Weekly Comment

Conflicts Forum

21 – 28 June 201

 Egypt is bracing for rival mass demonstrations, amid tight army security, in what is now a deeply fractured nation – with major segments of the population simply shouting at each other, rather than talking with one another – and with any political consensus now moving far beyond reach.  Initially, President Morsi’s supporters are holding open-ended rallies over the two days leading up to this Sunday’s opposition protests, calling for the president’s resignation.  Already one person has died, and a number of others were injured in clashes in towns of the Egyptian Delta late on Thursday. Morsi has warned in a broadcast that the unrest ‘threatens to paralyse’ Egypt. Troops have been deployed in the capital Cairo and other cities. The army has announced that it will remain neutral; but will not allow the country to descend into anarchy. Calling their movement Tamarod (meaning ‘rebel’), opposition forces representing Egyptians “who refuse Muslim Brotherhood rule”, launched the ‘30 June Front’ as the coordinating body for the protests starting on Sunday. The organizers say they will bring millions or even tens of millions of protesters out to the streets. It will not be a one-day event, the Front says, but the start of a long sit-down strike in city centers intended to paralyse the entire country. 

The Tamarod organizers say the movement encompasses not just liberals, democrats, academics and members of the secular Egyptian parties, but also the masses, who once supported the Muslim Brotherhood and now despair of improving their lives.  The shutdown ordered by the protest organizers will apply to public transportation, factories, financial companies and the flow of oil and gas in and out of Egypt.  If the strike proves as effective as the Front anticipates, the country will face electricity and water shortages within days. If the protesters are successful in seizing control of the main city squares and strikebound factories and offices, they are expected to prepare defensive barricades comprising old cars, sandbags and steel beams against any security force effort to evict them.

The outcome is unpredictable. It is possible that it may end with the army increasingly being drawn towards a full security takeover.  There are many in the opposition who have eschewed dialogue with the Brotherhood precisely in order to provoke such a takeover, which many in the secular camp would welcome. But this is not 1952, and it is by no means clear that the Egyptian army would command a sufficient consensus – any more than does the Brotherhood – for any takeover in such a fragmented and fractious Egyptian environment.

 Events in Egypt also are mirroring a wider phenomenon of growing tension between an impoverished, restless, aggrieved and resentful rural population, and the urban elite.  In cities such as Aleppo, we have seen this phenomena presenting itself in the anguished response of the educated, cosmopolitan urban radicals, pursuing their idealistic, utopian ‘revolution’, when confronted with the reality of the armed countryside invading and violating their city – bent more on revenge and hatred for the urban elite and its lifestyle than on any shared corpus of revolutionary utopianism.  The result has been quite ugly.  Some of this deep vein of rural antipathy and resentment will play out in Egypt too, we anticipate.  Although little reflected in press reporting, this fissure is not confined to Syria and Egypt; but is spreading across Africa widely.  Leaders from this region tell us that the less well-educated rural Muslim populations of northern Africa now stand in the same relation to Salafism as blotting paper does to ink.  They are soaking it up from the radio, from Al-Jazeera and from the Gulf-sponsored 24-hour Salafist TV channels.  What occurred some twenty years ago in south Asia, as an incipient cultural revolution, is now in its new format, slipping across Africa. Large money is arriving across Africa from the Gulf: Imams at the mosques are either coming from the Gulf; or are being trained there.  The educational syllabus is changing to a Salafist mode. Young Africans now increasingly are orientated towards Dubai and Gulf states (rather than Europe) as their aspirational pole, both as a travel destination, and as the expression of their desired lifestyle. As this continues, the rift been rural and urban (still more orientated towards the West) is being exacerbated, and inter-societal tensions similar to those of Egypt and Syria, are rising.  The Gulf states are really playing with fire by igniting restive, impoverished, poorly educated rural Sunnis through Salafism.  If the sense of aggrieved, bitter victimhood that we have seen expressed in Iraq and Syria is the consequence, do their imagine that that the pampered, morally deficient elites of the Gulf will passed untouched by this fire.

 One paradoxical aspect of this prominence of a Salafist narrative across the western lands of Islam is that Sunnis, who are the majority sect, are now acting and feeling as if they are a victimised and downtrodden minority.  This is most evident in the reaction to the fall of Qusayr by a combined Syrian army and Hizbullah force (on which CF commented last week). This perceived (and apparently unexpected) event has spooked Gulf leaders badly (they had counted on Qusayr becoming Hizbullah’s Viet Nam). This was evident from the exceptionally hard line that the (already hardline) Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal took at the joint press conference with the visiting US secretary of state John Kerry following their talks in Jeddah on Tuesday. Faisal stopped just short of demanding direct US military intervention in Syria. He said, “The Syrian people must be given international protection and military assistance so that they can at least defend themselves against these abominable crimes … Syria is facing a double-edged attack, it is facing genocide by the government and an invasion from outside… a massive flow of weapons to aid and abet that invasion and genocide. This must end”, he declared.

It is also clear that the preliminary meeting in Geneva this week between Russia, the United States and the United Nations, for setting a date for the Geneva II conference on Syria, ended inconclusively. The meeting couldn’t agree when Geneva II should be held, or who should be invited.  Nor was there any real indication that Geneva II is about to materialise in the near future, either. It is increasingly clear that, as Syria appears to be moving towards a defining moment militarily on the ground, that western and Gulf states are fearing the possibility of a military defeat of the armed insurgents in Syria. On June 25, the Syrian Army took the town of Tel-Kalah at the northernmost point of the Syrian-Lebanese border intersection, divesting the rebels of their biggest supply base in northern Syria. The insurgents in Homs and Homs governorate are now cut off from re-supply.  That Tel-Kalah fell through negotiations, rather than force of arms is a telling commentary on insurgent and popular sentiment and morale inside Syria. This setback, plus the deep divisions evident among the myriad rebel militias in Aleppo and northern Syria – who have proved too deeply fractured either to cooperate on the battlefield or to agree to a centrally controlled weapons distribution (a key insistence by western states) – have prompted western and Gulf states to switch their main arms supply route from Turkey to Jordan in the south.  This marks a striking decision: It suggests that the West effectively is bracing for a bloody defeat in the north. The Russian decision to withdraw most (but not all) of its personnel from Syria, indicates that they too see the conflict to be reaching its likely messy culmination.  Western back-footing – and shift – on Geneva II therefore, seems to stem from fears that the Syrian conflict may about to be settled in the field, rather than in Geneva (where western states hold a certain critical mass). Gulf states are now clearly spooked at the prospect of a possible strategic Sunni ‘defeat’ in Syria, to follow that of Iraq and Lebanon. Zbig Brzezinski in an important interview, hinted that President Obama may be coming under intense domestic pressures to pick up the threads of President Bush’s domino-based foreign policy.  Brzezinski noted the curious lacuna of any explanation by Obama as to why he should have suddenly decided, in the middle of an election year, that ‘Syria had to be destabilized and its government overthrown’.  Brzezinski obliquely hinted that to allow the US to be sucked in to the Syrian conflict, might prove to be a vast miscalculation – and even prove to be the spark to a regional war.

 In Lebanon the Army defeated (at a high cost in terms of casualties) a deliberate but misjudged effort by Sheikh Ahmad Assir (a Salafist Imam in Saida) to provoke a confrontation with Hizbullah.  It would seem that Assir had misread the Lebanese Army’s situation, believing them politically too weak to intervene in Assir’s planned provocation of Hizbullah. (It seems that this error of judgement cannot be laid at Assir’s door alone however.  It is likely that from the post-mortem of events, it will emerge that Assir’s local Lebanese and Gulf sponsors encouraged him to believe that the army had been politically disabled, and that he was free act with relative impunity – and even a certain element of discreet Lebanese political ‘cover’.  It was this hubris that ultimately led to his downfall).  The incident has ended, but probably its consequences will continue to emanate some aftershocks – both of a political as well as a security nature – for sometime hence. In the growing conflict between the Gulf leadership and Shi’ism, there is little doubt that a psychological connection exists between Assir’s uprising, and the collective sense of psychological defeat being experienced quite widely within the Gulf and wider Sunni world after Qusayr.  In short, Assir was intended as payback to Hizbullah. The outcome reflects a further setback to that current of Gulf narrow singularity of Sunni Islamic expression, which still finds it hard to read the Levantine and north African pluralism of Sunni expression.  That said – and though Saida now is quiet again and Assir gone – there is today again, a heavy Lebanese army presence on the streets of Beirut.  It most probably will not be the last.

One Comment

  1. […] in Egypt), are soaking up the Salafism irradiating through their societies (see last week’s Comment), whilst the urban middle-class elites are becoming more assertively secular. It may seem […]

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