Years ago, I wrote a piece about the rise of ‘Groups’ in our region trying to replace the ‘States’ — that was before the turn of the decade when some countries witnessed uprisings and protests that toppled established regimes and since destabilised these countries. It seems the tide is turning now, and people are realising more and more the need for the state, probably with a change inspired by the turmoil of so-called ‘Arab Spring’. Even though the process to reclaim the state is mostly led by the military institutions in most of these countries, that trend is probably going to level to a point of a balanced central state incorporating all groups in a somehow ‘inclusive’ rather than ‘totalitarian’ way.
Two ongoing processes to reclaim the state, intertwined with regional and international competing interests, are Libya and Yemen. Those two countries might provide the last remaining chance for international community and its bodies to play a role in world order of international relations. Though the odds are not that significant, based on experience of last century, there’s still hope.
Groups in this region started rising significantly in the seventies due to many factors, one of them was exploitation of religion for political ends. Though some might argue that a significant turning point was the rise of Al Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan, all those militants were offshoots of the ‘mother group’: Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood). Jamma’a-Islamiya, Jihad, Armed Islamic Group, Al Qaida and Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) with all affiliates in Asia and Africa, and whatever arises later is under the same umbrella.
Exactly as most other groups from the other sect of Islam were offshoots of the Iranian Ayatollah regime: Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi militias and parties, Al Houthis in Yemen and others are militant groups of Tehran. It was not confined to Sunni and Shiite groups in Muslim world, but militant Jewish groups managed to pass a law institutionalising Israel as a ‘religious state’ — ironically like Iran. Other ‘groups’ are non-religious, yet has something to do with religious issue like the LGPT and the likes.
Populist and libertarian groups gained momentum after the turn of the century, and particularly after the global financial crisis of 2008-09. Even the cryptocurrency craze could be seen as another symptom of group vs. state — on the financial side, as these virtual, unregulated sovereignty-symbol is being hijacked from central banks and thus the state.
What might not be clear enough to people in established democracies is that the post-independence state in the Arab world didn’t go through a proper state-building process. Though popular resistance movements played a role in getting rid of colonialism, national armies led the way to independence. That gave the military a role unrivalled by any other institution in society.
The fatal mistake of the invading and occupying powers in Iraq in 2003 is a good example of the role of the military as a binding-force in the Arab post-independence state. Anglo-American occupation disbanded Iraqi army to face chaos after — actually until now — with groups trying to fill the gap left by state collapse. The rhetorical idea of building a ‘new Iraq’ that’s democratic and a spark in the valley of the Middle East proved elusive.
That might be the reason Syrian army is still there (weakened and drained) if the territorial and social integrity of Syria is to be maintained. Probably, Egypt is the one country that provides a good example of the group ‘the rise and fall’ and the military reclamation of the state. It’s not a coincidence that the main group, Ikhwan, started almost a century ago in Egypt where the military led the liberation from colonialism and monarchy in the middle of last century. Libya presents a double challenge: building a national army that four decades of Gaddafi rule didn’t do — along with the rest of state institution. That negligence and decay led to the country becoming a hotbed of many groups filling the void after the collapse of Gaddafi regime in 2011. So, the current situation is far more complicated than any support or interference can make a difference, as You need to build an army on a loose base that’s already engaged in fighting militant groups to reclaim the state. Best option — if viable — is to deconstruct and reconstruct with an opportunity of little foundations there.
The case of Yemen is the most significant, not only for the immediate neighbourhood but for the whole region. Firstly, it encompasses supposedly divergent groups: Iran-backed Al Houthis and Al Qaida along with a political party of Ikhwan. Secondly, the fragmented regime in 2011 used to play the game of exploiting ‘groups’ for political survival, thus weakening the state while not consolidating a certain group. Thirdly, and most importantly, the geopolitical positioning of Yemen and its proximity to the only relatively stable region of the Gulf makes it a national security priority to the GCC countries — even more than Iraq, Syria or Libya. That’s why the Saudi-led Arab coalition’s support of the legitimate government in Yemen is not just a means to quell an insurgency that might spill over the borders, or just advance regional interests.
It’s a vital effort to help Yemenis reclaim their ‘state’ — whatever that state might be. So any settlement in Yemen wouldn’t be satisfactory without a ‘state’ in place incorporating all the society in the form agreed by all with support of Arab coalition and international community.
Dr Ahmad Mustafa is an Abu Dhabi-based journalist