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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 28 New Delhi July 2, 2016

Arab World Conflict To Continue

Friday 1 July 2016, by Harish Chandola


There is little possibility of peace returning to the Arab world in the near future. No sooner than fighting stops in one area, it erupts in another. Federal structures in it have collapsed, like in Iraq, and the conflict between Sunnis and Shias is unlikely to end. Rival powers like Saudi Arabia and Iran are not going to reconcile.

The post-colonial Arab system has reached a crisis. The Arabs themselves say the impact of colonialism, which had created their odd borders, has been the cause of their problems. Here ethnicity and sects change from one village to another.

A century ago, on May16, representatives of British and French Governments, Sir Mark Sykes of Britain and Francois Georges-Picot of France, had arrived at a secret agreement to apportion the lands of the Ottoman Empire upon its defeat in the First World War to various states. The British received Basra and southern Mesopotamia and the French an area in the middle, including Lebanon, Syria and Cicilia (inTurkey), and Palestine was to be an international territory. Between the French and British blocks, large areas of the desert were allotted to the two powers’ respective spheres of influence. Kemal Pasha Ataturk pushed foreign troops out of Anatolia. Mosul was first given to France, then claimed by Turkey and subsequently handed to Britain, which attached it to future Iraq.

The Arabs hated the Sykes-Picot agreement, which created the present boundaries and they wanted to break them down, except for the Arab oil monarchies. The Arabs suffered from a crisis of legitimacy and were seen as colonialism’s illegitimate offspring. That was the result of the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in 1918.

Upon finding oil in the region, several Arab territories, Egypt, North Africa and stretches of the Arabian Gulf had been parcelled off as colonies or protectorates.

Islam was split into two branches over the succession of Prophet Muhammad, following a strife (fitna). According to Sunnis, the leadership came to four Caliphhs who were the Prophet’s companions: Abu Bakr, Omar, Uthman and only then Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law. Shias say the succession was usurped. It should have passed through the family of the Prophet, to Ali and later to his son, Hussein. But Ali was murdered in Kufa and buried in Najaf (both now in Iraq) and Hussein killed in a battle against the Umayyads in Kabala and buried there. The Shia leadership then passed down a chain of Imams that broke off at different points according to their sect, like the Zaydi “Fivers”, the Ismaili “Seveners” and the majority “Twelvers”. Twelver Shiism became the state religion of the Persian Safavi Empire, which the hardline Sunni Arabs consider as foreign. For the Sunni, the mantle passed on from the Prophet’s companions to the Umayyads in Damascus, followed by Abbasids in Baghdad.

Shias were given to emotional commemoration of the martyrdom of Ali and Hussein.

Islam holds great political power. Muhammad was not only a religious prophet but also a temporal ruler and warrior. Islam spread both with the word and the sword. Some reformers play down its “sword verses”, which say: “Slay the idolaters wherever you find them.”

For many Muslims Islam is not just a personal faith but also a blueprint for organising a perfect society. It does not separate religion from politics. It regards religion as God’s final revelation and the Koran as his actual word.

Sunnis make up the majority of Muslim Arabs, but feel disenfranchised in the Arab heartland by the Shia majority in Iraq, the Alawites in Syria and intimidated by the Hizbullah in Lebanon, occupied by Israel in Palestine and ejected from power by the Houthi fighters and Zaydis in Yemen.

The main ideologies of Arabs were subsequen-tlyArabism, Islamism and now salafi-jihadism. They have been against democracy and the rule of law and to remain in power their rulers used secret police or “mukhabarat” and promoted a religious tradition of obedience to the ruler. They used repression, jail and torture.

After two decades of conflict in Iraq, its capital, Baghdad, now has become a visibly Shia city, with images of Ali and his son, Hussein, revered by Shias as the rightful leaders of Islam after the death of Prophet Muhammad, displayed at most places. Once Baghdad used to be the seat of the great Sunni caliphate of the Abbasid dynasty. Under Saddam Hussein’s rule, Shias used to be arrested for going on a pilgrimage to Karbala, 100 kilometres from Baghdad. The coffins of Shia fighters killed in fights with Sunni jihadists are now taken in procession to be buried in Najaf, a holy city 160 kilometres south of Baghdad. Most Sunnis have been driven out of Baghdad after years of communal violence and those remaining are not happy with Shia triumphalism.

Of the versions of Islam there are several that dominate the Arab world. The main are: Muslim Brotherhood, salafism, salafi-jihadism, the rule of the jurisprudent and the Marjaa. Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt in 1928, during the struggle against the British rule, and is a broadbased Sunni movement, with branches in many countries. It seeks to transform the society through proselytising and also obtaining power through elections. Its moderate offshoots are still in power in Tunisia and Morocco. Its armed Palestinian branch, Hamas, rules the Gaza Strip.

Quietist salafism is practised by Saudi Arabia, called Wahabism, financed by petrodollars. It supports military jihad abroad but does not challenge ruling Sunni Arabs in their own countries. It is hard on the people and soft on rulers.

Salafi-jihadism: Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have made jihad the main pillar of Sunni Islam. They denounce elections as placing man’s law above God’s. Their main targets are the “near enemy” (Arab rulers), the “far enemy” (the West) and Shias. They believe in radical doctrines of Muslim Brotherhood and their tactics are very aggressive. Traditional Sunni Islam usually forbids rebellion against a ruler. It declares certain people as unbelievers who should be killed. For them the Shias are unbelievers.

Rule of the jurisprudent (Velayat-e-faqih), practised in Iran is a doctrine that supreme political leadership should be exercised by a senior Shia Islamic scholar, and was adopted into the Constitution of Iran after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, led by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The system allows semi-democratic elections of candidates vetted by religious authorities for the day-to-day working of the government. Iran sponsors a range of parties and militias like Hizbullah in Lebanon and several Shia parties that dominate the current Iraqi coalition.

A distinct and rival Shia trend revolves around the Marjaa (religious reference), a group of most senior Shia figures. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, based in Najaf in Iraq, is the spiritual head of most Iraqi Shias. He has backed democracy as a means to consolidate Shias’ empowerment. He tried to restrain Shia militia reprisals against jihadist attacks and gave his blessings to replace Iraq’s divisive former Prime Mminister, Nuri al Maliki, by the more inclusive Haidar al-Abadi. An undeclared struggle for sucession of the 85-year-old Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has started.

Who is the rightful successor to the Prophet is the question that has not been solved.

The Arab Spring had started in Tunisia, where Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was ousted in January 2011 in an uprising. Then Hosni Mubarak of Egypt was ousted in February. Libya’s Muammar Qaddadi was overthrown by the bombing of Western Air Forces and killed in October. In Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, gravely wounded by a bomb, stepped down in November.

Since then only Tunisia has made a shaky democratic transition. Its Ennahda party won a plurality of votes in the constituent assembly elections of 2011 and rules in a broad coalition. It handed over to a technocratic government in January 2014 after a Constitution was agreed upon.

Egypt, the most populous Arab state, faces the greatest instability now. It has very little oil. Its budget deficit has widened to more than 10 per cent of its GDP. Its manufacturing has stagnated and tourism has suffered. It imports much of its food. Its central bank is rationing the supply of dollars. In spite of a financial crunch, it has announced grandiose projects like the expansion of the Suez Canal, a gleaming new city in the desert and even a bridge over the Red Sea to link Egypt with Saudi Arabia. It is now threatened with a bigger uprising than that of 2011 which had swept away Hosni Mubarak. General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, who took over, has shed more blood to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood after overthrowing its Government of Muhammad Morsi and imposing a very repressive one, leading to a turmoil. The military ruler is trying to rescue Egypt’s faltering economy by relying on financial support from the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia. Protests are growing over General Sisi’s deal with King Salman of Saudi Arabia to whom he handed over two Egyptian islands in the Red Sea recently. The repression in Egypt is both arbitrary and vicious.

So far Arab dynasties have fared better in the Arab world turmoil. Maliks, emirs and sultans have been more resilient than presidential autocrats. For axis oil producing states of the Gulf Co-operation Council, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman, the key to survival has been money. Throughout the turbulence in the Arab world the monarchies have been splurging, raising salaries and launching new projects to maintain their support. These states also enjoy diplomatic and military support from outside as allies of the west. Qatar has a large American air base and Bahrain a naval one. After widespread protests in Bahrain, where a minority Sunni family rules mostly a Shia population, other Gulf states sent forces to the island to shore up its monarchy.

The monarchies of Morocco and Jordan stand a bit aloof from their day-to-day government. During the Arab Spring both made a show of responding to the demand for greater freedom, introduced constitutional reforms and held parliamentary elections. Jordan is more tense. In Morocco, the Brotherhood-inspired Justice and Development Party won the largest number of votes, and its leader, Abdelilah Benkirane, became the Prime Minister at the head of a four-party coalition.

Since the emergence of Islam in the seventh century, the Arab world had been dominated by three empires: Umayyad, Abbasid and Ottoman. The idea of dynasties is in the mind of the Arab people. Political parties in Jordan and Morocco have mostly agreed to abide by the rules and acceptance of the monarchy.

The author is a veteran journalist with wide knowledge of developments in West Asia and the Arab world.

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