Samira Shackle: Does the West often misunderstand the Middle East?
Jean-Pierre Filiu: I was fascinated by the fact that, contrary to the abundant literature on Islamism and jihadism, there is so little published about the Arab military apparatus in their repressive resolve to control their local populations. I wrote a book about “The Arab revolution”, subtitled “Ten lessons about the democratic uprising” in the very first weeks of the popular protests that shook the Arab region in 2011. I could then integrate in my argument the first successful Arab counter-revolution, the one that occurred in Bahrain in March 2011. But it was still a “classical” counter-revolution, with brutal police action against peaceful demonstrations, backed by the intervention of Saudi military and Emirati police.
SS: Your book examines the role of Arab tyrants in these counter-revolutions. Is the strategy essentially to divide and conquer?
JPF: The Arab counter-revolution I dedicated this book to explore is far more sophisticated and perverse, since it could boil down to the favourite slogan of Bashar al-Assad’s shock troops: “Assad or we burn down the country”. So the tyrants want first to break any coalition between Islamists and nationalists that could threaten their absolute power (the Egyptian military have been quite efficient at pitting “secular” against “Islamist” militants for their own benefit). But this “divide and rule” tactic soon fades in front of the mobilization of the full force of the “Deep State”, designed to undermine any democratic transition, even at the cost of breeding the jihadi nemesis.
SS: How far can the rise of militant jihadist groups be attributed to the destructive role played by dictators and the state apparatus?
JPF: This is the only way, in my view, to explain that, the more you fight any expression of dissent under the banner of “counter-terrorism”, the more you foster the very same terrorist threat. I study in my book what I call “the Algerian matrix”: jihadi violence was known in the eighties in this country, but it was peripheral and contained; it became a mass phenomenon when a military clique deposed president Chadli Bendjedid in January 1992 because he was ready to accept an Islamist majority parliament and government. This refusal of the democratic process led to a fully-fledged civil war during which the Islamist party that had participated to the electoral contest was marginalized by jihadi guerrillas. Instead of restoring peace and order, the military coup precipitated a “black decade” that took the lives of at least 150,000 Algerians, mostly civilians. And the jihadi menace never disappeared, on the contrary, it was exported from Algeria to neighbouring Tunisia, Mauritania and Mali.
SS: In which countries is this trend most evident today?
JPF: The same process is now taking place in Yemen, in Egypt and in Syria. The former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who reluctantly agreed to a power transfer in February 2012, after decades as an undisputed ruler, soon worked hand in hand with the local Al-Qaida branch to sabotage the democratic transition. Since this was not enough to derail the multi-party process, he turned to the Houthi guerrillas and assisted them in expelling his democratically elected successor from the country. Saleh is and remains the main factor in this Yemeni descent into hell, a fact that has been acknowledged in a UN Security council resolution.
In Egypt, former Marshal Abdelfattah Sissi’s coup against the democratically elected president Mohammed Morsi in July 2013 has opened a cycle of political violence unprecedented in Egyptian contemporary history. As I explained earlier, this denial and sabotaging of the democratic transition is not only a moral outrage, it is a security disaster. Half a million Egyptian soldiers proved unable not only to defeat, but even to contain one thousand jihadi insurgents in Sinai. The merciless repression of the Muslim Brotherhood has only paved the way for ISIS moving in the border region with Israel. I do only fear what could happen next in Egypt, I am positively scared.
But the worst criminal manipulator is Bashar al-Assad, who released hundreds of jihadi detainees in the spring of 2011, while arresting, torturing and killing thousands of peaceful activists. This type of dictatorship believes it can handle violent insurgency far better than civilian protests. IS has a vested interest in sparing Assad’s regime and in concentrating its terror against the Syrian revolutionary coalition. In 2014, according to Jane’s Defence, less than ten per cent of Assad’s strikes were aimed at IS, and the same was true for IS versus Assad. Jihadis and dictators share a common enemy in the revolutionary movement: only in May 2015, with the fall of Palmyra, did IS conquer a regime-held city; all the Syrian territory it had occupied before this was taken from the revolutionary forces!
SS: How has the West contributed to the current situation in Syria and the rise of IS?
JPF: The argument put forward basically by the Obama administration that “arms could fall into the wrong hands in Syria” is not only ludicrous, it is obscene, after US armaments worth billions of dollars fell in the very “wrong hands” of IS in Mosul in June 2014, including two thousand Humvees that are now critical for jihadi offensives in both Syria and Iraq. The sinister truth is that this American administration has no clue on how to contain IS, not to mention defeating it, because they stick to two basically wrong assumptions: the main battle theatre is Iraq, and not Syria (while in Iraq, IS, thanks to the sectarian terror of the pro-Iranian militias, has developed a very strong base in the Arab Sunni provinces, which makes the possibility of a jihadi roll-back very slim); national armies and Kurdish militias should be the main partner against IS both in Syria and Iraq.
We saw that, after nearly a year of US-led bombings, IS had advanced, not retreated, thanks basically to those two deceptive assumptions. The reality is that IS can only be defeated in Syria, where the only reliable partner is the majority Arab Sunni revolutionary coalition. Fighting the jihadis through Kurdish proxies, Shia shock troops or “national armies” (little else than praetorian guards for the ruling clique) has proved (and will prove) delusory. Obama has been wrong from the start in Syria and his refusal to sanction the August 2013 gas bombings in Damascus opened the gates for jihadi recruitment worldwide, including Europe.
SS: What role have the Gulf states played?
JPF: Saudi Arabia and its closest ally, the United Arab Emirates, have been the spearheads of the “classical” counter-revolution I mentioned earlier, in Bahrain in March 2011. The Iranian sectarian game also played against the Bahraini protesters and into the hands of the ruling clique. Then, Saudi Arabia engaged all over the region in a vicious power struggle with Qatar, which was betting on a regional victory of the Muslim Brotherhood. The fact that Saudi Arabia and Qatar are both Wahhabi regimes proves that this rivalry has nothing to do with religion and is basically political. This is why Riyadh and Abu Dhabi were so active in supporting the Egyptian counter-revolution, at the estimated cost of billions of dollars per year. But such effort is unsustainable, especially with the fall in oil prices and the cumulative costs of the Yemeni intervention since last March.
SS: What about Tunisia, where the revolution was hailed as relatively successful?
JPF: Tunisia is the alternative to all the (counter-) terrorist self-fulfilling prophecies. This is also why Tunisia has to be assisted proactively and far more generously. IS has designated the successful Tunisian experience, with a new Republic established on a new constitution, as a major target, with terror attacks in March and June 2015. In the region as a whole, the democratic forces have been caught in the crossfire of the dictatorial and jihadi terrors.
SS: Has the West done enough to help democratic movements?
JPF: Europe, to say nothing of America, has a terrible record of abandoning those actors who were basically professing the same values and demanding the same freedoms. Jihadi attacks and refugee crises are the direct consequences of this collective abandon.
We live in the same world as the Arabs, and we’d better admit it once and for all. The Arab people will continue their century-long struggle for liberation, which started against the colonial powers, and now continues against the ruling and ruthless cliques. But they will not forget any time soon who stood by their side in that struggle and who pretended not to see the horrible truth.