From Deep State to Islamic State by Jean-Pierre Filiu
French academic lays bare the machinations of the ‘security mafias’ behind the Arab counter-revolutions and their ‘evil twin’ of militant jihadism.
“If you think you understand Lebanon, you haven’t been properly briefed”. Thus went the advice dispensed by the spokesman for the UN peacekeeping force in the wild south of the country in the mid-1980s. The same worldly-wise adage applies these days to the entire Arab region, wracked by collapsing states, terrorism, sectarianism, proxy wars and alliances of the strangest bedfellows.
It takes patience, clarity and perspective to explain the whole grim picture and the links between its constituent parts. These qualities are on impressive display in an important new book by the French scholar Jean-Pierre Filiu. His particular skill is to describe the development, survival and resurgence of the Arab “deep state,” the security agencies that have kept it going and the “monster they helped create” – in its most extreme form the jihadis of the Islamic state (Isis).
Filiu traces how autocrats in Syria, Egypt and Yemen used their experience of managing internal dissent to unleash their own thugs – different names in different countries, same vicious methods – to enforce their will when the call went up to reform or change their regimes. Anyone who experienced the heady events of 2011 will recognise the bitter truth in his admission that the excitement of the Arab spring obscured the prospects of successful counter-revolution.
I thought I had seen it all from the Arab despots. Their perversity, their brutality, their voracity. But I was still underestimating their ferocity and their readiness to literally burn down their country in order to cling to absolute power.
Following the departure of Hosni Mubarak, counter-revolution triumphed in Egypt with the repression of the Muslim Brotherhood. The overthrow of Mohammed Morsi, compared with the success of Rachid Ghannouchi in Tunisia, provided an instructive lesson, Filiu argues: Islamists who succeed at the ballot box, in complex and volatile circumstances, must not take their electoral victories as a “blank cheque.” To ignore that is to invite the backlash that brought Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi to power and forged a reality even worse than under Mubarak.
The guardians of the status quo were ready and waiting across the region. Fighting domestic enemies – Kurds in Turkey, armed Islamists in Algeria, Libya and Egypt, separatists in Yemen – had helped keep the operators of the “mukhabarat state” on their toes throughout the 1990s. Opaque, oil-fuelled budgets helped line the pockets of their masters and their crony capitalist friends.
The 9/11 attacks, in Filiu’s compelling analysis, were a bonanza for the Arab dictators and their “security mafias,” who cooperated willingly with George Bush’s “global war on terror.” Rendition and torture were the backdrop to Tony Blair’s grubby flirtation with Muammar Gaddafi. In Yemen Ali Abdullah Saleh tightened his grip on an ever-expanding security apparatus in the battle against al-Qaida while secretly colluding with the terrorists to keep their menace usefully alive. Egypt proved its enduring worth to the US as the guardian of the peace treaty with Israel.
The master, though was Bashar al-Assad. After the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, he backed the Sunni insurgency next door and used the post-Saddam chaos to justify repression at home. Ali Mamluk, one of his top security chiefs, famously met US officials and boasted of Syria’s ability in penetrating terrorist groups. In 2011 Assad first denied the existence of popular and mostly peaceful protests and then blamed them on captured “terrorists” who “confessed” to their crimes on camera. He carried out what Filiu calls “a highly selective amnesty” – releasing Islamists from prison: one went to Iraq to join al-Qaida and later founded Jabhat al-Nusra, its Syrian affiliate. Assad’s “self-fulfilling prophecy” became true.
Iraq’s Nouri al-Maliki, like Assad a close ally of Iran, helped fuel a vicious Sunni insurgency by his unbridled Shia sectarianism. The outcome, promoted by the mayhem in Syria, is a transnational jihadi movement that morphed into Isis, captured Mosul and declared its “caliphate” a year ago.
It is unclear how it could have turned out differently given that Arab leaders were determined to hold on to power at any price. Support for their moderate opponents – in the west at least – was limited and halting. Saudi and Gulf backing recklessly promoted extremists – but so did the impunity for Assad’s chemical weapons attacks in 2013. Deep-seated suspicion of Islamists played a role too, especially in Egypt. Spring was followed by winter. Yet the answer, Filiu concludes bravely, has to be more democracy, not less, not a fatalistic acceptance that change can never come to the Middle East. “The Arab people are not doomed to remain pawns, the perpetual victims of a deadly game between their dictators and the jihadis.”
From Deep State to Islamic State: The Arab Counter-Revolution and its Jihadi Legacy, Jean-Pierre Filiu. www.hurstpublishers.com
date : 26/06/2015