Jihadi tourism: Insags attract foreign fighters, e.g. “Jihadi John” (Mohammed Emwazi), who was killed in November 2015
When the Arab Spring erupted five years ago, observers of the Arab world asked themselves mostly what kind of state governments would emerge from the popular revolts and anti-regime uprisings sweeping large parts of the Middle East and North Africa.
Some, like the late Fouad Ajami, read the unrest as the birth pangs of a region-wide struggle towards modernity. A long-silenced Arab world was finally clamouring to be heard, eager to find its place in the modern, possibly even democratic, order of nations. Others, like Khaled Abu Toameh, were less sanguine. Looking at the balance of power between liberals and Islamists in key Arab states, they warned that the Arab Spring was the mother of all misnomers, and that a harsh Islamist Winter was coming. Viewed through their prism, the electoral victories of the AKP in Turkey in 2002 and Hamas in Gaza in 2006 were the early precursors to a tsunami of Muslim Brotherhood wins in Tunisia, Egypt and beyond. Those “old” Arab autocrats — statist, socialist, secular, and sclerotic — who would prove unable to effectively co-opt or suppress the Islamists, would face wholesale replacement at the hands of a new breed of assertive Islamist dictatorships.
Once the Islamists actually came to power in Tunisia (2011) and Egypt (2012), the question “what kind of state governments will emerge in the Middle East?” morphed and acquired new meanings. Would the Islamists seek to monopolise their grip on state, society and the markets, or would they tolerate spheres of autonomy for the old guard and other opposition groups? Would the Muslim Brothers of Tunisia and Egypt follow the Turkish model of incremental, largely non-violent Islamisation of society and (at least for the time being) the preservation of democracy, or would they quickly turn towards the more coercive methods of forced Islamisation favored in Iran and Gaza? Did the fact that only Arab “republics”, not monarchies, collapsed in the regional earthquake, point to some genuine monarchical stability-advantage — and therefore portend well for regime durability in Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia — or is this a statistical fluke that is bound to be corrected sooner or later? And in the international sphere, would the untested new Islamist leaders (most importantly Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi) accept the existing rules of the game — honouring previous agreements with the United States and Israel — or veer towards some truculent new “Islamist foreign policy” whose features were not yet defined?
Now five years have passed, the question “what kind of state governments will emerge in the Middle East?” and the voluminous debates that took place around it until recently, appear almost quaint. Tunisia’s courageous but still fragile democratic experiment notwithstanding, it has become clear that the most urgent, deep and transformative processes shaping the region stem from the question: “How much, (or rather, how little) state government is emerging in the Middle East?”
As the Paris attack of November 13 starkly shows, the question is far from an academic one. The Islamic State emerged under conditions of state collapse in Iraq and Syria, and continues to acquire territory, recruits, money, and military capabilities in the face of political vacuums across large swaths of the Middle East and North Africa.
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