

Recognition that the Middle East and North Africa are in the throes of a brutal process of change that is likely to play out over years. Attempting to halt the process is futile; nurturing it with policies that encourage non-violent, non-sectarian change - even if it means a redrawing of the region’s map and regime change - will ultimately far better serve the reestablishment of regional peace and security and the creation of an environment conducive to pluralism and respect of human rights;

Tying political, military and economic support to governments in the Middle East and North Africa to progress towards support of human rights and greater equality for minorities through the adoption of inclusive, non-sectarian, and non-repressive policies;

A halt to the global propagation of intolerant ideologies by some Middle Eastern governments and state-sponsored groups such as Saudi Arabia’s interpretation of Wahhabism that contrasts starkly with that of Qatar, the world’s only other Wahhabi state;

Abolition of sectarianism in state rhetoric;

Recognition of minority rights;

Reform of brutal police and security forces that are widely feared and despised;

Granting of greater freedoms to ensure the existence of release valves for pent-up anger and frustration and the unfettered voicing of grievances;

A crackdown on corruption;

Reform of education systems that produce a mismatch between market demand and graduates’ skills.

Some of these policies are easier achievable than others. Some might seem like pie in the sky. Fact of the matter is, you’ve got to start somewhere. That somewhere realistically will involve policies and measures that are low hanging fruit against the backdrop of a push for a paradigm shift in the way we think about big picture things like the kind of societies we want to live in, the mismatch between what we profess to believe in and what we in fact do, the foreign policies we want to see adopted, and the framework in which we look at a range that starts with freedom of expression and peaceful dissent and ends with brutal, political violence.

Thank you

2 views0 comments


bottom of page