Tales of the New Old Middle East

Three emerging features dominate the contemporary Middle East scene: the rise of a new generation of self-empowered non-state armed groups, the challenges of political transition and the weakening of regional cooperation dynamics. To bridge the violence-to-security gap, the “new” Middle East has to address both long-standing unresolved issues and recent ever-complexifying crises, argues Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou.

The familiar security deficit in the Middle East and North Africa took a new turn at the start of the 2010s. Whereas the previous decades had played out in an increasingly familiar – and therefore gradually predictable – sequence of domestic authoritarianism, regional tensions and international clientelism, the early 2010s came to abruptly introduce a series of events (coalesced around the Arab Spring) which initially opened the possibility of change on the domestic, regional and international fronts. Did, however, that turning point and the events unfolding since then spell a fundamental rupture or are we witnessing the worst of both worlds, namely new, more complex disruptions combined with the resilience of the old mode?

In retrospect, the crises that the region had experienced since the 1950s continued to arguably echo each other in a linearity that essentially never challenged the analyst’s ability to paint a general picture of continued and recognizable trouble. “Volatility,” as the term of art that would systematically be used to describe the region, was, in that sense, the result of failed state-building processes in the 1910s put on the wrong tracks (Sykes-Picot, Mac Mahon-Hussein and Balfour Declaration Great Game logic turned into mandate system dispossessing structures while the Ottoman Empire crumbled and cries for independence multiplied from Baghdad to Tangiers by way of Cairo, Cyrenaica and Algiers), equally failed decolonization processes (paradoxically empowering predatory elites soon to morph into bureaucratic-authoritarian regimes), the additional international failure to properly decolonize Palestine begetting the Arab-Israeli conflict, and US geostrategic influence overtaking the British and French dying colonial powers (from Suez 1956 onward). The only unexpected development was the rise of Islamism after the 1979 Iranian revolution. Yet even that development could have been foreseen from the mid-1960s onward as the failure of the nationalists across the region brought back to the fore those religious competitors for political leadership that had once been present and vocal in the contest as early as the 1920s (in the Gulf, the Nile Valley and the Levant) and during the 1940s (in North Africa).

The next decades were then a long, slow-motion interregnum of deterioration wherein these three strands were inevitably proceeding toward a moment of truth in the form of an impasse. Specifically, the post-colonial state (even when it was a rentier one) was unable or unwilling to turn into a viable, representative unit; the leaders paid only lip service to altering their international bargaining power, in effect being accomplices to their own geostrategic subjugation; and their non-state critics (the citizenry, civil society) and competitors (the armed groups) kept gaining momentum and operational standing. It is in that sense, therefore, that the swiftness with which the Arab Spring vortex took hold must be understood: a de facto fallen system ripe for the taking by anyone. And indeed, a trigger as routine as a Tunisian countryside incident of protest against Ben Ali’s police state (man-of-the-street Mohamed Bouazizi, who self-immolated in December 2010) started the chain reaction we have now come to know across the region, with heads of state fleeing (Tunisia), resigning (Egypt), killed (Libya) or forced out (Yemen) – and some mounting a resistance (Syria). 2011 was then undeniably a turning point as much as it was a culmination of all the pre-existing dystrophies that had never been resolved.

Five years later (February 2011−February 2016), the region still carries with it the still-unresolved incipient components of that equation – elusive representative statehood, unstable systems and persistent insecurity – but to which have been added a few consequential dimensions that thicken the plot. Three such emerging features dominate the contemporary scene: the rise of a new generation of self-empowered non-state armed groups, the challenges of political transition and the weakening of regional cooperation dynamics.

Firstly, seldom has the mirrored combination of weakened states and strengthened groups been so vividly illustrated in the region (and indeed elsewhere). Whereas once, rebellions, insurgencies and armed oppositions could be decisively and brutally crushed by the regimes, today’s armed groups are holding vast swathes of territory and projecting themselves forcefully in the face of state militaries either on the retreat or holding on to shaky status quos (which should not have been reached in the first place). In southern Arabia, in the Sinai, in Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and the Fezzan, and in the Anbar desert and across the Levant, new groups have taken too much control, too rapidly and command illegitimate authority over too many people. Such attempted statization of armed groups, best embodied in an Islamic “state” that was once merely Al-Qaeda in Iraq, is the direct corollary of the discernible militization of states, whereby actual state authority is shrunken to the logic (and ideology) of militias, often as violent as the insurgent armed groups themselves.

Secondly and relatedly, the region is now squarely located in a marketplace of political transformation. This disrupted and disruptive period of historical change is playing out in unpredictable ways. Not so much because of the events that may materialize (conflicts, attacks, regime changes) but because all actors (state, non-state, e-revolutionary, etc.) feel empowered and unrestrained. This is the primary and immediate consequence of the uprisings, namely the basic fact that authority is systematically questioned and defiant authority is rising relatively easily. The challenge for the states and societies of the region, halfway into this decade already, is to move beyond this initial “release” reaction on to cemented processes of predictable representative political outcome (i.e., sequences of elections generating stability and in turn producing security).

Finally, as old questions lingered, as new groups appeared and transitions materialized raising all manners of socioeconomic and political challenges and expectations, regional cooperation rated poorly across the region. At national levels, most countries became understandably focused on fast-changing domestic scenes, but which all the same they too often dealt with selfishly. How rapidly the Libyan transition came to represent a threat to the Tunisian transition – when they should have been mutually-supportive – is a testimony to such societal mind-set. At regional levels, but for the Gulf Cooperation Council’s newfound dynamism (but even then high tensions materialized, with the recalling of Saudi, Bahraini and Emirati ambassadors from Qatar in 2014) and wide (maybe too wide) individual initiatives such as Saudi Arabia’s coalition of Islamic states against terrorism, regional cooperation structures proved inoperative in the face of the trouble in Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Yemen, Libya and Egypt. A once slightly ambitious League of Arab States, in the late 2000s, fell back into its habitual lethargy just when needed.

What is, therefore, urgently needed today is action on the following three fronts: newfound vigor in states able to address and redress the challenge of the new armed groups, and doing so legitimately, far from the Nuri Maliki-style repression that gave us the Islamic State, in the name of fighting terrorism; deft leadership in navigating arduous transitions with a view to yield an actual historical break with the authoritarianism of old, not giving birth to neo-authoritarianism, in the name of order; and tangible, operative and visionary regional cooperation transcending short-term national interests, not proclaiming to do so hand in hand with neighbors while conspiring against them. In so doing, the Middle East and North Africa would also move beyond the prisms that have misleadingly been used to depict it the over the past five years – “the unravelling,” “the Islamist winter,” “the post-American Middle East,” “the end of Sykes-Picot,” “the new Arab Cold War” and so forth – and instead revert to the simpler and more relevant, forward-looking logic of state building, transition, regional cooperation and good old diplomacy.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.