Conflicts Forum’s Weekly Comment 9 – 16 August 2013

Conflicts Forum

The expected has now occurred:  a massacre of Muslim Brotherhood supporters by General Sisi of such fierceness that he well may have imagined the cowed, and psychologically-seared, demonstrators would return to their homes with their tails drooping between their legs.  But the Brothers’ white flag is not in evidence.  And as the arrests of the remaining Muslim Brotherhood leaders continues, the leadership of this (now) populist Islamist national protest will scatter and diffuse down to street level, with likely ugly consequences (not least for Copts who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with General Sisi, as he declared his coup).  The US and the EU have misread the ground. They underestimated the visceral Gulf and Egyptian ‘deep state’ hatred for the Muslim Brotherhood, and their fervour to cripple the Muslim Brotherhood movement once and for all. By ignoring the clear signs that this antipathy was becoming deeply elemental, and instead attempting to wheedle through, by narrating Morsi’s overthrow as a ‘renewal of democracy’, (in order to assuage the military through such ‘balanced’ language),  the US and the EU have made themselves both look silly in the region, and achieve a hearty dislike from all sides in Egypt.

 If the immediate consequences of these events are unforeseeable – as the protest leadership dissipates to unknown street captains – there are nonetheless, some pointers that emerge for the future of Sunni Islamism: some 26 years ago, a debate began in the wake of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan about the future course of Sunni Islamism.  And an ‘idea’ was born.  This week’s bloodly events in Cairo undoubtedly take us directly back to that ‘idea’ – and to a migration by younger Muslims from Brotherhood-style thinking towards the ‘idea’.

 The ‘idea’ was premised on the conviction that the post Great European War Sykes-Picot ‘construct’ for the region could never evolve into a ‘social contract’ between people and government. The Middle Eastern ‘states’, so contrived at that time by the Colonial powers, simply ran against the popular grain of belief systems, disregarded cultural history and ignored demography.  In short, they could never form a true, legitimate ‘understanding’ between a people and their government.  There has been, and is, in short, a rupture of the moral ‘social contract’ evident since the 1920s.  As a consequence, in this analysis, post Sykes-Picot governments could only be sustained through repression and the violence of their security forces.

 The second component which fuelled this debate was the shock (and excitement) for this group in witnessing the unexpected ‘implosion’ of a major world power – the USSR in the 1980s. The obvious conclusion to be drawn from this experience was that the two major World Powers indeed were vulnerable to over-extend themselves both politically and financially through excessive hubris; through coming to believe in the illusion of their own narrative; through a loss of internal cohesion; and, above all, through simple exhaustion, lose the will necessary to sustain the elaborate mechanism of global hegemony. 

 This is what was held to have happened to the USSR by Sunni thinkers at the time. They concluded from this experience that a deliberate programme of ‘vexing and exhausting’ western power could potentially so inflame internal tensions, and exacerbate contradictions within the US, that it too, would tire of its Middle Eastern entanglements – as had the USSR.  Thus, they devised a calibrated action-plan intended to provoke and ‘sting’ the West into hasty (and hugely costly) military over-reaction; into blatant contradictions of their own ‘narrative’ of benevolence, freedom and democracy; and into the fragmentation their own internal cohesion through the deliberate playing upon western internal contradictions – and the exposing of ‘the illusion’ of US omniscience. Such psychological warfare, they believed, ultimately would lead to the exhaustion and the collapse of US influence in the region.  And, flowing directly from this, Muslims would then witness the concomitant fall of western proxies and allies (including in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf). 

 Just to be clear, the ‘idea’ never encompassed any notion that the West would be driven from the Middle East militarily; this was dismissed. Rather it was predicted that the US would be forced to turn upon its own professed liberal ‘values’ in pursuit of increased militarisation, and thus exacerbate the internal contradictions inherent within American society.  In short, the US would eventually ‘retire’ from the Middle East through internal exhaustion, and contention within their own societies.

 These thinkers clearly foresaw the violent societal convulsions that would ensue from the successful deployment of the tactics of vexation and exhaustion – and from militarized attempts to counteract them.  But they also perceived that this strife and breakdown in order precisely would give the political (and geographic) space for local autonomous Islamic communities to emerge (subsequently, and rather grandly to be termed, ‘emirates’). These often isolated and disparate Islamic societies, it was held, would continue through the era of disarray and civil convulsion, until ultimately the ‘nation-state’ collapsed – and these separate molecules of Islamic society could fuse into a single, wider, Islamic entity.  In support of this thesis, writers pointed out that the victory against the Crusader states was accomplished exactly in this way of atomic, and initially uncoordinated Muslim ‘emirates’, ultimately uniting against the Crusaders, rather than by a single force such as that ultimately wielded by Saladin.  As we take a tour d’horizon of the region (Syria, Lebanon, Sinai, Libya, Yemen, etc), it is not hard to see that the phase of establishing autonomous emirate molecules, according to the ‘idea’, is well advanced.

 This ‘idea’ was called by the West ‘al-Qai’da’. The idea was given a spurious institutionality in the West, which was not appropriate. Al-Qai’da at that time when these ideas evolved did not amount to more than 200-250 men, but the ‘thinking’ has encircled the globe. In truth, the notion is not hard to grasp, and does not of course even require an institutional structure for its framework – as is assumedin the West. It is more a matter of proselytization, rather than institution-building in the western sense.  Initially, this ‘idea’ was considered the path forward to shake free from the remnants of western hegemony by many in the region.  But then there occurred a strong counter-reaction.  And the very different thinking of the Muslim Brotherhood dating from the crises of the 1920s came strongly to the fore.

 After 9/11, many Muslims felt that the sole Superpower had emerged – largely as a result of the Soviet implosion – a stronger, and definitely a more dangerous force. Most Muslims then believed that the western reaction to 9/11 had made all Muslims, everywhere, worse off in every way. The Brotherhood mode of coming to office through incrementally invading the arteries of power non-violently then became the generally acceptable mode of addressing the grave problems of the region.  Just to be clear: although the Brotherhood style movements disagreed sharply with the methodology of the ‘idea’ – and particularly its readiness to accept collateral Muslim ‘damage’ – and conversely, adherents to the ‘idea’ viciously disapproved of the methodology of the MB – both were in agreement on the nature of the disease (the Sykes-Picot constructa), and on ultimate aims: the establishment of Shariah and on insisting on emulation (whether literal or ‘virtual’) of the early Muslim communities – as the model for contemporary society.

 That was then. Today, the Muslim Broherhood is in complete disarray in Egypt and beyond – its doctrine of quietly progressing towards power with the cautious, half-reluctant blessing of the West, stands in ruins.  After Algeria, Hamas in 2006 and now their overthrow in Egypt, they are facing a chorus of “we told you so; we have to burn the system to re-make it”.  Plainly, many disillusioned young Brothers now will be prompted to re-visit the ‘idea’.  They may well be convinced that Abdallah Azzam and others were right when they said that the regional proxies and allies of the West would never yield up their power voluntarily; and that Dr Azzam was prescient in foreseeing the coming US exhaustion and fading influence. It is clear too, that the ‘idea’ is now evolving into two strands: one remains avowedly ready to match ‘savagery with savagery’, while the other is the ‘soft power’ version in the Ansar al-Shariah(supporters of Shariah) mode, which takes a gentler approach to the Muslim populations that find themselves bound up in the conflict, and which advocates greater ‘tolerance and compassion’ towards Muslims coming under ‘emirate’ governance.

 What is so striking about this possible inversion from the accepted primacy of Muslim Brotherhood doctrine to an increasing (but still minority) adherence to the ‘idea’ (essentially jihadist Salafism – a migration that has been in progress over the last two years) – is that a quarter of a century ago, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf were supporting Islamists specifically against a secular superpower (the USSR).  Now, here we are in 2013, with Saudi Arabia astonishingly in alliance with seculars and Leftists, in a project to destroy a major strand of Islamism (albeit one at odds with ‘authorised’ Wahabbism).  From the outset, bringing down the House of al-Saud was a principal objective set by adherents of the ‘idea’.  If events in Egypt lead, as they have so far, to greater convulsions in the Sunni world, it is not improbable that adherents of the ‘idea’ will see Saudi Arabia to have overreached itself in Egypt (hubris); to have exacerbated the internal contradictions to its own narrative of leadership of the Islamic world (sponsoring Islamists in Syria, and its converse – the repression in Egypt); and to be exhibiting signs of ‘exhaustion’ (excessive fear of vulnerability to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Arab uprising). If this be their conclusion, then the ‘idea’ might suggest to its adherents that Saudi Arabia now is ripe for the implementation of ‘vexation and exhaustion’ techniques.


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