Much has been written juxtaposing the rise of the Islamic State (IS, formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS) to the rise of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, with emphasis on how both are outdated and will eventually crumble as representations of two failed models — hypernationalism and radical Islamism. The “modern” military-led nationalist Arab state model may be decayed and likely to fall eventually, but the IS model will survive far longer than anyone expects.
It has been less than two months since the rise to power of IS, which some cheekily refer to as SIC (State of the Islamic Caliphate), but its significance should not be ignored. The group's emergence and continued existence is an impressive feat in today’s world order. IS now controls territory that stretches from the eastern edge of Aleppo, Syria, to Fallujah, in western Iraq, and the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. It has already established a judicial system, provides security, runs schools and offers social services.
Social media networks have shared pictures of vehicles with “Islamic Caliphate” license plates and the new state’s passport. There are also reports of a newly established consumer protection authority for food standards in Raqqa. Much has also been written about IS' sophisticated media and PR operations. For all intents and purposes, IS has established a “functioning” state in — and I repeat for emphasis — less than two months.
While some analysts might refer to the Taliban and claim that there's nothing new here, such a comparison is flawed for one important reason: The Taliban’s main prerogative was control of Afghanistan, a historically established and internationally recognized state with internationally recognized borders. IS, however, has no interest in controlling a state that has borders. On the contrary, its political philosophy is vehemently opposed to borders.
IS’ impressiveness lies in its creation of a brand new state from territory it carved out by force from two countries with internationally recognized borders. Its media arm has even released a video that frames its creation as the inevitable end of Sykes-Picot and hails it as the beginning of one Islamic world devoid of borders, united under the leadership of the new caliph. It's an idea that for various Islamists and Islamic revivalists is incredibly seductive, and it shows by the number of foreign jihadists and fighters flocking to IS every day.
Given its danger, brutality and challenge to the status quo, one would expect that a number of forces would be aligning to crush IS, but this is not happening. Actually, no one seems even remotely interested in fighting it, which is amazing considering that it sports only a few thousand fighters, is surrounded by the Syrian and Iraqi militaries and threatens US allies, including Jordan. Here's the rub: No one is fighting it because its continued existence is to everybody's benefit, except maybe the people over whom it rules.
In Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Malki seems more than fine with giving IS control over Sunni Arab areas to rid himself of responsibility for them, and thus allow him the freedom to cozy up even closer to Iran. The Iraqi Kurds see the situation as their chance to declare independence, since Iraq has already fragmented. Syria is no different. President Bashar al-Assad is happy with IS because it offers the stark and scary alternative to the end of his regime, and it cooperates with his military in crushing the Free Syrian Army (FSA), like they did in Deir ez-Zor, where after their joint victory over the poorly armed FSA fighters, they divided the spoils. The Syrian army gets to control the airport, while IS controls the suburbs, and neither attacks the other.
If one is conspiracy-minded, the creation of the so-called Islamic caliphate serves a huge purpose: It gives radical Islamists a “homeland” to which to migrate from all other countries that simply do not want them — an Israel for Islamists, if you will, and one with ambitions of expanding to include the entire region.
Conspiracies aside, however, IS’ appeal does represent the failure of Arab states to foster a sense of citizenship for their people. Citizens of most Arab countries are treated by the state as mere residents without any real or established rights or even a future, hence their high rates of emigration.
Beyond IS' alternative model to the failed modern Arab state, its raison d’être alone should have Sisi shuddering. When employed by an Arab state, nationalism can win against local Islamist ideologies, but when it is positioned against the idea of being part of an existing Islamic empire — where borders do not exist and all Muslims are united — the rules suddenly change. It has been nothing short of fascinating to read the comments of Egyptian Islamists on IS’ advances. They perceive it as proof of the mistake of previously having followed Western, secular democratic models and believe that the “caliphate by any means necessary” model is truly the path they should have taken. Whether this translates into their emigrating to the new caliphate or being pushed locally to join it by force remains to be seen, but both are on the table.
Meanwhile, the Egyptian government is too busy fighting secularists and atheists and arresting people who break the Ramadan fast, following in the steps of Hosni Mubarak's failed rule book of enforcing a “centrist” state that is neither Islamist nor secularist while working for and appealing to no one. The Muslim Brotherhood's failed rule should have jump-started Egypt on the route toward secularism and human rights, which is the only way the nationalistic model can survive and challenge the Islamist model. Instead, the government is engaging in a battle of moderate versus extremist religious rhetoric that it not only cannot win, but also sways it toward extremist Islamic actions to prove its Islamic credentials. As the Mubarak years demonstrated, this only perpetuates the Islamist ideology. Thus, the inevitable and ironic conclusion that the Sisi regime's tactics will accomplish nothing except producing new recruits for IS.
The Egyptian state is old and decaying. It relies on time-worn oppressive tactics and discredited religious institutions to fight a war that at its core is a battle for the hearts and minds of Egyptians, and it is losing badly. IS is a new state bolstered by young immigrants from all over the world who share nothing but a common faith and purpose. If it manages to survive, IS will become the center of allegiance for Egyptian Islamists throughout the nation against the Egyptian state. As for non-affiliated Egyptians, one should not be surprised if they begin emigrating to the Islamic State in a few years in search of jobs. In the end, their country offers them nothing but a bleak and unstable future, while the new caliphate is rife with possibilities. Therein lies the danger and the difference between IS and Sisi’s Egypt.