North Africa, West Asia

Can the Arab world defeat ISIS?

Maged Mandour

What will three forces contribute to the defeat of ISIS: Arab autocrats, moderate Islamist groups and secular democratic protest movements - the first initiators of the Arab Revolt? We can discount the first...

Maged Mandour
24 October 2014
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Iraqis protesting ISIS persecution of Christians. Demotix/Ryan Rodrick Beiler. All rights reserved.

For many, the American campaign against ISIS is the only possible solution. Many would argue, rightly, that the United States possesses a unique set of military capabilities, placing it in a unique global position - the only power capable of stopping the meteoric rise of ISIS.

However, the United States points out that without partners on the ground, chances of defeating ISIS are slim. There is a need not simply to wage a military campaign against the group, but to launch an assault on its ideological foundations.

Secretary Kerry highlighted this on his trip to Cairo, where he emphasized the role that Egypt could play in combating radical Islamism, as the largest Arab state, with its exceptional cultural weight in the Arab World. He ignored the role the military played in the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, in fostering radicalism in the Sinai Peninsula, in addition to the increased level of violence gripping the country due to the repressive policies implemented by the military regime. 

After the airstrikes began, with the participation of a number of Arab states, the question that is posed is this: can Arab political order, in its current configuration, defeat ISIS?  The word “defeat” here is used to refer not only to military defeat, but also to its ideological and social defeat. In other words, ending the appeal of the group to the thousands who have flocked towards it, which in effect, has allowed for them to take over large swathes of territory in a short period of time. As such, is it possible to end its social and ideological appeal, and prevent it from morphing into other forms?

There are three forces that may possibly contribute to the defeat of ISIS: Arab autocrats, moderate Islamist groups and secular democratic protest movements - the first initiators of the Arab Revolt.

I will start with the power elites, namely the Arab autocrats. Arab autocrats are the direct beneficiaries of the rise of ISIS and the airstrikes that ensued, because they have whitewashed these bankrupt regimes, both internationally and domestically.

In Iraq, the sectarian regime seems to be more entrenched than before. The rise of ISIS has allowed the regime to consolidate its power base in the Shiite south and present itself as their protector. This sectarian structure has been maintained by cosmetic changes. The most important example is the call by Ayatollah Ali-Sistani for the then Prime Minister, El-Maliki, to step down and form a more inclusive government. Maliki did step down, however, the sectarian nature of the regime remains the same. The underreported abuses of the Shia militia against the Sunni community, which the Iraqi government seems to have either encouraged or actively ignored, is a clear example of their policy of encouraging sectarianism, which in turn helps the regime maintain its grip on power.

In Syria, the rise of ISIS has served the regime well. First, the rhetoric of 'fighting terrorism' and 'protecting minorities', which the regime used from the start of the revolt to justify mass repression, has in one fell swoop become both believable and justifiable. This has allowed the regime to mobilize the support of minorities as well as the urban middle class, who fear the rise of radical Islamism. As such, the behavior of the regime in not combating ISIS becomes more explicable.

Second, the rise of ISIS has weakened the power of the moderate opposition. First, by weakening its ideological appeal, by allowing the regime to label it as 'terrorist'. Second, by diverting precious resources away from the fight against Assad to the fight with ISIS, as ISIS focused its operations in Syria against other rebel groups, rather than the regime. Third, internationally, the Assad regime has been whitewashed, albeit indirectly. As ISIS takes center stage, Assad appears moderate in comparison.

In Egypt, the military regime has used the rise of ISIS to reinforce its policy of using the rhetoric of 'fighting terrorism' as justification for the mass repression of opponents, both Islamist and non-Islamist alike, and the pejorative labelling of various Islamist groups, regardless of their political and ideological stance, as 'terrorist'. It also allowed the military regime to re-emphasise its strategic importance as an essential ally to the United States in a region whose cooperation is needed for any American incursion into the Arab world.

If the current ideological base of the Arab autocrats is the rejectionist ideology of 'fighting terrorism', this in essence means that the survival of these regimes depends on the existence of groups like ISIS. They become 'providers of security' in what appears to be an existential threat facing the middle classes of the Arab World.

This partly explains the collapse of the old Arab “imagined community”, as Benedict Anderson referred to it, to be replaced by a new community which is sectarian in its nature. In other words, the current elites are the direct beneficiaries of the rise of Islamist radicalism and have actively encouraged it, using identity politics to reinforce their position. The Arab autocrats are therefore not reliable allies in the fight against ISIS. They are ill-equipped to face the group both on a military and ideological level.

Potentially the most potent ideological opponents to form a counterweight against radical Islamism are moderate Islamist groups that operate within the same sphere.

The most prominent group is the Muslim Brotherhood, who have historically cooperated with Arab autocrats against shared radical Islamist opponents. For example, the position that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood took against the jihadists in Egypt prompted fierce criticism from Ayman El Zawahri; or take the example of the position of the Algerian Muslim Brotherhood in supporting the military against the Islamist radicals during that civil war.  

These groups are now classified by Arab autocrats as 'terrorist' groups and are being subjected to mass repression. They are also facing the threat of marginalization within their constituencies as they are subjected to mass repression. The path of moderation becomes more tenuous, in essence, increasing the probability of the emergence of groups that are more inclined towards violence and radicalism.

The moderate Islamist groups seem to be trapped between the repression of Arab autocrats, the power struggle with radicals, and the pressure from grassroots movements not to compromise with the different regimes. This, combined with the failed experiment of Islamist rule in Egypt and the backlash that ensued, makes theses groups too weak to be effective forces on the ground in the fight against ISIS.

As for the secular democratic opposition, there does not seem to be much of a role for them. These forces have almost been completely defeated. In Egypt, they are subjected to mass repression, with popular consent mixed in with an orientalist discourse on the “nature of the Egyptian”, the need for rule by force, and the incompatibility of democracy with the Egyptian masses.

In Syria, the peaceful opposition is marginalized and the moderate armed opposition is outgunned, outmaneuvered, and has been sidelined by radical movements.

In Iraq, the Sunni peaceful mass protests, which were savagely repressed by the government, are a distant memory, as radicalism has replaced it as a means of channeling grievances.            

In conclusion one can argue, based on the current configuration of social forces on the ground, that the American campaign has few reliable allies, some of which are even benefiting from the rise of ISIS. As such, the airstrikes will not be effective in defeating ISIS without the existence of a local force capable of confronting the group on ideological and social levels. Even if ISIS can be defeated militarily, they will morph into other forms.

ISIS is the symptom of a much more profound crisis in the Arab world. A crisis of a decaying political order, where there is neither a force able to govern alone, nor current forces willing to compromise. This is strangling the Arab world, and condemning it to a slow political and social decay.

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