A main feature of the new breakdown phase in the Arab world is radical Islamic organizations turning from secret security networks into popular forces (or forces with popular extensions) in many countries in the region. This shift applies to al-Qaeda (or its branches) and the Islamic State (IS). How can this phenomenon be explained? Where is it going?
This transformation means that radical and violent organizations have clearly turned into parties with popular support, from which they draw members for combat and maybe later for politics. This is happening despite all their heinous acts — bombings, beheadings, persecutions, kidnappings and enslavements.
As IS swept western Iraq and northern Syria, Iraq has seen an increased popularity of IS, which benefited from Sunni anger. The same happened in Yemen, where, according to Yemenis, al-Qaeda — through Ansar al-Sharia — represents Sunni Shafii solidarity in many areas in the center and south in the face of the expanding Houthis, who are fighting under the name of a group called Ansar Allah. In Libya, some local solidarity with IS has recently appeared.
Have violent Salafists started to inherit the place of the Muslim Brotherhood, which, through its general current, has traditionally constituted the pre-eminent fundamentalist Islamic movement? Something akin to that is happening. Indeed, it is going beyond that to the point of representing the popular solidarity the Brotherhood failed to always achieve, except in some places such as Yemen, Syria and Tunisia. Nevertheless, the Brotherhood generally remained as an organization with many members but without mass popular appeal.
There is another point that would help clarify the complexity of the matter and its manifestations. The Brotherhood suffered difficulties, or rather defeats, after its rapid rise following the waves of the Arab Spring. At first, it appeared that the Muslim Brotherhood’s time had come. Those defeats drove the Brotherhood to collude with radical Islamic movements to retaliate against the regimes and the forces that had brought it down. This is what the Brotherhood has been doing in Egypt, where it is smuggling weapons and members across the Libyan border to clash with the Egyptian army to weaken it from the inside, particularly in the Sinai Peninsula. This is also what is happening in Yemen, where the pro-Brotherhood Islah Party lost control of the capital, Sanaa. Only in Tunisia — because of the consensus policy pursued by Ennahda, led by Sheikh Rashid Ghannouchi, under pressure from the secularist pro-[Habib] Bourguiba bloc — did Ennahda engage in the national fight against Salafist militants to limit their terrorizing. We should point out the peaceful democratic role being played by the government headed by the Islamist Justice and Development Party in Morocco. The party is playing its role within the monarchy and its controls.
Al-Qaeda started having a popular base in Iraq after the 2003 US occupation. Al-Qaeda earned support in the Sunni areas of Iraq, to the point that al-Qaeda was running manned checkpoints in some Baghdad neighborhoods in that period.
All that changed when the US administration initiated the so-called surge in 2006. According to the surge plan, which was led by President George W. Bush, Sunni anger was directed toward the Shiites. This reduced the pressure on US troops. The surge was accompanied by cooperation with Sunni tribal leaders, the Sahawat, by luring them financially and politically. The Sahawat dealt a fatal blow to the popular sea in which al-Qaeda was swimming. But then IS appeared as an al-Qaeda splinter. In 2014, IS took over Mosul amid popular support.
There is no doubt that the rising Sunni-Shiite tension — which turned into a civil war (led by Iran and Saudi Arabia) from Basra in the east, to Tripoli in Lebanon in the west, and to Sanaa in Yemen in the south — has directly contributed into making radical Sunni groups more popular because they represented Sunni solidarity. IS in the Sunni areas of Lebanon is gradually becoming a combat model that its supporters believe can compete with Hezbollah’s combat reputation.
In Afghanistan, after years of fighting the Taliban, the United States initiated a policy of serious negotiations with it.
Where is this emerging phenomenon heading? Will we see, a few years from now, negotiations between Washington and IS or al-Qaeda over the future of some regimes in the region? Is such a scenario not a possibility given that the radicals have become popular parties in some of those countries?
In Shiite political Islam, organizations such as the Dawa Party, the Sadrists, the Supreme Council in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthi movement in Yemen have become part of the power structure, in other words part of the political system. But the militant Sunni Islamist groups, including the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Boko Haram in Nigeria and militants in northern Mali, still have no relationship with the official power structures.
In the past few years, it seemed that the Muslim Brotherhood had become legitimate and could fill the chronic vacuum between the political regimes and ideological political Islam. But the vacuum has increased because of the Brotherhood’s mistakes and its authoritarian and factional inclinations, which contributed to its downfall. That is in addition to its lack of experience in government. Similarly, fundamentalist Shiite parties in Iraq fumbled in governance in the last 10 years and could not manage a unified and corruption-free Iraq.
This means that the vacuum now is more dangerous than at any time before because the Sunni militant organizations, which have become popular in some communities, still have no constructive and consensus-based project. That is why there is an international coalition against IS (although the West and some countries in the region had turned a blind eye to IS’ birth).
Will we have to wait another generation to see a change in the societies whose countries are now collapsing?
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