Mideast Backlashes Yet to Come

By Sharmine Narwani – Al-Akhbar – 2013-05-13

The Middle East is treading water these days. Two years of rhetoric about ousting dictators, revolution, freedom, honor, dignity, and democracy – without result – has people on edge, their disillusionment now demanding an outlet.

There are no outlets though. Sensing the fast-growing disenchantment with undelivered promises, even the “bright new leaders” are tightening the reins and demanding compliance.

These new heads of state simply can’t deliver the goods for one main reason: they are just as caught up in global and regional power contests as were their predecessors. Nothing has changed with these uprisings – nothing.

Except now the stakes are higher than before. A recession-bound West, the fast-rising BRICS and their respective regional allies are locked in a competition to consolidate power and influence in this important region before it finds its bearings.

The relatively new influencers on the Arab scene like Qatar and Turkey have recognized this as a unique opportunity to slip into region-wide leadership roles. For the entrenched old hands – Washington, Riyadh, Paris, London – a race is on to prevent the region from shrugging off their decades-long dominance and embracing the anti-imperialism of the Resistance Axis.

The result has been an onslaught of interventions. Every tool in the arsenal has come out to play. Money, espionage, propaganda, weapons, assassination and that old colonial trick: divide-and-rule.

The main game is still the old battle of the blocs, Iran versus the United States, with everyone else filing in line behind their team. There have been a few surprises thrown into the mix: the newcomers like Turkey and Qatar have moved over to the US side; the BRICS, however, have lent their considerable clout to team Iran. Iraq has moved behind the latter formation and Hamas still doesn’t know where to stand so it straddles the two.

This is not a game for the faint-hearted, and it permeates every major social, economic, and political decision in the region today. Want a new electrical plant outside Cairo, Beirut, or Kirkuk? Good luck choosing a national supplier who doesn’t offend. IMF loan? Allowing over-flights or passage for ships? Inking a trade deal? Formulating a new constitution? Scheduling a football match?

Mideast states are now paralyzed and polarized over such things, and governance has come to a standstill. But in this paralysis lies a dangerous volatility: a backlash in the brewing, a pressure cooker about to blow.

The Backlash Against Neo-Islamists

After decades of oppression and marginalization by pro-West, secular dictatorships, the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan) and similar Islamist parties have catapulted to power and prominence in several states. Quite counter-intuitively, however, these Islamist governments appear to have lined up behind the US bloc, eager to please, or at least placate, the very powers that colluded in their oppression.

It is an unnatural marriage, and the longer this union endures, the more estranged Islamist parties will become from their domestic constituencies – in much the same way as their autocratic predecessors.

There is volatility in this balancing act between the two blocs, as groups like Hamas have come to discover. But for the new Islamist powerhouses in “post-revolution” states, yet another volatile contest is being played out to their detriment, this time on an entirely regional level: Qatar versus Saudi Arabia – or Sunni versus Sunni.

For years the Ikhwanists have been backed by the Qatari arrivistes, who are a thorn in the side of the other, larger Wahhabi state in the Arab world, Saudi Arabia. The Saudis, for their own part, are throwing dollars and clout behind Salafists in all the countries where they intend to counter the influence of the Ikhwan and similar parties.

But Qatar and Saudi Arabia are now aggressively exporting their very personal competition to other Arab states – Libya, Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Palestine – creating what I believe will evolve into a ferocious backlash among local populations, even as they reap the rewards of direct financial investment from these two Gulf states.

This competition has drawn in others like the UAE, Jordan, and Kuwait, appalled at the Qatari push to Ikhwanize the region. And it has turned the Arab League positively cannibalistic, devouring the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states like Libya, Syria, and Palestine that it once pledged to protect.

Qatar finds support from AKP-led Turkey in this fight, but the two are a cause for concern in the United States, which secretly suspects that Ikhwanists are harder to control than Saudi-backed Salafists. Much of this fear is because that lynchpin of all US foreign policy calculations, the state of Israel, borders Ikhwan-heavy Egypt, Gaza, and Jordan – none of which have yet sufficiently proven their loyalty to the idea of Israel’s regional hegemony.

But the biggest victim of the Saudi-Qatari competition to influence the direction of political Sunnism is likely to be political Islam itself.

The rise of political Islam – once an inevitable byproduct of democratization – arrived too hard, too fast; too aggressively championed, organized, and weaponized by Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Now, not only have the mentors lost credibility and support, but so have many of their political protégés in Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, and Palestine.

Volatility? We haven’t even started.

What yesterday’s global powerbrokers seek from the incoming class of political Islamists is the maintenance of the status quo, including, among other things, embracing Israel and rejecting Iran. But an open pledge of allegiance to Israel is impossible for the Ikhwan and similar parties – their very legitimacy comes in part from denouncing the legitimacy of the Zionist experiment in Palestine.

Nothing tested their limits as dangerously as last November’s eight days of rocket-volley between Gaza and Israel. Each passing day drove home the fact that, despite their standard rhetoric to domestic and regional constituencies, Islamist heads of state in Turkey, Egypt, and Qatar were rendered paralyzed – and mute – as the Israeli army pounded Gaza.

Instead, it was firepower, training and strategic planning by Iran, Hezbollah, and Syria that propped up defiant Palestinians through those dark hours. The unexpected arsenal of rockets that countered Israeli aggression came from Hamas’ Qassam Brigades, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and other smaller resistance groups, who became the heroes of that conflict.

Not one missile, bullet, or slogan came from the three new Qatari, Turkish, and Egyptian “Sunni kings” vying for power on the coattails of the Arab uprisings.

Had the battle gone on for another week or two, the entire Middle East might have been reconfigured in its aftermath. Never have the Israelis so quickly signed a ceasefire agreement.

The global battle of the blocs and the inter-regional Sunni power struggle crossed paths in that Gaza battle. In it, the US bloc and political Islam exposed their vulnerabilities. Both groups are currently upholding – against a tidal wave of popular sentiment – systems, values, and institutions that were supposed to be swept away by honor-and-dignity revolts. Any incident that highlights this fact can serve as a springboard for a backlash against the interests of the West and its Islamist allies in the region.

The Backlash Against Sectarianism

Shia versus Sunni. Christianity versus Islam. Vilifying the “other” is common in conflict, especially when there exists some historic animosity or tension between sects, nationalities, and communities.

But since the onset of the Arab uprisings there has been a concerted effort to escalate the Shia-Sunni divide and link it wholesale to an Iranian-Arab one.

With the loss of its dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, Washington wasted no time in formulating a divide-and-rule strategy to preserve its regional interests. The US military’s Central Command (CENTCOM) for the Middle East jump-started the task by initiating a secret exercise to divide Arabs and Iranians in March 2011.

Gulf-backed media channels dove headfirst into exaggerating the threat from Iran, while hardline clerics issued increasingly belligerent fatwas against the Shia. Against this backdrop, Shia civilians began to be targeted with violence throughout the region – with very little outcry or objection from the international community, so successfully have they been conflated with a “threatening” Iran and Hezbollah.

But as Christians began to be targeted, assaulted, and killed in Egypt and Syria, the issue of sectarianism exploded beyond the old, more common storylines, and has made avoidance of this subject impossible.

Dragging the sordid issue of sectarianism – which is invariably accompanied by extremism – into the light has had an interesting effect on regional discourse: most Arabs don’t want to be part of it in much the same way they rejected al-Qaeda a decade ago.

A recent Pew Research Center poll of Muslims worldwide reveals, among other things, that 85 percent of Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa view religious freedom for people of other faiths to be “a good thing.” A majority of Muslims are “somewhat or very concerned” about Islamic religious extremism, while a minority of Muslims view Shia-Sunni tensions to be a problem at all. The poll indicates that religious strife remains a major cause for concern among Muslims in many MENA states, and that perceived hostilities between Muslims and Christians are on the high side in Egypt, but low in Lebanon, another country that has experienced these hostilities.

But even as sectarian tensions flare in various countries, the headlines do not tell the whole story. Many Arabs are rejecting these divisions, some of which is attributable to the shocking new level of violence now associated with sectarianism:

From Egypt to Kuwait, Bahrain to Syria, young Arabs are hearing – many for the first time – about women being raped because of their sect; about the cutting of heads, the hacking of limbs, the burning of bodies. This is not yesterday’s segregation of sects; this is the stuff of horror movies and genocidal sprees.

The backlash here has already begun. As violent sectarianism rises, so too does the realization that there is another discourse on the rise besides Shia versus Sunni or Muslim versus Christian.

Simply put, there is a new paradigm forming in the region that didn’t exist when it was just Iraq suffering the consequences of violent sectarian carnage: Today, throughout the Middle East, “sectarian” Shia, Sunni, Muslims, and Christians are increasingly facing down “anti-sectarian” Shia, Sunni, Muslims, and Christians. The re-framing of this issue is crucial in undermining sectarian strife. It offers millions an alternative communal identity to the one that always forces them to “defend sect first.”

Interestingly, one communal identity they are tending to embrace is a national identity, i.e., “I am Bahraini, not Shia or Sunni.”

In Bahrain, despite efforts to paint a two-year popular uprising as an “Iranian project” pitting the majority Shia population against a minority Sunni government, Bahrainis hoist their national flag at every opportunity to defy the negative sectarian characterizations of their “national” democratization project.

In Lebanon, where sectarianism is boiling in reaction to events in neighboring Syria, each incident has so far been thwarted by inter-sect efforts on a national level, and a growing desire among the population to empower the “national” army.

In Syria, widespread revulsion against what has to be the most violent manifestation of sectarianism in the region has morphed into a new language to define the conflict there: Instead of being pro or anti-government/opposition, many Syrians are now underlining their allegiance to Syria first. Despite the international media’s partiality toward framing the Syrian conflict as a sectarian one, many pro-government and pro-opposition figures tend to reject this characterization outright. This is certainly notable among pro-government Syrians, many of whom have undergone a hasty conversion from political apathy to intense nationalism in a short time, and who reject being defined as “pro-Assad.”

“It is too limiting,” says one staunchly secular Syrian about that definition. “This is about my country and keeping it whole – it is not about a person or a government,” says another, an observant Sunni who backs her national army’s efforts to weed out mostly Islamist rebels.

The irony is that the very “sectarianism” encouraged by competing Islamists and their allies in pursuit of political objectives in the region may have spawned the backlash to hasten their demise. Nationalism has long been the enemy of political Islam in the Middle East, and nationalism can once more bury it.

Throughout the Arab world, minority sects and non-sectarian groups are being thrust together to protect against the more zealous elements of political Islam, giving form to important civil coalitions that will form the backbone of new grassroots opposition movements in these countries – previously a position held almost exclusively by Islamists.

The backlashes are here, now. They will target all the interventionists clinging on to the status quo, and those keeping progress at bay. They may grow incrementally and tentatively – or they may explode onto a national or regional stage one fine day. “More of the same” will only hasten their arrival.

And it’s okay. These “backlashes” will be the revolutions you thought we already had.

Sharmine Narwani is a commentary writer and political analyst covering the Middle East. You can follow Sharmine on twitter @snarwani.


Aletho News

Dear friends of this aggregator

  • Yes, I intentionally removed Newsbud from the aggregator on Mar 22.
  • Newsbud did not block the aggregator, although their editor blocked me on twitter after a comment I made to her
  • As far as I know, the only site that blocks this aggregator is Global Research. I have no idea why!!
  • Please stop recommending Newsbud and Global Research to be added to the aggregator.

Support this site

News Sources

Source Items
Please Stop the Ride 27
The Infectious Myth 26
Lockdown Skeptics 50
Sam Husseini 33
Dr. Andrew Kaufman 3
Swiss Propaganda Research 34
Off Guardian 137
Cory Morningstar 10
James Bovard 69
WWI Hidden History 51
Grayzone Project 449
Pass Blue 396
Dilyana Gaytandzhieva 17
John Pilger 426
The Real News 367
Scrutinised Minds 29
Need To Know News 3479
FEE 5493
Marine Le Pen 419
Francois Asselineau 25
Opassande 53
HAX on 5July 220
Henrik Alexandersson 1256
Mohamed Omar 404
Professors Blog 10
Arg Blatte Talar 40
Angry Foreigner 19
Fritte Fritzson 12
Teologiska rummet 36
Filosofiska rummet 148
Vetenskapsradion Historia 197
Snedtänkt (Kalle Lind) 265
Les Crises 4075
Richard Falk 225
Ian Sinclair 137
SpinWatch 61
Counter Currents 12754
Kafila 680
Gail Malone 45
Transnational Foundation 221
Rick Falkvinge 95
The Duran 11619
Vanessa Beeley 226
Nina Kouprianova 9
MintPress 6164
Paul Craig Roberts 2653
News Junkie Post 75
Nomi Prins 27
Kurt Nimmo 191
Strategic Culture 6320
Sir Ken Robinson 83
Stephan Kinsella 123
Liberty Blitzkrieg 888
Sami Bedouin 65
Consortium News 2685
21 Century Wire 4221
Burning Blogger 324
Stephen Gowans 103
David D. Friedman 169
Anarchist Standard 16
The BRICS Post 1543
Tom Dispatch 645
Levant Report 18
The Saker 5225
The Barnes Review 612
John Friend 538
Psyche Truth 160
Jonathan Cook 173
New Eastern Outlook 4994
School Sucks Project 1833
Giza Death Star 2214
Andrew Gavin Marshall 28
Red Ice Radio 698
GMWatch 2633
Robert Faurisson 150
Espionage History Archive 35
Jay's Analysis 1194
Le 4ème singe 91
Jacob Cohen 224
Agora Vox 20003
Cercle Des Volontaires 458
Panamza 2639
Fairewinds 122
Project Censored 1264
Spy Culture 631
Conspiracy Archive 85
Crystal Clark 19
Timothy Kelly 658
PINAC 1482
The Conscious Resistance 1091
Independent Science News 91
The Anti Media 6895
Positive News 820
Brandon Martinez 30
Steven Chovanec 61
Lionel 318
The Mind renewed 463
Natural Society 2627
Yanis Varoufakis 1165
Tragedy & Hope 122
Dr. Tim Ball 114
Web of Debt 168
Porkins Policy Review 459
Conspiracy Watch 174
Eva Bartlett 648
Libyan War Truth 381
DeadLine Live 1916
Kevin Ryan 69
Aaron Franz 275
Traces of Reality 166
Revelations Radio News 126
Dr. Bruce Levine 162
Peter B Collins 1815
Faux Capitalism 205
Dissident Voice 12161
Climate Audit 227
Donna Laframboise 520
Judith Curry 1200
Geneva Business Insider 40
Media Monarchy 2786
Syria Report 84
Human Rights Investigation 94
Intifada (Voice of Palestine) 1685
Down With Tyranny 13819
Laura Wells Solutions 51
Video Rebel's Blog 489
Revisionist Review 485
Aletho News 23230
ضد العولمة 27
Penny for your thoughts 3447
Northerntruthseeker 3010
كساريات 37
Color Revolutions and Geopolitics 27
Stop Nato 4914 Blog 3462 Original Content 7763
Corbett Report 2707
Stop Imperialism 491
Land Destroyer 1307
Webster Tarpley Website 1160

Compiled Feeds

Public Lists

Title Visibility
Funny Public