The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Sisi's "non-regime"

Already over a year ago Hisham Hellyer has described Sisi's Egypt as a "non-regime". Ashraf Sherif uses the same term in this POMED interview [PDF], describing an increasingly dire situation:

You have written that al-Sisi’s regime is a “non-regime.” What do you mean?

Under Mubarak, the state was corrupt and vastly inefficient, but it was more predictable. It had a coherent decision-making process and some degree of order to its public policies.

By contrast, the system over which al-Sisi presides is too chaotic to qualify as a modern authoritarian regime. It is a complicated structure of competing patrimonial, self-centered, and oligarchic Mafia-type institutions that act more like the gated fiefdoms of the Mamluk age than modern state bodies. Their incompetence and inefficiency is matched only by the viciousness of their conspiracy-mongering discourse.

Sherif doesn't hold back on other political actors, from Islamists to leftists and liberals, either. And the conclusion is bleak. Worth reading.

Is the State Dept. losing patience with KSA/UAE over Qatar?

There was a statement yesterday by the spokesperson of the State Department, Heather Nauert, whose language and tone seemed to be shifting blame/responsibility for the continuing Qatar crisis on Saudi Arabia and the UAE. See the video below at 01:00.

Transcript here:

Since the embargo was first enforced on June the fifth, the Secretary has had more than twenty phone calls and meetings with Gulf and other regional and international actors. The interactions have included three phone calls and two in-person meetings with the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia, three phone calls with the Foreign Minister of Qatar, and three calls with the Qatari Emir. Numerous other calls have taken place with the leaders of UAE, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, and others.

**Now that it has been more than two weeks since the embargo started, we are mystified that the Gulf States have not released to the public, nor to the Qataris, the details about the claims that they are making toward Qatar. The more that time goes by the more doubt is raised about the actions taken by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

At this point we are left with one simple question: were the actions really about their concerns regarding Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism or were they about the long, simmering grievances between and among the GCC countries?**

The Secretary is determined to remain engaged as we monitor the situation. He has been delivering the same message to other diplomats overseas. We are encouraging all sides to deescalate tensions and engage in constructive dialogue.

We once again call on all parties to focus on the core, regional and international goal of fighting terrorism, to meet the commitments that were made in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and to constructively resolve this dispute.

Links 1-16 June 2017

Recent posts:

Recent links:

In Translation: And if Qatar folds?

There has been an avalanche of commentary on the crisis between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt (and a bunch of hangers-on) in the last couple of weeks. Some tell you one side or another is going to win, others worry it's the beginning of a new regional war. Everything is pointing to this crisis lasting longer than those who initiated it (Saudi and the UAE) intended it to. Whatever happens in the end, the crisis shows the interplay of several lines of tension among regional powers, from the Iran-Saudi divide to Islamist-anti-Islamist polarisation and revolutionary vs. counter-revolutionary narratives. The overlap is confusing, and so much of the media treatment (including in the US and UK press, a sad statement of the influence of Gulf money and ideology) absurdly biased.

The piece below is written by the noted Lebanese leftist intellectual Gilbert Achar, most recently the author of a well-reviewed book on the Arab uprisings, Morbid SymptomsAlthough it is published in the Qatar-owned London-based newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi, Achcar has the merit of being a cheerleader for neither Qatar nor its opponents. He traces the history of Qatar's tensions with its neighbors, the spectacular rise and potential fall of its aggressive foreign policy, its bet on the Muslim Brotherhood, and its opponents' successful efforts to roll back the Arab uprisings. For Achcar, the fundamental difference between the two camps is that Qatar sought to adapt to the Arab Spring by banking on the Muslim Brotherhood successfully harnessing its energies, while Saudi Arabia and the UAE sought to roll it back and restore the establishments that were shaken by the uprisings. It is a view underpinned by his assessment, in Morbid Symptoms, that another revolutionary wave looms –  one that may very well wash away those who seek to resist it and reward those that seek to ride it.

As always, this translation is made possible by Industry Arabic. Use them for your Arabic needs.


Campaign Against Qatar is Latest in Series of Attacks by the Region’s Old Establishment

Gilbert Achcar, al-Quds al-Arabi, 7 June 2017

To understand the significance of the violent campaign launched by the Saudi, Emirati, Bahraini, and Egyptian governments against Qatar, we must look beyond the vagaries of the Qatari ransom money allegedly held by Iraq and the charges leveled against Qatar of supporting terrorism. Such charges lose all credibility when they come from actors that have for decades engaged in just that, we must return to the scene before “Arab Spring” to see how it was affected by the Great Uprising.

During the reign of Emir Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, the Emirate of Qatar took an approach to regional affairs not unlike Kuwait’s after it declared independence from Britain in 1961. The announcement outraged the Republic of Iraq, which demanded the emirate be restored as part of its territory. But Kuwait benefited from the tension that existed between Iraq, under the leadership of Abdel Karim Qassim, and Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt, which advocated acceptance of Kuwait’s Arab independence over its status as a British protectorate. And in order to deter its Iraqi neighbor from ambitions of annexation, Kuwait pursued a policy of Arab neutrality, maintaining good relations with the two poles of the so-called “Arab Cold War,” Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

The similarity is that Qatar, as is well-known, has a historically strained relationship with its neighbor, Saudi Arabia, particularly since declaring independence from Britain in 1971. After seizing power in 1995, Emir Hamad pursued a policy that sought to make up for the emirate’s small size by reinforcing ties with the two main axes of regional conflict, as evident by extensive deployments of US troops throughout the Gulf: the United States and the Republic of Iran. Qatar’s success is most obvious in its ability to simultaneously host the United States’ most important regional airbase and cultivate its relationship with Iran and Hezbollah. The policy of good relations with opposing forces also manifests itself in Qatar successfully establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, while also supporting Hamas.

Qatar’s role during the reign of Emir Hamad was not limited to cultivating good relationships with different parties in the Kuwaiti sense, which is neutral and negative, but it also used its substantial wealth to play an active role in regional politics by supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. When Saudi Arabia renounced the Brotherhood, after sponsoring it since its inception in 1928, due to its opposition to American intervention in Kuwait in 1990, the weight of Qatar’s political role greatly increased with the establishment of Al-Jazeera, which resonated with Arab society by welcoming Arab voices of opposition, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood.

So when the volcano of the Great Arab Uprising erupted in 2011, Qatar was able to play a significant role through its sponsorship of both the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Jazeera. As a result, the two axes of conflict that had dominated the Arab world – the old establishment and the fundamentalist opposition led by the Muslim Brotherhood – found support in the Gulf Cooperation Council. But while Saudi Arabia supported the old establishment throughout the region – with the exception of Libya where it remained neutral and Syria where sectarianism produced an alliance (between the Assad regime and) Iran – Qatar supported the uprisings, especially where the Brotherhood was involved, with the exception of Bahrain for obvious reasons. The conflict between the Emirate and the Kingdom since the onset of the “Arab Spring” was evident by Qatar’s support for the Tunisian uprising, while Saudi Arabia granted asylum to deposed Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Moreover, the Obama administration saw Qatar as a means to ward off the danger of Arab uprisings that might take root in a way that would threaten US interests. So it played both sides, at times supporting the old establishment with Saudi Arabia (as in Bahrain), and at others, trying to contain the uprisings with Qatar through the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates (like in Tunisia and Egypt). But Qatar’s role urging Washington to adopt a policy of keeping pace with the uprisings was a cause of Saudi indignation, and outraged the United Arab Emirates, which had designated the Muslim Brotherhood public enemy number one. The pressure the two Gulf countries placed on Qatar continued to build after Qatari bets on the Muslim Brotherhood failed to pay out when the Egyptian army overthrew President Mohammed Morsi and violently suppressed the Brotherhood. That was followed by Emir Hamad’s decision to step down in place of his son, the current Emir, Tamim, only to see Gulf pressure reach its first peak in 2014, forcing the new emir to change course.1

After the peak, it seemed that the Gulf conflict had come to an end. Through the consensus of the three aforementioned gulf states to support the Syrian opposition against the Assad Regime, which strained relations between Qatar (and with it, the Muslim Brotherhood) and Iran, and, later, Qatar’s participation in the military campaign against Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Houthis in Yemen – all against the backdrop of a new king ascending to the Saudi throne – it seemed as if peace between GCC members was possible. This trend has been supported by Saudi Arabia’s longtime pursuit of a Sunni consensus against Iran that includes the Muslim Brotherhood and coincides with tension between Riyadh and Cairo. The trend also aligned perfectly with the politics of the Obama administration.

However, Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States changed the equation. The new president is a supporter of a policy of confrontation in the face of change and revolution in the Arab world. He is also extremely hostile to Iran and has an intimate friendship with Israel. Some of his closest advisors have classified the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group, concurring in this with the UAE (as evidenced by recently uncovered correspondence of its ambassador to Washington). This fundamental change in the equation led Saudi Arabia to reconcile with al-Sisi’s Egypt, who together, accompanied by the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, launched the current frenzied attack on Qatar in order to impose a radical change on its policy.

Thus, the latest episode reversing the Great Arab Uprising and the counterattack launched by the ancien regime all across the region, supported in most arenas by the Gulf axis and by Iran in Syria and Yemen, is almost complete. But a new uncontainable wave of revolution is coming sooner or later (indeed, its harbingers are already visible in Morocco and Tunisia).2 If this day comes and there is no one to contain it, then Riyadh and Abu Dhabi may well regret eliminating Qatar’s role within this space.

Gilbert Achcar is a writer and academic from Lebanon



  1. Note that Emir Tamim came to power in Qatar a week or so before the overthrow of Morsi, not after. ↩︎

  2. Here Achcar refers to the protests in southern Tunisia (mostly Tataouine) and in Morocco (starting in the Rif). ↩︎

Sara Roy on Gaza

In the LRB:

Need is everywhere. But what is new is the sense of desperation, which can be felt in the boundaries people are now willing to cross, boundaries that were once inviolate. One day a well-appointed woman, her face fully covered by a niqab, arrived at the hotel where I was staying to beg. When asked politely to leave by the hotel staff, she aggressively refused and insisted on staying, obliging the hotel staff to escort her off the property with force. She wasn’t asking to beg but demanding to. I had never seen this before in Gaza. Another day a teenage boy came to our table quietly pleading for money for his family. By the time I got out my wallet, the staff had approached and gently ushered him out. He didn’t resist. He was educated and well-dressed and I kept thinking he should have been at home studying for an exam or out with his friends by the sea. Instead he was asked to leave the hotel and never return.

Perhaps the most alarming indicator of people’s desperation is the growth of prostitution – this in a traditional and conservative society. Although prostitution has always been present to a small degree in Gaza, it was always considered immoral and shameful, bringing serious social consequences for the woman and her family. As family resources disappear, this appears to be changing. A well-known and highly respected professional told me that women, many of them well-dressed, have come to his office soliciting him and ‘not for a lot of money’. (He also told me that because of the rise of prostitution, it has become harder for girls to get married – ‘no one knows who is pure.’ Families plead with him to provide a ‘safe and decent space’ for their daughters by employing them in his office.) Another friend told me that he had seen a young woman in a restaurant trying to solicit a man while her parents were sitting at a nearby table. When I asked him how he explained such incomprehensible behaviour he said: ‘People living in a normal environment behave in normal ways; people living in an abnormal environment do not.’

And this is something that is backed, made possible, even celebrated by not only Israel, but also every member of the Middle East Quartet and their Arab allies in the Gulf and elsewhere. What it reminds one of are the sanctions the UN Security Council imposed on Iraq in the 1990s, paving the way for the destruction of society and abberations we see today.

Links 16-31 May 2017

I would also recommend this series of post on Mali on the excellent Bridges from Bamako blog:

(the links compiled here every few weeks are first out on our Twitter account, @arabist.)  

LinksThe Editors
Conversations in Cairo

Bidoun is back! And it has published a series of interviews with folks in Cairo. I know most of the people in these conversations, at least a bit, and I found them all well worth reading.

But my favorite is Lina Attalah -- editor of the independent news site Mada Masr, which has just been blocked -- interviewing Laila Soueif, professor, activist and mother of an extraordinary clan that includes Alaa Abdel-Fattah, Mona Seif and Sanaa Seif. Some of the other exchanges are clouded by a pained ambivalence over the uprising, its aftermath and its meaning. Whether you agree with Soueif's analysis or not, these two women talking to each other both have a hard-won, warm-hearted lucidity. 

Here is Soueif on her children:

LS: I don’t think children eat up your career. Your free time, but not your career. But I didn’t mind. When Alaa was born, he became my primary source of entertainment and relaxation. I would only go to social events if I could take him along. Otherwise, I just didn’t go. You lose some freedom, of course, but it’s worth it. If Alaa hadn’t been with me in France, I would have gone mad.

For me, children are a source of emotional satisfaction in the face of distress. I knew of that at the time — once it was clear that Seif would be going to prison again, during that year that I was away from my PhD, I made sure to get pregnant. I knew I wanted to have another child to keep me busy, emotionally.

LA: Alaa always talked about his unique relationship with you, something far deeper than the traditional mother-and-son relationship. 

LS: The fact that Seif was in prison when Alaa was very young created a very special relationship between us. Alaa came with me to France when I did my PhD. I had to explain things that you should never have to explain to a child — why his father was in prison, that there are bad police and good police — the good ones, who catch thieves and organize traffic, and the bad ones, who arrest people who oppose the government. You don’t usually need to know these things when you’re four or five.

But Alaa was always sensitive to things. When we were in France, there was a wave of discrimination associated with Jean-Marie Le Pen and the National Front. There were anti-immigrant ads with nooses, and it touched Alaa. He knew that the ad was addressing him somehow. Later, anytime someone said something negative about Christians, I told him that people who say bad things about Christians are like the ones who posted those ads. He became aware.

I think our relationship is also a function of Alaa’s character, though. I’ll never forget — one day, when Mona was a baby in France, I overslept. I’d had a cold. When I woke up I was frantic. It turned out that Alaa had taken Mona from her bed and made her breakfast. He just did this automatically. When Sanaa came along, it was the same. He took care of her, too. Of course Sanaa was extremely headstrong from the beginning. She still is. But when we fought with her, Alaa would take her aside and deal with her.

And on the political situation in Egypt: 

LS: Well, some things have changed. What happened in 2011 has changed the country. Where we will go is a different story. Sometimes, I think my life has had three stages. There’s everything before 2000, everything between 2000 and 2011, and then the period after 2011. Before 2000, you were always part of a small group. It might have had a certain significance, but you were always aware that you were in the minority — not only in relation to the authorities, but in relation to the people, too. Those were the years of the Islamists’ ascent. Then from 2000 to 2011, we began to see a movement in the streets that was not Islamist. Of course, the Islamist movement was bigger and stronger, but there was a non-Islamist movement as well.

LA: The era of Kifaya, March 9, and the April 6 Youth Movement.

LS: Yes. And then 2011 expanded that into a real popular movement, which succeeded in bringing down Mubarak and then suffered major defeats. But it was a real popular movement. There’s a big difference between being part of a defeated movement and being part of a defeated popular movement.

LA: What does that difference mean for you? For us?

LS: While our movement is defeated, it has an audience of sympathizers in the hundreds of thousands, if not in millions. It is scattered and confused; it doesn’t know where it wants to go, it’s leaderless, it has every problem in the universe… but it exists. We’ve never lived anything like this before. As someone who lived what feels like an entire lifetime in which there was no movement at all, I wouldn’t call this a desperate place. I wouldn’t call this situation we’re in, where we’re discussing real issues of human rights, a desperate situation. It’s a very developed situation. We’re fighting for the equality of women, against torture, against homophobia. It is a problem that these are tools that were developed in the last stage, when we were a minority dealing with a more careful regime, as opposed to the current one that beats everyone with abandon. But the situation has changed, and it changed because we became dangerous. That’s the significance of being a popular movement, even in defeat. The regime is lashing out because the regime itself is desperate. So the fact that we haven’t been able to develop new tools for the new situation doesn’t mean we haven’t progressed. 

LA: What would you point to as evidence of progress?

LS: I find it odd when I hear people say that conditions for women were better in the past. Maybe things looked nicer on the surface, but the situation of women on the ground today is deeply different from the 1960s and 1970s. Try to make women stay at home today. No way! 

Or people are always saying that the youth are apolitical — they’re disrespectful, they won’t listen to grown-ups, they just do what they want. When you get on a toktok in Boulaq al-Dakrour [a low-income area], you will hear rebellious, political songs. And then there are the informal settlements, the so-called ashwa’iyat where so much of the population lives. People have been forced to deal with their own matters, by themselves. They’re effectively outside the authority of the state. It’s not ideal, but this is the better-case scenario.

LA: So people’s relationship to authority is changing?

LS: I would say that the authorities are losing their grip on power. We’ve witnessed the collapse of the legend of the glorious national army; that can’t be reversed. We have more possibilities today than ever. But also more opportunities for a complete breakdown.

LA: You say that the problem is that we need new conceptualizations, new tools. But tools to do what, exactly? What does it mean to be politically engaged? What’s the purpose? Is it to create autonomous institutions, outside the system? To take power? To build power? To cause discomfort to those in power? 

LS: It depends on when we are talking about, but I think the least we can do is give the bad guys a hard time. If you have any kind of public profile, this is the very least you can do. I get so angry at people who have audiences who choose to remain silent. They tell you it’s pointless, but that’s just not true. If your words can have an echo for people, how can you be silent? I like to think that we are sitting like Banquo’s ghost for them. Even when we fail… like in the case of Tiran and Sanafir, the islands the government gave to Saudi Arabia last year — we mobilized, organized protests, filed lawsuits. And okay, so we may not have been able to screw the marriage, but we definitely screwed the wedding. It was not a political win for the authorities.

But real politics is not about this. It’s about giving people more control over their own lives, making people’s lives better. It’s about development — making it so that people aren’t dying from curable diseases. Of course, at that level, what can be done in power is much more significant than what can be done from the outside.

I used to think that our worst nightmare would be for our revolution to end up like the Iranian revolution, but I think it turned out even worse for us. In Iran, the Islamists were part of the fight that ended the old regime, and then they turned against their allies on the Left and took power. And of course, there is oppression, and it is a terrible regime that we have to keep fighting. But there was development, too. Iran today has less poverty, more and better universities, greater industrialization. In Egypt’s case, I honestly thought there was going to be a period of reform when the Brotherhood came to power. But they didn’t have any sort of plan for development. It just wasn’t a priority. So we experienced the worst.

A letter from Marseille: politics and identity in France

In March I spent a little time in (and fell in love with) Marseille, France's poorest, most diverse major city, trying to figure out the election that would eventually witness the implosion of the country's Socialist party and the election of the 39-year-old, party-less candidate Emmanuel Macron. I was particularly interested in the debate over identity, immigration and Islam that has dominated French politics in recent years, in part due to terrorist attacks and in greater part due to the fear-mongering of the far-right Front Nationale. I think the election of Macron is the best outcome one could have hoped for in this particular election, but the FN isn't going anywhere and we'll have to see what the new president can accomplish to address the economic issues, mistrust of the political system and identitarian divides the country is struggling with. 

Housing projects on the outskirts of the city. 

Housing projects on the outskirts of the city. 

I wrote this for The Point, an excellent Chicago-based magazine on politics and culture I strongly suggest you subscribe to. It will be included in the next print issue. 

I stayed with an old friend, M., who lives at the top of the Canebière, an artery that descends in a straight line to the old port, where sailboats bobbing in the water are watched over by the gleaming statue of Mary atop the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde—which everyone refers to as “la Bonne Mere.” The historic center of Marseille, unlike that of Paris, has not gentrified. I heard Arabic everywhere, and the busy central market of Noailles—where downtown residents buy their produce—was full of halal butchers, veiled female shoppers, men sitting in cafés, and shops selling olives, spices and pastries from North Africa.

This kind of bustling neighborhood seems to be the worst nightmare of many in France, who lament that in such areas, which they may never set foot in, their country has turned into “a foreign land.” The election was taking place in the wake of several terrorist attacks (beginning with the bloody assault of the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015), carried out in great part by French citizens of immigrant origins. One of the front-runners in the election, Marine le Pen, was the candidate for the Front National (FN), an isolationist, populist far-right party that has campaigned on anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment. Le Pen is adept at mixing concerns about terrorism with fears of other “threats” to the Republic, such as burkinis, veils, halal meat and Arab rappers. But wringing one’s hands over the imminent imposition of Sharia law has become a political gambit, an intellectual industry and a literary genre common across France’s political spectrum.

“France’s obsession with identity is symptomatic of a crisis of the political system, of France’s place in the world,” Thierry Fabre, a prominent Marseille intellectual, told me. Fabre is a specialist in Mediterranean studies and a champion of cultural exchange between Europe and the Arab world. Twenty-three years ago he founded Les Rencontres de Averroes, a prominent annual series of public talks with scholars, artists and writers from both sides of the Mediterranean. “From the point of view of living together,” he said, Marseille, despite its divides, flaws, and contradictions, “is an emblematic city of the 21st century,” an example to be followed. Yet he admitted that France’s “machinery for integration has broken down. We are witnessing the exhaustion of the Fifth Republic.”

Indeed, a feeling of hopelessness, indignation and restlessness hung in the air in Marseille: the sense, which seems common to so many countries these days, that things can’t go on as they are. To some extent, this has to do with the economy. Growth has been stagnant for years in France, public services are strained, and unemployment hovers at around 10 percent. Yet a concern with shrinking opportunities and unfairness has morphed into a much larger malaise. France suffers from a debilitating obsession with identity, and has nothing but disgust for the country’s politicians, who are viewed as corrupt, out of touch and out of ideas. From people on the left I heard the word “catastrophe” more than once. “The point you have to make in your article,” M. told me, “is that we don’t know who to vote for.”

Anti-police brutality demonstration in Marseille. 

Anti-police brutality demonstration in Marseille. 

Links 1-15 May 2017
Photographer Philippe Dudouit has some great work from the Sahel

Photographer Philippe Dudouit has some great work from the Sahel

Another fallow month...

LinksThe Editors
Links 1-30 April 2017

A lot of travel and work this month, so not many posts or links. Sorry!

Posts:

Links:

In Translation: al-Qaeda goes glocal

My friend Mohammed Si’ali, a veteran reporter for the Spanish news agency EFE and other outlets in Cairo and elsewhere in the region, has written an interesting piece on the evolution of al-Qaeda’s strategy in response to the Arab uprisings since 2011. Piecing together its reaction to the 2011 protests, the secession of the Islamic State from its ranks in 2013, the rebranding of the Nusra Front in 2016 and the emergence of a new united front of Sahelian jihadist groups in 2017 – among other things – he sets out a vision whereby al-Qaeda is trying to mainstream, win the support of Islamists disappointed by the Arab Spring, and combine a global strategic vision oriented against the West with pragmatism at the local level. To borrow from the HSBC ad from a few years ago, al-Qaeda appears to be trying to be glocal organisation. As ISIS faces military setbacks across the region, this has important consequences for the future of jihadism.

This In Translation feature is made possible with the support of our friends at Industry Arabic, a “Katiba Hans Wehr” of Arabic-English translation. Please give them your business!


Evolving with the Arab Spring: Is al-Qaeda Striving to Transform into a “National Liberation Movement”?

Mohammed Si’ali, Center for Kurdish Studies, 5 April 2017

Abstract: The new alliance announced last month between three jihadist organizations in Mali under the banner of al-Qaeda and local jihadist leadership, as well the contents of its founding declaration, have raised questions about its rapid efforts in this region to evolve ideologically and organizationally with the new reality that has characterized the popular uprisings in the MENA region since 2011. With the goal of improving its survival, development, and practical abilities in light of these new conditions, al-Qaeda is accomplishing this by reducing armed, violent acts and participating in peaceful political action and soft influence. Consequently, what has appeared is something that resembles an “Islamic national liberation movement,” whether in the MENA region or other places where this organization exists, such as the Greater African Sahara.

§§§

At the outset of the “Arab Spring,” al-Qaeda dreamt that it would finally obtain a popular ally and become the equivalent of the military wing of the popular Islamist movement. Its goal of establishing a caliphate in the Islamic world and liberating it from external influence seemed an imminent reality. The Arab uprisings coincided with the killing of Osama bin Laden on 2 May 2011 in an operation by American special forces in Pakistan and Ayman al-Zawahiri’s emergence as al-Qaeda’s leader. After the Arab uprisings, which overthrew dictatorial secular governments in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen, al-Zawahiri issued a political manifesto in August 2012 to specify Islamic jihad’s role in this stage. He emphasized the necessity of “aiding Muslim people in their revolutions against corrupt tyrants, and enlightening them of the necessity of Sharia rule.” He also broadly called for “working towards the establishment of a Caliphate that does not recognize nation-states, links to nationalism, nor the borders imposed by the occupiers.” In September of the same year, he broadcast a military manifesto placing limits on armed action that member groups practiced under the banner of al-Qaeda. It focused the fighting on the United States and aimed to reduce military operations inside Islamic countries, thereby preventing those societies from eschewing jihad. Additionally, he showed many film clips that described the course and direction of the revolutions to steer their uprisings toward Sharia law, ending with the establishment of a caliphate state.

Al-Zawahiri’s interest in the direction of the Arab Spring shows that he, along with others in al-Qaeda’s leadership, sees these revolutions as complementary to the jihad carried out by the different arms of the organization and as a result of the 11 September 2001 attacks on America. As such, these attacks had pushed Washington to breathe life into popular pressure in Muslim countries, which “blew up in the faces of its clients,” i.e. the local governments. Additionally, Adam Yahiye Gadahn – the American citizen who worked as a senior spokesperson for al-Qaeda and was killed in an American drone strike in Pakistan in early 2015 – saw that the jihadist attacks against American interests and its allies had “eliminated many of the material, moral, and psychological obstacles that used to prevent the Ummah (Islamic community) from liberating itself from the corrupt and despotic governments subordinate to the West.” He added that youthful opposition in countries with popular uprisings had learned from the jihadists’ experience in their call for toppling tyrannical regimes on the internet, as well as the fatwas from jihadist scholars to remove despotic governments for their lack of Sharia law, which had a prominent role in liberating the hearts and minds of Muslim youths.

On this basis, al-Zawahiri considered the success of the revolutions as a victory for al-Qaeda over the West, since the revolting peoples “want Islam and Islamic rule, while America and West fight it.” Similarly, in one of his lectures he showed bearded demonstrators in Egypt carrying al-Qaeda flags and shouting slogans in defense of the religious state against the secular state. In another of Gadhan’s tapes, a group of demonstrators was shown praying at one of the sit-in sites, with women wearing niqabs taking care of an injured person and a man pointing to the Quran. Al-Zawahiri added in a 2011 recording:

 “The pro-American media claims that al-Qaeda’s method of clashing with regimes has failed. This same media pretends to ignore that al-Qaeda and most jihadist currents have struggled for more than a decade and a half mostly by abandoning the clash with regimes and focusing on striking the head of the global criminals (the United States). Thus, this method, especially after the September 11 attacks, has led, through orders from America, to the regimes’ loosening their grip over their people and opponents, which helped the movement and culminated into an eruption of massive public anger. This confirms what Osama bin Laden, may God have mercy on him, used to emphasize, that we increased pressure on the idiots of the modern era, America, which will lead to its weakening and the weakening of its clients. So, who are the real winners and losers of this policy?”

Al-Qaeda did not only attribute to itself the outbreak of the Arab Spring, but also considered the leadership of various jihadist currents, such as in Egypt, as precursors to the massive uprisings against the current regimes and those that have existed since the late 1970s. In this regard, al-Zawahiri said in one of his messages to the Egyptian people after the revolution of January 25, 2011:

“God knows that I always hoped to be in the front line of the Ummah’s uprising against injustice and oppressors. Before my emigration from Egypt, I had been eager to participate in the popular protests of 1968 against the setback represented by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s government. Then, I participated in several demonstrations and protests against Sadat and his administration. I was with the protesters in Tahrir Square in 1971, whom I considered dear brothers. It was for them that the great events of the latest Egyptian revolution against Hosni Mubarak and his corrupt government occurred. If not for fear of what danger would befall them, then I would mention them by name and praise their brave deeds. Likewise, I have repeatedly called, in my words to the Arab people and the Egyptian people specifically, to rise up against the regimes of corruption and tyranny that have dominated us.”

Despite al-Qaeda’s new, strengthened approach after 2011, in 2008 al-Zawahiri had called for action in addition to the struggle and propaganda. He called for demonstrations to change the “corrupt reality” and establishing an Islamic state, while modifying the pursuit of these goals through the tactic of “fixed elections.” Thus, after the workers’ demonstrations on 6 April of the same year in Mahalla el Kubra near Cairo, he said:

“The workers and students must move their anger into the streets. They must turn the mosques, factories, universities, institutes, and high schools into centers of jihad and resistance. Everyone must mobilize, because it is not just one group or organization’s battle, but the entire Ummah’s battle. The Ummah must stand shoulder to shoulder with its fighters, its men, its women, and its masses to expel the crusading invaders and Jews from the lands of Islam and to establish an Islamic state.”

Since the outset of the Arab Spring, al-Qaeda began employing concepts that were unfamiliar in the jihadist lexicon, such as “revolutionaries,” “revolution,” and “resistance,” alongside religious concepts. This turning point in the direction of al-Zawahiri’s propaganda was reinforced in one of his recordings to businessmen. In it, he said that they should “benefit from the recent opening in Tunisia and Egypt” and establish new media outlets to call for “the true creed of Islam, which is liberated from its dependence on the arrogant and rejects the injustice of corrupting rulers.” He added, “The noble free people who care about Islam in Tunisia must wage a propagandistic, provocative, and popular campaign to gather the Ummah. They must not stop until Sharia is the source of law and order in Tunisia.” These ambitions did not appear out of thin air. During the Arab revolutions, it was the young and old of the jihadist currents, despite their small numbers, who took their place among the poplar demonstrations, wearing Afghani garb and raising the black flags of al-Qaeda. In Tahrir Square, Egypt during the period following the 25 January Revolution, pictures of Osama bin Laden were sold alongside pictures of deceased Egyptian leaders Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat.

It was clear after the revolutions of the Arab Spring that al-Qaeda strove to profit from a popular ally in those countries and to participate in peaceful movements, but without slackening its violent activities. In the document “The Victory of Islam,” al-Zawahiri called on the Islamic currents to “aid Muslim people in their revolutions against tyrants and to enlighten them of the necessity of Sharia rule.” In the document “General Directives for Jihad,” the leader of al-Qaeda required that military action be focused against the United States. More importantly, they demanded that the jihad avoid harming Muslims and religious/ethnic minorities during acts of violence so that they are not roused against the jihadists. He also called for peace with local regimes to proselytize, recruit, and gather funds. As for the places that fell under jihadist control, he demanded that “wisdom prevail,” meaning to prioritize propaganda and education to avoid the jihadists’ expulsion from those regions due to civil discord or revolt by those opposed to their occupation.

According to al-Qaeda, the conflict between the people and regimes is the local manifestation of an original conflict between the former and the West. In its view, the regimes in Muslim countries are a façade or tool that the West has used to rule the region remotely since the beginning of what Adam Yahiya Gadhan called the “age of neo-colonialism.” But in spite of the outset of the confrontation between al-Qaeda, supported by its allies, and the Syrian and Iraqi governments, as well as its continuing operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Algeria, Mali, Yemen, etc., the original tactic of this organization has been to avoid conflict with regimes in Muslim countries, except where confrontation is necessary.

One Moroccan member of the “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham” (formerly the al-Nusra Front, considered the formal arm of al-Qaeda in Syria) says that al-Qaeda “is trying to exploit the situation that emerged from the Arab Spring to penetrate Islamic society. It also strives, if possible, to avoid direct clashes by instead working tactically, except in places where there is fighting already.” It is confirmed that al-Zawahiri’s intensive speeches during and after the Arab revolutions were directed at revolutionaries and moderate Islamic currents. The organization itself is managed internally by secret decisions issued by Shura councils, the general leadership council, and orders from the general commander, not through open statements.

Despite the new direction of al-Qaeda’s leader and all its affiliated factions, the “Islamic State” opposed it and unleashed its own military actions against Shiite citizens, especially in Iraq and Syria, where it carries out daily car bombings in restaurants, public markets, hussainiyas (Shia congregation halls), and pilgrimage caravans. This lack of obedience pushed the general leadership of al-Qaeda to wash its hands of the Islamic State through a formal statement on 22 January 2014. It stated its eagerness for the different jihadist organizations “to be part of the Ummah, and to not take guardianship over its rights, nor dominate it, nor deprive it of its right to choose who rules it from among those who fulfill the conditions of legitimacy.”  In addition to its defiance of the directives of al-Qaeda’s leadership, the Islamic State carries out attacks against other jihadist organizations that had publicly or implicitly adopted al-Qaeda’s new direction, such as the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham in Syria.

The point of departure in the dispute between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State was the latter’s refusal to comply with al-Zawahiri’s request to restrict its military operations in Iraq and to leave the jihad in Syria to the former al-Nusra Front (before it changed its name and joined with al-Qaeda). The Islamic State did so because it considered the Levant to be a separate geopolitical province wherein it leads most of the Syrian jihadists; as such, the Islamic State believes that it better understands their society.

The Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham’s experience was repeated in Mali, where branches of Ansar Dine, which include the Macina Liberation Front, al-Mourabitoun, and the Saharan leadership al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, announced at the beginning of this month (April 2017) an alliance under one organization calling itself the Jama'a Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin. After renewing their allegiance to al-Zawahiri, they specified their main goal as “standing as the first line of defense against the occupying crusading enemy.” Just as in the founding statement of the new organization, led by the Malian al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadist Iyad Ag Ghaly, it cited the foundations of al-Qaeda’s jihad, which include “good will towards people, becoming familiar with them, engaging their hearts and minds, and not burdening them with anything they cannot bear.”

Conclusion: While the Islamic State aims to apply its international, truly extremist vision, a vision in which some leaders of al-Qaeda used to believe, the strategy changed completely when the latter began to decentralize its global organizational structure and establish regional movement branches in Muslim countries. According to this strategy, local jihadi leaders direct its operation while enjoying tribal, religious and ethnic legitimacy. In this way, it can make broad social alliances and separately adapt its operations according to local circumstances in each country. The issues that matter include people participating in government, supporting Muslim minorities, and fighting against external influence. Thus, al-Qaeda has added a temporary tactical dimension that loosely joins the organization’s general leadership and its strategic goals on one hand with the local issues of Islamic societies and its short/long-term goals on the other hand. The point of this new direction is to eliminate the barriers between moderate and radical Islam and to make the organization appear like a “national Islamic liberation movement.” It could also become alluring to youth groups inside Islamic political movements, if they are exposed to unexpected tyrannical treatment typical of the political rat race, continual economic injustice, repressive governmental practices of in Islamic countries, or if some of them continue to depend on the world’s superpowers. This may prove to be the case, especially given the rarity and weakness of modern opposition fronts and the growing attempts by the superpowers’ client states at brutal, vertical control.

As a Moroccan journalist and researcher based in Rabat, Si’ali worked as a correspondent for a global news agency as part of its bureau for the Middle East and Gulf regions between 2011 and 2016. Subsequently, he has reported on the development of Islamic extremists in the region and throughout the world. He earned a BA in Public Law and Political Science from the University of Tangier, Morocco.

Islamophobia in France

In the run-up to the incredibly unpredictable French presidential election, I took a look at some of the books being written by prominent (and not-so-prominent) French scholars, and wrote about the vitriolic debate over Islamophobia, Islamic radicalism and the alleged creeping Islamization of France. It is hard to over-state both how complicated, personal and over-the-top this debate can get. 

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I found Gilles Kepel's book Terror in France interesting as an overview of jihadism in France and of major political developments for France's Muslim minority since 2005 (including some analysis of political participation and of the question of a Muslim vote). Kepel is very critical of the idea of Islamophobia – not because he denies that there is discrimination against Muslims in France but because he says that Islamophobia has been politically instrumentalized to forbid criticism of Islam (Kepel is, not coincidentally, at loggerheads with the Comité Contre L'Islamophobie en France). Yet while I am sure that there are Islamists who use the victimization of Muslims as a means to set themselves up as leaders and spokesmen (always men) and to accrue political influence, there is plenty of criticism of Islam in France these days -- it's practically an intellectual and media industry. 

Which brings us to one of the other books I discuss, which is representative of the genre. Below is an excerpt:

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"That is one of the arguments of a book published this year for which Bensoussan was the lead editor: Une France Soumise, Les Voix du Refus (A Vanquished France, the Voices of Refusal). A collection of essays and interviews with public employees and officials, the book paints a dire picture of France turning into "a foreign land," its culture, identity, and rule of law threatened by the advance of Islamism. France faces a choice, a passage in the books warns, between civil war or "Houellebecquian" submission to Islam (a reference to the best-selling 2015 satire by Michel Houellebecq, Submission, in which the country elects a Muslim president and adopts Shariah law).

As evidence of creeping Islamization, the book cites demands for prayer rooms and halal meals; husbands who will not allow their wives to receive medical care from male doctors; reports of Muslim high-school students’ refusing to observe the moment of silence after terrorist attacks or expounding conspiracy theories. Many of the interviews are anonymous or do not specify when and where particular incidents took place. Bensoussan admits that it "is not an exhaustive investigation and does not have scientific pretensions." Yet he insists that it exposes a reality that France’s elites refuse to acknowledge."

Another book, now out in English, I strongly recommend is Olivier Roy's Jihad and Death, a beautifully written analysis of the narcissism and nihilism of jihadis and a critique of the paranoid view of Islam as an imminent threat to France. Also, although I don't write about it in this piece, French journalist David Thomson's book Les Revenants ("The Returnees"), a collection of interviews with young French jihadis (and their female supporters/partners) who have returned from Syrian, is also a riveting work of reportage. 

Links 23-31 March 2017

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