“In many…cases, of course, the Arab Spring has brought about instability rather than greater stability. And rather than bringing about a government that is more representative and more responsive to the people, you’re seeing, frankly, the opposite, or you’re seeing all-out war.” David Petraeus
“The Arab Awakening or Arab Spring has transformed the geopolitical landscape.” Ban Ki-moon
“A man who tells lies, like me, merely hides the truth. But a man who tells half-lies has forgotten where he put it.” Lawrence of Arabia
I remember as a kid growing up that sometimes movies lasted three or more hours. To keep people’s attention and to sell more popcorn and drinks, there was this thing called, “Intermission.” The lights would come on, themed music would play and people would get up, use the restroom, buy popcorn and drinks, and then ready themselves for the second half of the movie.
The world is finding itself in a similar situation today, especially in regards to what is currently happening in the Middle East. If one measures global security conditions based on what is seen or heard in the media, one might think that all is well in those parts of the world. As much as I wish it were so, unreported reality tells a much different story. At best, the film has paused, the audience has merely gotten up for the intermission, and shortly we will all settle back into our seats for a tempestuous ride into the second half of the film.
This past week marks 20 years since the outbreak of the second Intifada. As a refresher, the First Intifada began in December 1987 and ended in September 1993 with the signing of the first Oslo Accords, which provided a framework for peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The second Intifada, sometimes called the Al-Aqṣā intifada, began at the end of September 2000.
Let’s address what has happened since the Second Intifada, which ended in 1993. Since then, there have been uprisings all across the Middle East. It would be beneficial for us to recount these occurrences and to realize where they have led. We will also look at what the prognosis is for an additional insurgency, how and where they might be fomented, and what we can expect from their eruption. In the spirit of our weekly publication, we can assume that there is certainly more than meets the eye concerning the unfolding of specific movements, in both their demise and in their re-ignition.
The history of the past 20 years marks the rise of the revolutionary political idea of insurgent political Islam—but also its sudden decline. Popular Islamist movements of the 21st century supplanted the pan-Arab movements of the 80’s and 90’s. The second Intifada marked the beginning of the Popular Islamist movement. Shortly after the start of the second Intifada, al Qaeda attacked and destroyed the twin towers in New York City. Shortly after that, there were Islamist attacks in Madrid (March 4, 2004), London (July 7, 2005), and Paris (November 13, 2015)—Together all of these violent events ushered in a global focus on the emergence of insurgent political Islam.
So what is the difference, or is there, between these competing ideologies as expressed as Pan-Arabism and Pan-Islamism? Pan-Arabism is defined as the belief that all Arabic speakers form a nation and should be united and independent (Shulze, 2015.) Pan-Islamism is generally understood as a synonym of political Islam, i.e. the political ideology which seeks the establishment of an Islamic state based on Islamic law.) Both share a history of violent confrontations throughout the 20th, and now the 21st centuries.
This confrontation seems to logically derive from a fundamental ideological antagonism. According to Anderson’s Imagined Communities definition, nationalist ideology supersedes religion and is inherently secular or at least represents a challenge and competing focus of loyalty vis-à-vis religious identity or authority (Anderson, 1982). These competing ideologies, which equate sovereignty and nation, conflict with the conservative Islamic principle al hukm l’il-allah, which defines sovereignty as the exclusive possession of God (Mandaville, 2012). At the risk of over-simplification, not all Muslims are Arabs and not all Asians are Muslims.
This may sound overly simplistic, but after looking at several academic discussions on whether the pan-Arab movement was connected to the pan-Islamist movement, I, having started my research thinking they were not the same, have altered my position. I now realize that they are simply two sides of the same coin, with the addition of Muslims from non-Arab speaking countries.
Why does this matter? I believe what we witnessed between the end of 1993 and 2001 was merely an “intermission.” It was a break in the story so that people could take care of essential matters: refuel, re-stock, re-consider their narrative, and settle in for the next act. In a nutshell, what we call the Pan-Arab movement, transfigured itself to the Pan-Islamist movement. We saw the Muslim brotherhood put on hold by the Pan-Arabists and quickly evolve into the Arab Spring, which lasted basically between December 2010 and December 2012.
The Arab Spring began in December 2010 when Tunisian street vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in order to protest the arbitrary seizing of his vegetable stand by police, over failure to obtain a permit. Bouazizi’s sacrificial act served as a catalyst for the so-called, Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia.
The name “Arab Spring” is a reference to the Revolutions of 1848—also known as the “People’s Spring”—when political upheavals swept Europe. Ever since, “spring” has been used to describe movements toward democracy like Czechoslovakia’s 1968 “Prague Spring.” Western media began popularizing the term “Arab Spring” in 2011.
Ultimately, the Arab Spring was a significant movement which led to the abdication of Tunisian authoritarian president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the ousting of Egyptian Dictator Hosni Mubarak, the violent overthrow of Libyan Dictator, Muammar Qadafi, as well as numerous popular revolts throughout the Middle East, many of which have not come to full resolution. The Civil War in Syria and the attempted ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would have culminated in a democratically led nation, were it not for the assistance of the Russians and the Iranians in the conflict. The civil war in Yemen continues to foment, as does minor unrest brewing in Morocco and Bahrain.
There is, of course, a significant development that emerged unexpectedly from the Arab Spring, the emergence of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), also known as ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.) It is a Sunni jihadist group with a particularly violent ideology that calls itself a caliphate and claims religious authority over all Muslims. These terrorists wanted to build on the unrest within these Middle Eastern countries by creating an Islamist narrative that taught that all Muslims, and eventually, all the world would live under the authority of a caliphate, led by an Islamic caliph (God-appointed King.)
Many of the violent acts which we know as terrorism can be attributed to the organization called, ISIS. This group certainly does not have a sole license on violence. Groups such as Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Al Shabaab, The Taliban, Boto Haram, Hayat al-Tahrir al-Sham (previously known as both Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and Al-Nusra), and Jaysh al-Islam. Another deadly group in Nigeria is the Bachama, of whom we will hear more about in the near future.
Over 169 terrorist groups, most of them falling within the realm of radical-Islamist groupings, committed attacks last year killing at least one human being. Over 130 other groups separate from these 169 have made threats. Even though many groups to this point have not been harmful, none of them are harmless.
My point in this week’s edition is that even though we have not seen many dramatic terrorist attacks this year, it’s not because the threat has gone away. There are many pundits who would like us to believe so. We are in an “intermission.” Just like there was an intermission in the ’90s which led the Middle Eastern world, as it moved from Pan-Arabism to Pan-Islamism, I believe we are in another one, which will involve way more regions than the Middle East.
The post-intermission story narrative will move from a regional threat to a visceral and global threat. International Intelligence agencies are scurrying to thwart the next 9/11, 3/11, 7/7, and 11/13. Thus far, they have done a stalwart job of keeping these angry Islamist criminals from attacking harmless people in their homes, at their workplaces and while they play. If I learned anything from my time in Intelligence work, however, it is that the Intelligence Community (IC) must be right 100% of the time. Terrorists only have to be right once.
There is a danger today in thinking that the potential threat from Islamists or radicals of any type no longer remains substantial. Just because we do not see the threat, does not mean it is not there. As a matter of fact, one of the observations I have come to rely upon throughout the years is this: It is not the threats we see that we should fear; it is those we do not see.
Situational awareness is imperative. I-M-P-E-R-A-T-I-V-E! I can guarantee you that you will significantly reduce the risks you face if you learn a few situational awareness skills. They become major muscle movements after a very short while.
My rules for situational awareness…
- Do not do anything in public that will impair any of your senses, ie., do not wear noise-canceling ear devices while in public. I know. That seems almost like a life diminishing suggestion. At the risk of hyperbole, I would rather have my life diminished than extinguished. I have witnessed people who have lost their lives because they were wearing earbuds on a public train. That may seem manipulative, but that is how strongly I recommend that we do not wear noise-canceling ear devices while in public. None of us can afford to turn off 25 percent of our senses at the risk of endangering ourselves and others.
- Look around. Get in the habit of doing quick inspections of your surrounding every time you leave a building or enter a new space. I call it my 1-10-100 rule. Ask yourself one question…3 times. “Is there anything out of place here?” Ask that question while looking at arm’s length (1 yard). Ask it again while looking about 10 yards out, then one more time while scanning out the length of a football field. It takes about fifteen seconds to do. It is a small investment with a great reward.
- “Check your 6”… about every 30 seconds. Just glance behind you to see what is there.
That is my simple version of situational awareness. When potential threats emerge, move to a place where your threats diminish. It really is just that simple. I have spent time in some of the most dangerous places on the earth, and by using this simple set of principles I have stayed alive and enjoyed my time in each place. Okay, at a minimum I survived my time in some of the places.
Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict… https://www.cfr.org/global-conflict-tracker/conflict/nagorno-karabakh-conflict
The Current Situation in Syria: A US Institute of Peace Fact Sheet… https://www.usip.org/publications/2020/08/current-situation-syria
For your comments or questions about any of our digests please feel free to write to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Shulze, K. (2015). The Rise of Political Islam. In: B. Antony, ed., International History of the twentieth century and beyond, 3rd ed. New York: Routledge.
Anderson, B. (1991). Imagined communities. London: Verso.
Mandaville, P. (2012). Islam and International Relations of the Middle East. In: L. Fawcett, ed., International Relations of the Middle East, 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Matthews, W. (2003). Pan-Islam or Arab nationalism? The Meaning of the 1931 Jerusalem Islamic Congress Reconsidered. Inter. J. Middle East Stud., 35(1), pp.1-22.