The Syrian Puzzle and the future of the Middle East
by Omar Kassem on 21 Nov 2012 5 Comments

The Arab Spring, for all its meanderings, is a harbinger of the end of the post-colonial era in the Arab world. If America and Britain are finally going to be leaving the area to its own devices with a rump military presence no bigger or larger than anywhere else in the world, it isn’t without having tried in an expensive and delusional millennial moment to upgrade from post-colonialism to empire. In an example of the delusion, nine years ago Paul Bremer was accepting Israeli bids to run the Iraq electricity grid.


American and British failure in the area was down to their actions always hurting their friends more than their enemies. This was the policy of seriously flawed leaders who were not checked by the democratic systems in their countries. Once begun, the lunacy continued. Now forced to leave (or not to leave, that is the question!) Afghanistan in disarray, there is apparently a new desire to get involved in Syria. That’s not all, for America and Britain are now also in the position of having to condemn Assad’s regime in Syria, support al-Thani’s régime in Bahrain, and keep a straight face, all at the same time.


Having hurt Saudi Arabia with their lunatic gallivanting about the Middle-East, America and Britain are now having to make amends. This is not of course out of any contrition, for Anglo-Saxon moral certitude is unbending, but because they need Saudi Arabia to help them with the task of containing Iran, a long-time enemy, since it was unintentionally propelled by their policies into suddenly becoming the most powerful country in the region. If oil sanctions on Iran are to work, then Saudi help is vital.


In October 2009, King Abdulla of Saudi Arabia visited Bashar al-Assad to have him relinquish his Iranian alliance and to act more ‘within the Arab fold’. If Baghdad was lost, then perhaps Damascus could be regained. But the trip was a failure. Not only didn’t Assad budge, but he unwisely reminded Abdulla that the Iranians had so far been the Palestinian cause’s best chance. Little did Assad know it, but he was setting himself up then for the situation he finds himself in today. The best example I can give of the new direct enmity between Riyadh and Damascus is the almost contemporaneous attacks on each other’s intelligence headquarters in July 2012.


Of course, in giving the Saudis and Qataris strong support in the Syrian situation, without being drawn into what would become possibly the ultimate military quagmire, the Americans and the British are, in another example of self-contradictory policies in the Middle-East, supporting the rise of a traditionally and absolutely anti-colonial regional movement: that of the Muslim Brothers. This movement is at the epicentre of a broad shift in politics in the Middle-East, and Egypt is at its core.


Turkey is often seen as the source of a new politics for the region; as in Russia, religion there has made a comeback, junking the drab meaningless secular fascism of the past. The AKP’s Islamic idea has been trumpeted as the model for a troublesome area. But that’s not how the Muslim Brothers see it. Of course it is good thing that the people of Turkey have re-engaged with their traditional normative philosophy of life, one which furthermore extends into the political sphere. But while the Arabs and the Turks have found friendship, Turks cannot offer the Arabs a model of Islam of the future. Memories are long, and scholars are deeply conscious of the fact that it was Ottoman ‘State Islam’ which undermined the true nature of the faith. Wahhabism was only one of a long series of revivalist movements that sought to overturn it. Furthermore, the latinisation of the Turkish language, as well as the abolition of the caliphate, continue to cause offense. The Turks know all this despite their Ottoman instincts.


Thus the problem isn’t about religion as such, it is about identity. Despite reports to the contrary, and some fraying at the fringes, Egypt is a deeply homogeneous nation. This homogeneity is both racial and ideational. The latter factor is based on a conception of the 19th century Egyptian reformers – at their head Mu?ammad ‘Abduh – who, in reaction to the overwhelming dominance of western culture then, defined Islamic civilisation in opposition to it.


It in fact was the beginning of the ‘clash of civilisations’ idea, and changed the nature of the religion from a normative philosophy into a mark of the self. Egypt exported this idea to the rest of the Muslim world, and it is an idea which unites apparently secular to apparently religious, and apparently Muslim to apparently Christian. The creation of Israel and its insistence on being a ‘Jewish state’ in the midst of the Arab world subsequently provided this idea its cause célèbre. The Muslim Brothers vision is still couched in the absolute need to return this identity to Egypt and the Arab world, but it is one that still needs to face the constant tests of democracy lest it become dogmatic.


The democratic battle after the January 25th 2011 uprising was bitterly fought, but it was principally vested interests – ironically beneficiaries of state sinecures and of crony capitalism both fighting a retrograde battle – who opposed the Islamic parties. Ultimately it was the instigators of the uprising, the youth movement and the April 6th movement, who, as the swing vote, saw the need to give the Islamic parties their head. They were repaid by Morsi the new civilian President hailing from the Muslim Brothers, with his relatively quick domestication of the military, although obviously a considerable amount still remains to be done constitutionally (if not economically!).


But the story of the Muslim Brothers cannot be seen from a purely Egyptian angle, for it is a regional movement. Al-Jazeera satellite TV channel, with al-Arabiyya TV in its wake, owned and run as they are by Gulf monarchs, broadcast continuous live footage of the Arab Spring, essentially facilitating the uprisings and fomenting revolution. So how did Gulf monarchs ever come to promote revolution – one may ask – with the Emir of Qatar at their head?


The Emir of Qatar clearly has the support of important elements of the Saudi state. Qatar in fact has been at the forefront of fulfilling the Saudi policy of Arabisation of the Palestinian cause, competing with Iran for the rebuilding of Hezbollah’s infrastructure after the pointless 2006 Israeli demolition of it, and now also planning a major reconstruction of poor Gaza. The answer is that these developments are rooted in the history of the Muslim Brothers in Saudi Arabia ever since the 1950’s.


The Muslim Brothers as the strongest political contenders after the Egyptian revolution of 1952 were forcibly crushed by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s military régime. They sought sanctuary in Saudi Arabia and were granted it by the Wahhabi establishment in exchange for their help in fighting the spread of secularism and nationalism across the Arab world. While Nasser was the gravest threat, there were also the Ba‘ath parties in Syria and Iraq to contend with. Arriving in Saudi Arabia, the Muslim Brothers were wholly unlike the Wahhabi religious establishment. This last was a traditional doctrinal culture, unprepared for the social and economic upheavals that were to come in the wake of the oil boom. The Muslim Brothers on the other hand had run schools and hospitals for the poor in Egypt, and fostered an education surrounding an understanding of imperialism and colonialism, all of which would eventually help shape and run the new institutions of the Saudi state.


In alliance with the Wahhabi establishment, the Muslim Brothers came to criticise some of the policies of modernisation carried out by the Saudi royal family when too much western influence was permitted. Eventually however their shrill response to rising levels of poverty, high unemployment and economic stagnation in the Kingdom, became its primary source of dissent, and caused consternation. Subsequently divisions between the new revivalism and the gradually ossifying Wahhabi establishment opened up in the course of a series of crises: first in the seizure of Mecca’s sacred mosque and the call to overthrow al-Saud in November 1979, then in Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, and also after al-Qaeda’s 11 September 2001 attacks.


On each occasion, under pressure from all quarters, the royal family sought the support of the Wahhabi establishment, and survived thanks to it. But each resolution and accommodation as it arose was met with general unpopularity and criticism. The régime became embattled and the Wahhabi establishment came to be seen as out of touch. From this state of affairs arose the policy of support for the Muslim Brothers in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria as an attempt to export their relentless energy and relieve tensions internally, while creating client states in the Arab world dependent on the Gulf nations for funding and support.


The rest is history as they say, but we are left with the Syrian morass. If that domino is to fall, and Syria is to ‘return to the Arab fold’ in a new and democratic way, the best way forward is to starve the rebels of funds for arms, and make all help conditional on peaceful mass protests, at once. Thus ending the violence and leaving Assad, now no longer embattled and needing support, in the clutches of his people, to be held to account by them, will result in democracy.


The Iranian régime will not prop him up if a democratic process truly gets under way, because they will want to deal with a legitimate government, and are quite capable of negotiating with one that is either Sunni or Alawi dominated or one that is a mixture of both. Don’t be fooled into thinking that there are any kinds of religious obstacles to such an outcome. But if the force of arms is permitted to have its way, then, given current circumstances, the rise of the Muslim brothers in Syria will not be as benign as it should be, confessional polarisation and potentially endless unnecessary suffering will ensue. As we saw in Egypt in Ta?rir Square, we need to see Muslims and Christians in Syria holding hands in protest.


Dr Kassem is an Egyptian currently living in London; a Cambridge graduate in theoretical economics, post-graduate and Ph.D. from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). He believes that the 17th century nation-state which took over in Europe from the catholic church and later spread all over the world is an outmoded system of governance which will take us to the brink of destruction unless human beings reassert control over it 

Courtesy shamireaders

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