An e-book from Global Policy and Arab Digest Guest Edited by Hugh Miles and Alastair Newton.
The Middle East is in chaos and the old order is breaking down. In many countries across the region the Sunni Arabs are revolting, no longer accepting their miserable status in the world today, their lack of freedoms, rights and prosperity. All they see is a relatively if not absolutely weaker West propping up their enemies, Israel, dictators, the Kurds, even now Iran. Desperate for change, growing numbers of people have turned to Islamist movements; but their victories have been consistently subverted and denied. Predictably the result has been a slide into extremism and the rise of radical groups across the region.
What can be done? The West is faced with a choice. One option is to continue on the current path, trying to deal with the extremist phenomenon using the security defence surveillance model. This model has already demonstrably failed, with radical Islam expanding on every metric since the “War on Terror” began in 2003. Maybe it would suit tackling a guerrilla organisation in Latin America but it has done nothing to address the grievances and aspirations of millions of Arabs spanning the Middle East and North Africa, plus many more living in the West and in Asia. Continuing on this path leads to polarisation and ultimately segregation, ghettos, and unending war between Europe and the Sunni Arabs, just as bin Laden predicted.
The only viable alternative is to allow the people in the Arab world to tackle the problem themselves. Radical Islam is a Sunni Muslim problem and it has to have a Sunni Muslim solution. As a starting point this means allowing people in the region to determine who governs them, as only a normal political life, above all in the two dominant countries in the region, Egypt, the cultural and historical hegemon, and Saudi Arabia, the religious and financial powerhouse, can drain the ideological and economic swamps feeding radical Islam. This path requires a fundamental rebalancing of the relationship between the Sunni Muslim world and the West and between the current leaders in the Arab world and their subjects/citizens, where majority political choices are respected and, where they win elections, Islamist parties are allowed to take power. At the moment most western policy makers and Arab leaders alike refuse to accept this as a option or even recognise that the old political order has irrevocably broken down. Instead they continue to cling to the old model even though the region’s dictators, actual and de facto, are the principal driving force of the radical movements they are trying to fight.
Whatever path is chosen whether it be by design or default, the world will be forced to recognise the new reality soon as change is coming to both Egypt and Saudi Arabia and it will likely be revolutionary. Which will be first? Saudi Arabia, where imminent threats to the longevity of the House of Saud include terrorism, the Yemen war, the oil price and royal family infighting? Or Egypt where the economy is collapsing and the war against Islamists claims Egyptian soldiers’ lives every day?
Whatever the genesis or order of events when one changes the other can be expected to change soon after, as an Islamist government in Egypt would bolster Islamist movements and undermine the Saudis’ legitimacy, while Saudi Arabia is the bastion of the counter-revolution and the financial backer for many countries in the region including Egypt. Should it collapse its satellites will be at risk, like the Soviet Union’s at the end of the Cold War. Due to sectarian, regional and tribal differences more acute than in Syria, the Kingdom itself could split up violently returning the Arabian peninsula to its pre-Saudi state of anarchy. Other Gulf countries risk being swept away, with Iran emerging as the West’s new main ally in the region.
In this e-book we ask whether to try and curb this descent into chaos the time has come for policy makers to start dealing with the moderate Islamist opposition, rather than wait till later when there is no one left but the extremists - or alternatively, whether dealing with moderate Islamist groups now risks just switching the Arab Shahs we have now to Arab Khomeinis in the future.
To consider these questions we have asked the representatives from various opposition Islamist movements - political outcasts today, but potential leaders of the Arab world tomorrow - to offer their views on where they think the Middle East is heading and what Western policy should be. We also ask our highly distinguished Western expert contributors to comment on these visions and offer their views on the future of the region in the face of the collapse of the old order.
Contributions to the e-book will be serilaised here on Global Policy before collection into a final edited volume. Please check back weekly to read the latest chapters.