Monday,11 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1251, (18 - 24 June 2015)
Monday,11 December, 2017
Issue 1251, (18 - 24 June 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Nonstate actors and the Arab Spring

The post-Arab Spring order in the Middle East has been marked by the rise of nonstate actors, writes Fadi Al-Husseini

Al-Ahram Weekly

Over the past four years, Arabs have been living through an endless Sisyphean ordeal, an unexpected nightmare after rising up in what has been called the Arab Spring. Most of the Arab Spring countries have experienced the same scenario: hopeful revolution has turned into belligerence, then into strife followed by war. It is as if the new regional order was guaranteed to lead to instability and chaos.

This new regional order has been marked by new features and novel actors. The feature most starkly on the rise is the appearance of nonstate actors. Their presence and influence across the region is undeniable. They disregard borders and ignore the strategic equations that have ruled the region for decades.

Nonstate actors, mainly Islamist movements like Hamas, Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda, played a limited role in the pre-Arab Spring era. Before going further it is worth highlighting a number of facts concerning the Islamist movements.

First, any designations that label these movements, like “Political Islam” or “moderate Islam”, are merely descriptive terms and have nothing to do with the core of Islam as a religion.

Islam is a comprehensive and inclusive religion. Attaching one character to it without reference to others may give a false impression, as if there were different forms of Islam (e.g. nonmoderate Islam). One could argue that such labels are simply “creative” terms to differentiate between various Islamist groups.

For instance, several Western powers have found in “moderate Islam” an acceptable term that justifies dealing with specific groups and not others, the limits of the word “dealing” ranging from basic and regular contacts to alliances, common interests and agendas.

Several Islamist groups have not shied away from being labelled as moderate Islam or Political Islam as long as this distinguishes them from other groups that have taken a violent path to achieve their goals. Being described as “moderates” gives these groups some kind of legitimacy and hence more freedom to work to achieve their goals.

Perhaps designating these groups as “movements with an Islamic orientation” would be a more accurate term. In fact, they share a common goal: the return of Islamic rule, either state or legislative through Sharia law. The only difference between them is the time factor that determines their behaviour and reveals their strategy.

If a group seeks to achieve its goals gradually and slowly its behaviour and activities are principally characterised by peaceful means, while if a group seeks instant and quick change its policies and actions are chiefly characterised by radical and violent means.

Returning to the role of nonstate actors in general, one should concede that with the advent of the Arab revolts their role has become more evident, to a degree that has surpassed that of many regimes and governments in the region. These actors have begun to impose certain policies and agendas on regional and global regimes and have become the talking point of every regional summit and international conference.

The emergence of these actors has turned the whole region on its head, broken many taboos and penetrated one country after another. Puritanism has become widespread in the region, and a new vocabulary of apostates, infidels and heretics has become common in daily conversation. These actors have been able to abolish political borders drawn in the early years of the last century (in the Sykes-Picot Agreement) while other ideas, concepts or phenomenon, such as globalisation, took decades to find their way in the region.

These actors and their offshoots have spread throughout the whole region, taking various names —among them Al-Qaeda, Al-Nusra Front, Daesh or the Islamic State (IS), and the Houthis —in the Arabian peninsula, Iraq, Syria and North Africa. Their expansion does not appear to have any limits or borders.

They have also been proven to possess a sophisticated organisation that does not reflect the limited number of their members and recruits. In other words, the number of their members does not by any means reflect the unprecedented achievements they have attained in such a short time.

The most important element in this novel equation is their network of known and unknown allies who provide them with financial, logistical and arms supplies, mainly away from the limelight.

The Iraqi and Syrian cases represent the starkest example of entangled interests and relations on one side and regional and international hesitation on the other. Some regional powers have opted to keep the card of supporting or turning a blind eye to the activities and movements of these nonstate actors.

This is a gamble on things veering out of control on other fronts, and to weaken other groups like Hezbollah and the Kurdish PKK, and even to harm the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Similarly, many Western powers that classify Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation have ignored its outright intervention in Syria in order to weaken these groups (the bad guys) in a destructive conflict that has taken on a sectarian character.

The US has pounced on this opportunity and used it to convince its Arab allies of the importance of its role as a supplier of weapons, an advisor who provides them with information and expertise in fighting terrorism, and a protector through US-led coalition strikes. Reports showing the growth in American weapons sales, mainly to Arab countries, are just a case in point.

Russia is fully aware that a nuclear deal between the West and Iran would harm its economy since any agreement with Iran would lead to the country’s return as a major international oil supplier and eventually a drop in oil prices. But it has had no choice but to bless this deal, knowing the importance of Iran’s regional network of relations, mainly among nonstate actors.

Intriguingly, and despite regional dismay at the existence of nonstate actors and their rejection of any talk about a new Sykes-Picot Agreement, one has to note that the facts on the ground are going nowhere but in that direction. Since the US launched its campaign against IS, the latter has managed to keep control of large swathes of Iraq and Syria, compared to what it used to control before the strikes.

IS fighters have begun to appear more equipped and better trained and their media performance has improved a great deal. The consecutive successes of IS have encouraged others either to follow suit and/or to join such a successful model. As a result, not a single Arab capital has been immune, especially in the aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring.

Although much analysis has questioned the conditions that brought about most of those actors and determined their real goals, and despite the fact that many investigations have shown suspicious features in the activities of these groups, the region appears to be inadvertently slipping towards malignant ends.

In an attempt to evaluate the aftermath of the existence and acts of these rising nonstate actors, one may say that the outcome has been a distortion of the image of Islam. Second, some of these actors, who used to enjoy popularity among the Arab masses for resisting Israel, appear to have lost ground in the Arab streets because of their use of violence and sectarian agendas.

Third, Israel, which has been isolated in the region for decades, has been re-enabled and could enter the regional dynamics through the door provided by these actors. To elaborate, Israel, which remained unscathed on the fringes of the Arab Spring and its repercussions, has won three-level strategic gains from the emergence of these actors.

It has started to form a network of relations with many Arab regimes that share, in theory, common fears, especially of the potential Shia menace represented by Iran and Hezbollah.

The second level of Israel’s gains is clearly signified in the weakening of the traditional Arab states, e.g. Iraq and Syria, which remained an important threat for Israel’s decision-makers. The third level has consisted in distracting attention from the core issue of the Middle East, which is the continuation of the last occupation on earth —the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

In sum, it appears that the region is in desperate need of a real leader, a new Saladin, someone who can put an end to the misery, the division and the schisms that have struck the region, a leader who can provide a corrective to the increasingly chaotic and austere interpretations of Islam.


The writer is a political and media commentator at the Palestine Embassy in Cairo.

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