Amidst counterterrorism analysts-suddenly-turned-North Africa/Middle East-experts’ comments like ‘it’s becoming clear that a transformation of the region is under way’, it may be time for a dose of reality. And when CNN and BBC flagrantly and suddenly take the side of the opposition—without any sense of history or even what the opposition might bring—it may be time to put events in perspective.
Before I begin, I cannot overstate enough that I am NOT an expert on the Middle East or North Africa. Nor am I an Arabist or counterterrorism expert. I am a lifelong student of these disciplines only.
But, after many conversations with colleagues in North Africa and Middle East—to cite everyone in this humble blog entry would make my essay a book and put sources at physical risk—I feel a need to throw a wet towel on all the half-thought-out ‘assessments’ plaguing newspaper opinion articles and ten-second sound bites competing with Charlie Sheen’s rants the world over.
While revolutionary outcomes in the Middle East could be peaceful and beneficial for Arabs (and I hope they are), history and current affairs cause us to be wary. Even a tertiary understanding of al-Qaeda will lead to the conclusion that violent extremists are and will continue to gain recruits and ground amidst the current changes. They are not on the sidelines of history, as too many erroneously optimistic dollar-a-day Fox News generals and Harvard talking heads might have us believe.
So the following brief bullet points are some food for thought for readers to research the situations and impacts of current protests and civil war in North Africa and the Middle East further.
- If any of the revolutions lead to more representative and responsive governments, the inevitable letdown from the current hysteria—comparable to Egypt’s elation following its 1952 revolt in which brought the Revolutionary Command Council and Muslim Brotherhood to power and elations following Sadat’s empowering of Islamists to counter communist influences—will justify al-Qaeda’s singular vision from Muhammad Abd-al-Salam Faraj that only its yet-to-be-defined interpretation of religious law could bring social justice and peace. Inevitable disappointment will grow al-Qaeda’s position.
- The Egyptian government has been a military dictatorship since 1952 (especially after it flushed out the Muslim Brothers in 1954) and does not represent its people. But it is the only modern government in the world that has completely defeated al-Qaeda ideologically and kinetically within its borders—to include al-Qaeda predecessor the Egyptian Islamic Jihad whose members still make up the preponderance of al-Qaeda leadership and drive its violent ideology and narrative. Anything less than this government that has committed crimes against humanity for almost 60 years may allow in elements of al-Qaeda whose hatred for the Egyptian military is arguably greater than that against the United States.
- Al-Qaeda will unlikely ever truly be a representative vanguard for any major sect of mainstream Muslims. However, even small numbers of bandits are enough to perpetuate the current transnational insurrection that is al-Qaeda. Counterinsurgency legend David Galula famously assessed in 1964 that even small numbers are ample enough to spoil any representative government and national security. Today, as you read this blog post, the small spaces and small fragments of time from chaos or civil war allow violent extremists to enter into North Africa and gain arms, recruits, and money enough to continue its minority insurrection.
- There is no proof that democracy—even if these revolutions bring forth some form of representative government—undermines al-Qaeda. The fledgling democracies in Baghdad and Kabul still face violent terrorist attacks—so many that they fail to make front headlines any longer. To say that al-Qaeda in Iraq or violent extremists in Afghanistan of any color are weak or have given up is undoubtedly a premature conclusion.
- If Libya continues in civil war, parties supporting either side may wittingly or unwittingly turn to al-Qaeda affiliates for help as the ousted Baathists did after March 2003.
- While CNN and BBC cheer on this ‘new age’ in the Middle East, they fail to recognise the oft deadly aftermath of successful revolutions. There was nothing liberal or progressive about Mao, Stalin, Nasser, Saddam, or Robespierre when they won. Likewise Egyptian military officers rightfully fear deadly reprisals following a new government—it was this security apparatus that made Saddam Hussein’s look tame.
- Some Western media talking heads point to Zawahiri’s recent rambling messages as evidence that al-Qaeda is a rambling-has-been-sidelined-empty force to current affairs. But Zawahiri was never a commander. Usama bin Ladin and al-Qaeda forefather Sayyid Imam both have considered Zawahiri incompetent, without any semblance of leadership skill, and punishable by al-Qaeda core tenets. Zawahiri has even failed as a talking head time and again with statements deriding Obama’s African American identity and attempting to co-opt American icon and hero Malcolm X’s vision. What is far more important is al-Libi and other sub-commanders’ silence as they are likely exploiting every inch and every minute of chaos in Northern Africa to squeeze out any recruits, money, and arms. To seasoned counterterrorism analysts, the silence is deafening.
- If the ‘mayor of Sana’a’ President Saleh were to leave office, Yemen would lose its only voice, to-date, seeking international assistance on the worst humanitarian crisis to face any nation state in history. Yemen will literally run out of potable water within a decade (some scientists put the timeframe closer to five years given immigration, a population boom, and an ever-growing water-sucking Qat trade). Chaos or an unpracticed government in Sana’a will seal the Yemen’s demise.
- Generation Facebook has no teeth. The young people in the streets of Tunis, Tripoli, Cairo, and Sana’a on CNN will not come to power. The already-organised Islamist groups and militant organisations will have more power and more sway than any unorganised tweeting 20-somethings. Just as the United States has an entire generation of hardened war veterans, so does the Arab world—from victimised political Islamists to jihad vets. But, unlike the United States’ ‘Generation Kill’, the Arab world’s ‘Generation Kill’ is more organised than its yuppie classes.
- We do not know what we do not know. And with the sparse anecdotal stories coming out of Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen, us consumers of information are like a blind man in an alien world. Making statements about the unfolding situations or building policy proposals from the anorexic information available is unwise.
Democracy is great. Freedom is great. Social justice is great.
But MTV-stylised peaceful protests will never bring change in the militant dictatorships of the Middle East and North Africa. If there is change, it will likely come at bloody costs and bloody reprisals.
Al-Qaeda is not dwindling or on the sidelines of history. This amorphous and exploitative international system will gain from any chaos—even if that chaos brings about positive change. Just as Bush Jr. should never have raised the victory flag in 2003, talking heads should refrain from doing the same in 2011.
And with the lack of insight and information on the side of the United States and West, the best advice may be that of my former Iraqi counterpart: ‘There is nothing in the desert for you. Stay the hell out.’