What is the big picture?

middle-east-map-politicalOver the last few decades, the Middle East has coalesced into two broad groupings, which I and others call the Status Quo Bloc and the Resistance Bloc. The Arab Spring created the conditions which, in turn, created a third, still-nascent bloc, which I’ll get to in a bit. It is the creation of this new bloc which is the reason for much of the violence and instability in the Middle East today.

The Status Quo Bloc consists of most of the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf (led by Saudi Arabia), Egypt and Jordan, with a few hangers-on. Basically, these countries are stable dictatorships (or kingdoms) and will usually swat away clumsy Western attempts for them to democratise. They are Sunni and Arab. They look to the US to guarantee their security. They want the status quo to remain exactly as it is. Israel is a proxy member.

The Resistance Bloc wants to shake things up. Although its members have different goals, they are united in their desire to remove America as the source of Middle Eastern stability (since America props up their enemies). Led by Iran, the Resistance Bloc includes ‘official’ Syria, hezbollah and, until relatively recently, hamas. Iraq is a recent member (Iraq is mostly ethnically Arab, and mostly religiously Shi’ite. With America asleep at the wheel, Iraq has been allowed to drift into Iran’s orbit of influence, a stunning defeat for US foreign policy given all the blood and treasure it spent ‘liberating’ Iraq from 2003).

Iran is religiously Shi’ite and its rulers are ethnically Persian. Iran wants to be the regional hegemon. The Sunni Arab states fear it. It is this fear of Iran that drives much of the really important stuff that happens in the Middle East, including the origins of the Syrian civil war.

Emergence of a third bloc
The leaders of the Status Quo Bloc are generally secular. And Iran is Shi’ite. So, where does this leave Sunni Islamists? First, let’s take a step back. Basically, an Islamist is someone who wants their country run according to their interpretation of Islam. And there are two types of Islamists; those that wish to achieve their objectives using political means, and those that justify the use of violence to achieve their objectives.

Generally speaking, over the decades, the religious establishments in Arab states have been tolerated, with one important proviso; the religious leadership (or anyone else) were to make no complaint about or attempts to usurp the ruling elite. Over time, in various Arab countries, there have been very bloody bouts of repression, where thousands of people have been imprisoned or killed because a religious movement overstepped this mark.

Thus, the political Islamist movements (like the Muslim Brotherhood) went underground and bided their time, and the Islamists that justified violence formed various groups that have attacked Muslim and non-Muslim targets over time.

The Arab Spring offered the underground political Islamist groups an invaluable opportunity. In those Arab countries where the Arab Spring took off, the movement was originally a genuinely popular movement of people wanting more rights than they had. But in every case where elections were held, Islamists won. This was because the political Islamists had been highly organised, with trusted members and charismatic leaders, for years. The liberal democratic groups that we in the West hoped would have won were newly created, highly factional and rarely had a single charismatic leader behind which to unite.

The stunning ascendance of Sunni Islamists in the wake of the Arab Spring created a still-nascent third bloc in the Middle East. Although this Sunni Islamist Bloc immediately made a big impact on the Middle East, it is too soon to tell if it will form into a viable, lasting bloc.

Some of the big impacts made by the Sunni Islamist Bloc:

  • The Muslim Brotherhood was elected to power in Egypt (June 2012).
  • Turkey, which had dallied with the Resistance Bloc for years, became a firm member of the Sunni Islamist Bloc. Likewise Qatar.
  • Hamas, which had for years been in the Resistance Bloc, joined the Sunni Islamist Bloc (both because of the ascendance of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and also because the wholesale slaughter of Sunni Muslims by the Resistance Bloc’s Syria was making hamas’s ongoing membership of the Resistance Bloc increasingly unpopular.)

But the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt overstepped its mandate, attempting to impose its Islamist agenda too quickly. Egyptians went back out on the streets. They brought about a counter-coup in July 2013 and re-installed the military as the arbiter of Egyptian political life. Egypt, though it retains a pretence of democracy, is now to all effects and purposes a military dictatorship once again.

Under the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt was clearly the leader of the emerging Sunni Islamist Bloc. The Brothers’ demise embarrassed Turkey, Qatar and hamas, which had heavily bet on its success.

The most immediate impact was that hamas was now without a patron. Having unceremoniously left the Resistance Bloc, hamas was no longer receiving significant funding from Iran. And with Egypt firmly back in the Status Quo Bloc, the free passage of money and arms in the tunnels under the Egypt–Gaza border was quickly cut off. Hamas was in a difficult position and it was this, more than any other reason, that caused it to prod Israel into war in July 2014; hamas knew that Israel would over-react, and that the civilian casualties in Gaza (mostly caused by hamas purposefully putting civilians in harm’s way) and physical damage would cause the international community to pressure Israel into weakening its embargo on Gaza. Weakening this embargo would strengthen hamas both politically and economically. The embargo hasn’t yet weakened, indicating that Israel didn’t lose the war. However, the UN fact-finding mission will only release its report in March next year. International pressure as a result of that report might well hand hamas its victory, encouraging it to pursue more violence in the future.

As for the Sunni Islamist Bloc, it is too soon to tell whether it will last, but the Status Quo–Resistance enemies have a common enemy in the Sunni Islamists, and are working together to destroy it.