North Africa, West Asia

ISIS airstrikes: how to rehabilitate dictators and destroy the revolution

Maged Mandour

The American intervention will strengthen the hand of Arab autocrats against their opponents, Islamists and non-Islamists alike. It lends credibility to the 'war against terror' rhetoric that these regimes use as a suppressant to the revolution.

Maged Mandour
25 September 2014

On the surface, the most recent American intervention in the Middle East appears to be directed against what many, including the British Prime Minister, have termed an “evil” organization. An organization that has committed barbaric acts against Muslims, regardless of their denominations, and non-Muslims alike, in its quest for power. An entity that was too extreme for Al-Qaeda and broke with it due to its ideological extremism, barbarity, and most importantly, its unauthorized extension into Syria in its quest for greater resources and territory.

Many might argue, not unreasonably, that this 'intervention' needs to be carried out and that the only way to conduct such a campaign successfully is through coordinated international efforts led by the United States and with the Arab Sunni regimes playing a prominent, if not, leading role. A clever tactic to vanquish the shadows of the Iraq war by soliciting Arab support and uniting against, what is perceived to be, a grave threat to regional and international security.

All of these arguments sideline the internal regional dynamic and treat the Middle East as an area that can be moulded, once again ignoring the Arab people's wills. In essence, this war is the latest in a series of American interventions in the region, dating back to operation Ajax in Iran in 1954, where the CIA orchestrated a coup that toppled the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, Mohamed Mossadeq. Thus, the current plan will only help support the current regional order of military and oil dictators whose goal it is to ensure the final defeat of the Arab revolts. This has been made possible by ensuring that the political order that led to the birth of ISIS lives on, feeding into greater extremism and resulting in a closed loop of ever-escalating violence and strife.  

This dynamic is better examined by looking at the different Arab members of the coalition who have pledged to support the American war against ISIS. First comes the largest Arab army, Egypt. Field Marshal Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, the current President of Egypt, has pledged to support the campaign against ISIS as part of his strategy to fight 'terrorism'. This has allowed the Egyptian military to create a link between the Muslim Brotherhood, a moderate Islamist movement which came to power through elections and was ousted in a coup led by the Field Marshal, and more extreme Islamist groups like ISIS, to justify wide scale repression under the guise of 'fighting terrorism'. This strategy of creating a link between moderate and radical Islamist groups has been the strategy of the Egyptian regime ever since the 2013 coup that removed the Muslim Brotherhood from power.

However, American intervention has allowed this policy to gain greater traction domestically as well as internationally, where any domestic opposition to the military regime is now equivalent to supporting terrorism, thus allowing the regime to tighten its grip. On the international side, there is more impetus to overlook the widespread repression being carried out by the Egyptian regime, since it is a vital member in the American coalition against ISIS. Furthermore, there is a revival of the argument for the need to provide the Egyptian regime with increased American aid, both militarily and economically, since it is an essential ally in the fight against 'extremism'. In essence, the original rationale of providing aid to the Egyptian military as a reward for keeping peace with Israel has been replaced with the fight against terrorism. It is important to remember, that the current Egyptian president is responsible for the largest massacre in modern Egyptian history, where hundreds were killed in the forceful dispersal of the Rabaa and Nahda sit-ins of Muslim Brotherhood supporters in August 2013.

Next comes Iraq. Although Prime Minister Maliki is no longer in power, the Iraqi political system, which is rife with sectarianism, remains and there are no signs that the grievances of the Sunni Arab population will be addressed. The Iraqi regime, like the Egyptian regime, has used the rhetoric of 'fighting terrorism' to suppress and marginalize the Sunni community, thus pushing Iraq to the edge of disintegration. The Iraqi government has chosen to ignore mass protests in the Sunni areas calling for a more inclusive government and responded with extreme force, dispersing sit-ins, which has led to the death of a number of protestors. All of this, while its main patron, the United States is turning a blind eye, paving the way for the rise of ISIS. Thus, once again, the American intervention will insulate the Iraqi regime from pressure to modify its power structure, opening up the way for even greater Sunni radicalism and higher levels of instability for years to come.

Even President Assad will be part of the rehabilitation programme, albeit indirectly. Some reports have suggested that the rise of ISIS was coordinated with the Assad regime to reinforce the rhetoric that the Assad regime is 'protecting minorities' and 'fighting terrorism', in essence, giving the regime the opportunity to whitewash its image, both domestically and internationally, as some experts are now calling for cooperation with the regime as the lesser of two evils. But it goes without saying, that the Assad regime has murdered more people than ISIS and committed crimes that are just as heinous, including the murder and torture of children and the mass murder of civilians using indiscriminate barrel bombs. As such, the notion that the Assad regime is the lesser of two evils is ludicrous.

As for the Gulf States, which include the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Oman, led by Saudi Arabia, this intervention will have a dual effect on these regimes. First, this development could potentially act as a catalyst for rapprochement with Qatar. One could argue that the increased linkage between moderate Islamists and radical groups, both on regional and international levels, might pressure Qatar to halt its longstanding policy of supporting the Brotherhood and other Islamist factions. Secondly, it could support the hardline policies of these regimes in suppressing their moderate Islamist foes, namely the Muslim Brotherhood, by linking them to radical groups. It is important to remember that Saudi Arabia has labelled the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization (as has Egypt), making their treatment equivalent to that of ISIS.

In conclusion, one can safely argue that the American intervention will strengthen the hand of Arab autocrats against their opponents, Islamists and non-Islamists alike. It lends credibility to the rhetoric of fighting terrorism, which these regimes use as a suppressant to revolution in the region. The secular opposition can easily be swept away in this environment of mass hysteria, as opposition to the regime becomes increasingly equivalent to supporting Islamists, who in turn are portrayed as terrorists, regardless of their leanings. On the other hand, the moderate Islamists, mainly the Muslim Brotherhood, find themselves being subjected to mass repression with popular consent, as the distinction between radical and moderate Islamists becomes increasingly blurred. This, in turn, might result in a self-fulfilling prophecy, as increased repression leads to increased radicalization and the splintering of factions, who may then take to the path of radicalization.

The American intervention is ill-conceived and misguided. It simplifies a complex regional dynamic and its only goal is to prolong the life of political orders that gave birth to ISIS. The Americans are supporting autocrats who are, internationally and domestically, whitewashing their old allies by providing a new moral rationale for the repression of the Arab Revolt, which swept across the Arab World less than three years ago. The bottom line is that they are supporting an increasingly powerful counter-revolution, which will lead to the proliferation of radicalism in the region. Even if ISIS is defeated, the regional dynamic which gave birth to ISIS will only grow stronger with this intervention, and there will be other groups with similar, if not worse, outlooks in years to come.                   

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