Mamluks in the Arab Spring

A French professor by the name of Jean-Pierre Filiu has written an extremely well-documented history of the rise of dictatorships in Arab countries following their independence from Western colonial powers, covering 1949 up to early 2015. His focus is on the impact these authoritarian regimes had on Islamist movements.


The title of the book is From Deep State to Islamic State: The Arab Counter-revolution and its Jihadist Legacy. The concept of the Deep State refers to cooperation between security forces and criminal elements in controlling state government, characterized by “absolute unaccountability” to their people. “It took half a century for the Arab countries to rid themselves of Western domination. But it took only two decades, from 1949 to 1969, for military cliques to reap the fruits of this hard-won Arab independence.”


Filiu, the author refers to the Arab dictators as “Mamluks.” He writes, “The modern Mamluks, like their medieval predecessors, lacked the legitimacy of century-long dynasties, but compensated for this shortcoming with their strong belief that might was right.” Arab Mamluks engaged in land seizures, industrial nationalization, and “monopolizing natural resources,” with elites accessing state assets.


The Syrian presidential election of 1949 set the standard for future elections in the Arab world: One candidate was running, and officially he captured 99.4% of the vote. Filiu describes Gamal Abdel Nasser’s transition to dictatorship in Egypt through staged crises that enabled him to control elections, jail or kill opponents, and build security through total military control. A former Muslim brother, Nasser opposed and jailed Muslim Brotherhood leaders.


In Syria, Hafez al-Assad stopped a Muslim Brotherhood terror campaign in 1979-1980. Protests in Algeria in Black October 1988 were crushed. Yemen, Tunisia, Iraq, and Libya experienced repression as any domestic opposition was cause for restricting individual liberties. Jihadi networks gained some following, but when Algeria allowed a multi-party election in a December 1991 parliamentary election, an Islamist party won 47.5% of the votes. The military ended the transition to a multi-party government and forced the president who had allowed it to resign. Recurring repression fueled radical insurgencies.


Following September 11, 2011, President George W. Bush declared “global war on terror,” giving a boost to Arab countries fighting their own indigenous “terrorists.” When Saddam Hussein invaded and occupied Kuwait in 1990, the U.S. formed a coalition with corrupt Arab states as a way of legitimizing its fight against Saddam. Arab intelligence officials “became regular guests at Western think tanks and meetings held by the sensitive ‘security sector;’ while their American and European counterparts competed for their cooperation. This was the high tide for the Mamluk ‘security mafias’.”


Al-Qaeda, which had been active in Yemen as early as 1988, became the focus of U.S. war on terror. It formed partnerships with terrorist organizations in various Arab countries. While the coalition formed between the U.S. and the Arab governments ostensibly targeted these networks of Islamist terrorists, the whole scheme provided cover for those governments to suppress any form of opposition. In this setting arose the Arab Spring, a series of popular revolutions against corrupt leadership that began with the self-immolation of a Tunisian vegetable seller in late 2010.


Popular protests followed in Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, Jordan, Syria, Libya, Iraq, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Iran. For many of these countries, the provision of limited civil rights, in exchange for security and increasing prosperity, has maintained relative calm. But only Tunisia, to date, has had a relatively orderly transition to democracy. The Tunisian army defended the popular revolution and crushed the counter-revolution by the presidential guard. Tunisia did have jihadist attacks to deal with, but did so with “a distinct emphasis on the due process of law.”


Filiu concludes: “The massive surge of the jihadi menace is therefore not to be blamed on the Arab democratic uprising, but on its worst enemies, the dictatorships that played with jihadi fire to deny any substantial power-sharing. More democracy should be the answer, not a new ‘war on terror’ that would ultimately feed more terrorism.”

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