This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
At first glance, the Arab region appears to have entered a new period of crisis—perhaps the greatest in its modern history. The Arab revolts of 2011 seem to have given way to a “Jihadi Spring,” with the civil war in Syria providing a haven for radical extremist groups from across the globe. As the crisis in Syria spills over into neighboring Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan, the world is confronting a frightening revival of the Al Qaeda franchise.
In 2011, North Africa witnessed the dramatic downfall of three dictators: Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. But in much of the region, “deep state” security apparatuses have proven more resilient than any one political leader. Cabals of military officers managed to frustrate democratic transition in Egypt and hold onto power in Algeria, with Algerian leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi recently claiming landslide victories in sham elections that were largely boycotted by the progressive left. The oil-rich sheikdoms of the Middle East, meanwhile, have brutally suppressed any form of domestic opposition, while leveraging their huge cache of petrodollars to appease their restive citizens through a combination of expanded welfare and new employment opportunities.
More worryingly, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a uniquely vicious offshoot of Al Qaeda, has upended the twentieth-century map of the Middle East. The shocking brutality of ISIS—and the overweening ambition of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—prompted the Al Qaeda “general command” led by Ayman al-Zawahiri to disown the group. After pulling off a lightning defeat of the Iraqi armed forces across much of the country’s western and northern regions, ISIS announced the formation of an “Islamic caliphate,” a new political entity at the heart of the Middle East that connects various Sunni-dominated regions of Iraq and Syria.