Major security issues in the Arab world and the Middle East have never been as entangled as they are now. Some of the aspects of this entanglement and its dangers, quandaries, and problems will be explained. Yet the most serious of all those is the way other pressing needs like development and progress receded to the background and are postponed until those “existential” crises are resolved.
In economics, there is a concept known as “opportunity cost” or the sacrifice related to not choosing a certain option. This applies to countries as far as the time spent in conflicts is concerned and is clearly demonstrated in our part of the world which has been through a series of confrontations, the most famous of which is the Arab-Israeli conflict that intensifies at times and eases at others. But our societies have managed to cope with conflicts in one way or another and have sometimes even held them accountable for domestic and external problems or used them to justify the remaining in power of some types of regimes that are not the best for their respective countries.
Yet, this conflict took a different turn and shook the entire region when it came in the shape of what came to be known as the Arab Spring, in which all seasons of the years got eventually mixed up and which ushered the region into a new era of instability. For example, the domestic or foreign policies of the Arab Spring countries, which started with a “democratic” transitional period and ended with an “Islamist” rule that starts with ballot boxes and ends with fatwa-based institutions, are not quite clear.
In all cases, the experience is still new, but attempts at creating a new “recipe” that mixes democracy with political Islam have entered a phase where the former is considered a form of apostasy. Regardless of the outcome, the fact remains that the intense dynamism of countries in which revolutions erupted is shaking the entire region. We all remember what the French Revolution did in European countries and societies in the 19th century and we see this replicated in the Middle East, only with a sectarian, and sometimes jihadist or salafist, flavor.
Situation in Algeria
Here we need to mention what happened last week when a terrorist group abducted workers from a natural gas facility in Algeria and the Algerian army launched a military attack that resulted in the death of 34 hostages and the release of 26. Regardless of the efficiency with which the operation was carried out and whether Algeria needed to consult with the countries from where the hostages come, all issues tackled by Western media, the circumstances in which this operation took place warn of the growing influence of those groups in terms of both arms and men. This was demonstrated by the attempt at seizing Mali in the African Sahara and which started with the north and was about to reach the capital in the south had it not been for French then African, and maybe later NATO, intervention.
The problem is now taking two basic shapes: First, the seizure of countries. The more failed the country is and the most hopeless it has become for the regional and international community, the more ready it is for seizure. This is the case in Somalia and Mali. This could soon be the case in Syria if the balance of revolutionary power is tipped in favor of Islamists who are determined to establish an Islamic state in Damascus and everybody knows what “Islamic” means for them. Second, terrorist operations like what happened in Algeria and which brought back memories Algerians do not want to remember. What is certain is that this was just the tip of the iceberg and that underneath lie a heap of Libyan weapons and all sorts of military operations. Add to that the groups of highly-trained militants who fought in Afghanistan and other jihadist conflicts. We are not up against scattered groups or misled youths, for these are organized entities that are determined to change the shape of the societies in which they live until they become modeled after the Taliban. The example of northern Mali leaves no place for doubt and the application of Islamic penalties like stoning and hand mutilation following unjust trials provides the ultimate proof.
What is striking is what Arab and Muslim societies had been through this dilemma before with the emergence of terrorist and extremist groups that killed caliphs and imams and questioned the Islam of Islamic nations. This crisis was resolved through rejecting extremist ideologies and supporting ruling authorities to preserve the unity of the nation. Now, everything has been mixed up so that the comeback of terrorism like the case of Mali and Algeria is seen as a form of revolution and as if there is no difference between an Islamic faction that comes to power through ballot boxes and one that does so through using violence.
The danger is very obvious and Arab countries are most likely the target. Democratically elected Islamist powers could also become a target since, according to extremists, their coming to power was made possible through endowing a Western form of apostasy that makes the “mob,” and not God, the source of all powers with legitimacy. They are, therefore, not be acknowledged as rulers.
Dangers keep accumulating one after the other. Is there a way out of this quandary?
This article was published on Al Sharq al Awsat on Jan. 23, 2013.
Abdel Monem Said is the director of al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. He was previously a board member at Egypt’s Parliament Research Center at the People's Assembly, and a senator in Egypt's Shura Council.