Ian Black writes: “If you think you understand Lebanon, you haven’t been properly briefed”. Thus went the advice dispensed by the spokesman for the UN peacekeeping force in the wild south of the country in the mid-1980s. The same worldly-wise adage applies these days to the entire Arab region, wracked by collapsing states, terrorism, sectarianism, proxy wars and alliances of the strangest bedfellows.
It takes patience, clarity and perspective to explain the whole grim picture and the links between its constituent parts. These qualities are on impressive display in an important new book by the French scholar Jean-Pierre Filiu. His particular skill is to describe the development, survival and resurgence of the Arab “deep state,” the security agencies that have kept it going and the “monster they helped create” – in its most extreme form the jihadis of the Islamic state (Isis).
Filiu traces how autocrats in Syria, Egypt and Yemen used their experience of managing internal dissent to unleash their own thugs – different names in different countries, same vicious methods – to enforce their will when the call went up to reform or change their regimes. Anyone who experienced the heady events of 2011 will recognise the bitter truth in his admission that the excitement of the Arab spring obscured the prospects of successful counter-revolution.
I thought I had seen it all from the Arab despots. Their perversity, their brutality, their voracity. But I was still underestimating their ferocity and their readiness to literally burn down their country in order to cling to absolute power.
Following the departure of Hosni Mubarak, counter-revolution triumphed in Egypt with the repression of the Muslim Brotherhood. The overthrow of Mohammed Morsi, compared with the success of Rachid Ghannouchi in Tunisia, provided an instructive lesson, Filiu argues: Islamists who succeed at the ballot box, in complex and volatile circumstances, must not take their electoral victories as a “blank cheque.” To ignore that is to invite the backlash that brought Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi to power and forged a reality even worse than under Mubarak. [Continue reading…]