Monday, November 24, 2014

The Struggle for Middle East Mastery

BERLIN – The last illusions about what was called, until recently, the “Arab Spring” may have vanished. Egypt’s military coup has made the simple, depressing alternatives for the country’s future crystal clear: The question is no longer one of democracy versus dictatorship, but rather one of (Islamist) revolution versus (military) counter-revolution – dictatorship or dictatorship.

This applies not only to Egypt, but to almost all of the wider Middle East. And, because both sides have opted for armed struggle, the outcome will be civil war, regardless of what well-intentioned European Union foreign ministers decide in Brussels. The Islamists cannot win militarily, just as the generals cannot win politically, which all but ensures the return of dictatorship, significant violence, and a series of humanitarian disasters.

For both sides, full mastery and control is the only option, though neither has even a rudimentary understanding of how to modernize the economy and society. So, whichever side gains the upper hand, authoritarianism and economic stagnation will prevail once again.

In Egypt, the army will be the victor, at least in the medium term. With the support of old elites, the urban middle class, and religious minorities, Egypt’s military leaders have clearly adopted an all-or-nothing strategy. Moreover, financial support from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states has made the army impervious to outside pressure.

Thus, Egypt is reenacting the Algerian scenario. In 1992, with the Islamic Salvation Front poised to win Algeria’s general election, the country’s military staged a coup and immediately canceled the election’s second round. In the subsequent eight-year civil war, waged with appalling brutality by both sides, up to 200,000 people lost their lives.

Military rule in Algeria continues de facto to this day. But, with the role of political Islam still unanswered, none of the country’s fundamental problems has been addressed seriously, and its leaders have been unable to take advantage of promising opportunities (for example, in contrast to Egypt, Algeria has large oil and gas reserves).

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood’s older generation is accustomed to prison and life underground, but there are many reasons to believe that its younger adherents will respond with terror and violence. Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Tunisia, and soon perhaps other countries in the region will serve as fertile grounds for a new, more militarily oriented Al Qaeda, which will become a more powerful factor in the Middle East’s cacophony of interests and ideologies.

The West in general, and the United States in particular, has little influence or real leverage. So it will complain, threaten, and deplore the horrors to come, but ultimately will follow its interests, not its principles. For example, Egypt, with its control of the Suez Canal and its cold peace with Israel, is too important strategically to be simply abandoned.

Taken in isolation, the Egyptian situation is bad enough; but it is by no means a unique case. Rather, it is part of a regional drama characterized primarily by a massive loss of order. The US-backed order in the Middle East is breaking down, yet no new order is emerging. Instead, there is only a spreading chaos that threatens to reach far beyond the region’s borders.

Following the spectacular failure of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, with their neoconservative go-it-alone illusions, the US is no longer willing or able to shoulder the burden of being the last force for order in the Middle East. Having overstretched its forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, and facing economic retrenchment at home, the US is withdrawing, and there is no other power to take its place.

Withdrawal is one of the riskiest military maneuvers, because it can easily degenerate into panicky retreat and chaos. With the upcoming withdrawal of the US and NATO from Afghanistan, the potential for turmoil in the region between North Africa and the Hindu Kush will increase significantly on its eastern edge.

What we can learn today from the prolonged crisis in the Middle East is that regional powers are increasingly trying to replace the US as a force for order. This, too, will fuel chaos, because none of these powers is strong enough to shoulder the American burden. Moreover, the Sunni-Shia divide frequently leads to contradictory policies. In Egypt, for example, Saudi Arabia is supporting the military against the Muslim Brotherhood, whereas in Syria the Saudis are backing Salafists against the military, which receives support from Saudi Arabia’s main enemies, Shia Iran and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah.

But the region’s struggle for power and its sectarian-ideological antagonisms also create an opportunity for cooperation once scarcely thought possible. Seen from this perspective, any US-Iranian talks over the nuclear issue in the wake of Hassan Rouhani’s victory in Iran’s presidential election could have much broader significance.

In Egypt, the military counter-revolution will prevail, but the Islamist revolution eventually will return as long as its causes have not been eliminated. At the moment, there is virtually no indication of progress on this front. So, when the Islamist revolution does return, it is likely to be even more powerful and violent.

A similar dynamic is evident in European history, particularly in the revolutions and counter-revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Indeed, the legacy of that dynamic was fully overcome in Europe only two decades ago. Now it seems to be recurring, largely unchanged, in the Middle East.

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    1. CommentedBahaa Talat

      1. It is relly tru, "The Islamists cannot win militarily, just as the generals cannotwin politically". Also, your idea that "when the Islamist revolution does return, it is likely to be even more powerful and violent" is not exact right, it is more likely to be more powerful but not violent.
      2. It is really unfair to accuse both sides in Egypt of responsibility about violence. All evidences proved that the Islamists refuse violence and you can return to the death toll from both sides if you wish.
      3. It is really jokey to say that the westerns have nothing to do now, while they did a lot in the near past pushing Egypt to recent deadly situation.
      4. The majority of Egyptians think that any attempt to impose a social or political system on them will fail if it is not ideologically accepted.
      5. Westerns have a lot to do trying to prove what they said that they need good for this region. It is so clear that the facts are in contrary to promises and speeches.
      6. Is it really true that Americans need to withdraw from the region? Are they really searching for a successor? We do really not think!
      7. It is clear that westerns believe that Arabs and Muslims refuse democracy and conversation, hence the solution is only in the hands of militaries. However, this is completely evidenced not true.
      8. Also it is proved for several times that the Islamists can represent successful economic examples.
      9. By end, the most of Egyptians believed in a bad rule for westerns in their country and this could be harmful for the future possible relation.

    2. CommentedGrzegorz Lindenberg

      I am afraid Mr. Fischer was absent at school when XIX century history was taught. Revolutions and counter-revolutions of Europe had very little to do with religions trying to dominate politics.

    3. CommentedKen Presting

      Mr. Fischer's comparison of the Islamic world to Europe is most unusual, and depressingly apt. I don't read him as blaming Islam, but rather identifying a larger pattern.

      Recently, Americans have been re-assessing our own civil war. I for one have come to agree with those who see A. Lincoln's genius as specifically directing the USA away from regional factionalism (which plagued Europe for centuries), with racial justice as a means, not a purpose.

      There will always be, in every society, some faction which might gain from violence - especially if they can induce some other faction to sacrifice their lives for an "ideal". The bitterest truth of politics was first stated by Hobbes, but also ratified by Lincoln: violence will multiply until it is monopolized by a central power.

      Every other issue is a deliberate distraction.

    4. Commentedm r

      If the author were to learn from his own countries recent history, it should abundantly dawn on him that supreme principle of democracy under constant threat is that even if winner takes the reigns does NOT mean the defeated is downtrodden and power is a grab for its own sake.
      President Mursi got his full one year in which he unexpectedly achieved much, but in the end was NOT enough or able to carry the WHOLE nation with him.

      The Author's judgment is totally wrong that Egypt 2013 MUSS/ will become Algeria 1998. There is every indication- given half a chance General Sisi seeing himself as saviour of his own beloved country will hand over to Civilians and democracy as soon as he can- circumstances allowing; much as President Mursi could have been more accommodative, when he had his run.

      Polarisation is NOT automatic- just wisdom must prevail.

    5. Commentedhari naidu

      It's not true that military generals cannot win politically.

      Indonesia - a Muslim state - is currently led by a General who came to power through the barrel of the gun. Indonesia is a success story of how to transform a Muslim state power towards not only democracy but also relatively good governance.

      French Revolution and wars on European continent have little or no fundamental relevance to nature and content of political and social change under Islam - based as it is on fundamental doctrines.... incompatible with pluralism.