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2 SEPTEMBER 2014 LMDLeMonde diplomatique

ISLAMIC STATE FILLS MIDDLE EAST VOID

S back in business

Continued from page 1

in Mosul provides ample evidence of this: their considerable resources stop short of funding any sort of redistribution programme. Its vision of governance is anachronistic, amounting to a revival of practices dating back to the Prophet, which would be scarcely practical even if they were properly understood. Paradoxically, beyond this rudimentary utopia, they advance no theory of the Islamic state – the Sunni world in general having failed to develop one, by contrast with Iran’s brand of political Islam. At best, they apply a more structured code of war, which gives them an advantage over armed groups engaged in straightforward criminality. Their attempt at systematisation reinforces their cohesion through actions and language that are undoubtedly violent, but relatively elaborate.

At root, IS simply fills a void. It occupies northeast Syria because the Syrian regime has by and large abandoned it, and the opposition that might have replaced it has failed to secure a genuine sponsor, in particular the US. And, in Iraq, IS has surged into cities such as Fallujah and Mosul because the central power in Baghdad has largely neglected them: the Iraqi state maintained a presence there that was simultaneously corrupt, repressive and flimsy. IS’s rapid expansion into zones in northern Iraq controlled by Kurdish forces, but inhabited by Christian and Yezidi minorities, is unsurprising, given the lack of real interest shown in the victims by their ostensible protectors, the

Kurds, who were quick to withdraw to their own territory.

IS also fills a void on a more abstract level. Simply put, the Sunni world has trouble coming to terms with its past and imagining its future. A fragmented 20th-century history, following a long period of Ottoman occupation which was seen as a period of decline, ended with a succession of failures: anti-imperialism, panArabism, nationalist movements, socialism, various forms of Islamism, capitalism – all led only to bitter or ambiguous experiences. Thus far, with the exception of Tunisia, the hopes born of the 2011 uprisings have turned to ashes. So where can Sunnis turn to find inspiration, self-confidence and pride? The reactionaries in the Gulf and Egypt? The Muslim Brothers, who are on the ropes? Palestinian Hamas, locked in a perpetual impasse in its resistance to Israel?

During the same period, the Shia world has scored notable, if qualified, successes: Iran has established itself as a country the West cannot avoid dealing with and has ambitions to play an ever greater role in the Arab world; Hizbullah is calling the shots in Lebanon and there is an ever-stronger Shia axis linking Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Tehran. This has created a new and troubling phenomenon: a Sunni majority with a minority complex – a powerful though confused feeling of marginalisation, dispossession and humiliation. More and more Sunnis throughout the region experience and express the feeling that they have been deprived of their fundamental rights and are suffering persecution.

With some honourable exceptions, minorities (Shia, Christian, Alawite, Kurdish,

etc), all of which cultivate their own narrative of victimhood, are at best indifferent to the fate of the Sunni majority, and at worst complicit. The West too plays a part. The fate of the Yezidis, dying of hunger as they fled into the Sinjar mountains, has caused concern at the highest level of western governments, yet that of the inhabitants of Damascus’s besieged districts, where a greater number of Sunnis are being starved by the regime, doesn’t raise an eyebrow.

egression is everywhere. Not only has the ‘war on terror’ been hauled back out of the dustbin of history, but the ‘protection of minorities’ has also been exhumed

What is most worrying perhaps is that IS has become a means of concealing a seemingly universal political vacuum. Everyone who hated Bush’s “war on terror” – seeing it either as inadvertently pouring oil on the flames, or as an aberrant throwback to the logic of imperialism – is now happily singing from that very hymn sheet, because it saves them having to think about the real challenges the region poses.

IS provides legitimation for all the excesses of Iran’s increasing resort to Shia sectarianism in response to its Sunni equivalent; a default policy saving the West from its ambivalence, in a region where it no longer knows which way to turn; a justification for the orgy of counter-revolutionary violence condoned by elites in the Arab world; and a distraction from the growing alienation of minorities from their environment – a dynamic in which they are agents as well as victims, since they seek salvation in forms of repression that make the problem worse.

From this, there follows a sequence of statements each more absurd than the last. Iran to the West: embrace us because of the IS threat. Arab regimes to their people: we won’t give an inch because of the IS threat. The Syrian opposition: save us from ourselves because of the IS threat. Hizbullah to the Lebanese people: everything is permissible because of the IS threat. The US: we aren’t going to intervene in Syria because of the IS threat, but we will strike Iraq… because of the IS threat.

Regression is everywhere. In international relations, not only has the “war on terror” been hauled back out of the dustbin of history, but the “protection of minorities” has also been exhumed, on the colonial model, which means bombing a turbulent majority. The small number of targets hit by US planes and drones in Iraq are an act of liberation not for the Yezidis, whose future depends on many other factors, but for the conscience of the Obama administration, which has shrugged and looked away when faced with all sorts of other acts of violence in the past three years.

The US has finally intervened in Iraq because it was able to do so at little cost: there was no

VIOLENCE ERUPTS AGAINST ISRAEL AND EGYPT

Sinai’s undeclared war Resistance against Israeli occupation and Egyptian repression has a long history in the Sinai peninsula.

Now escalating Islamist violence has erupted in a fury of revenge against decades of misrule

Mohamed Youssef Tabl, 31, was shot by an Egyptian soldier at the gates of Sheikh Zuwayyid, 30km east of Al-Arish, capital of North Sinai, where he was taking part in a government mission looking into the Sinai situation. Tabl was well known and his death did not go unnoticed. Sympathy and solidarity helped his friends and family contain their anger. That is not the case for thousands of unnamed victims. The circles Tabl moved in, even inside Al-Arish, are mostly urban and well educated. The community in the border area is mostly Bedouin, marginalised and stigmatised; victim of a scorched earth policy, it has been forced to take up arms.

Al-Arish was part of Egypt’s peaceful revolution in January 2011. But the reaction to the killing of the first demonstrator on the main square in the nearby Bedouin town of Sheikh Zuwayyid was particularly violent. Local political and human rights activists withdrew; women began to break rocks into stones small enough for children to throw; and men got out their Kalashnikovs and RPGs.

Three decades of injustice, oppression, humiliation and government lies did not produce as strong a thirst for revenge as did the last few years of the Mubarak era. After a first major wave of terrorist attacks in South Sinai in 2004, the local population was brutally repressed. There was an unprecedented surge in the number of rapes ismail Alexandrani is a journalist in Cairo specialising in Sinai affairs

BY isMAIL ALEXANDRANI

The 1979 peace treaty, brokered by US president Jimmy Carter and signed by Egypt’s Anwar

Sadat and Israel’s Menahem Begin, is regarded as a sell-out by the people of Sinai ulton archive/getty images by police in Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayyid, surpassing even those perpetrated by the Israeli army during the occupation of 196782 (starting from the Six Day war). This strengthened the determination of armed groups, especially the Salafist and jihadist militias such as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM).

In Sinai, religion-based resistance against Israel started in 1948 when the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) established training camps for volunteer soldiers in Al-Arish and Sad al-Rawafaa. After Gamal Abdel Nasser and his Free Officers seized power in 1952, the MB presence in Sinai declined, eventually disappearing completely in 1954, when the organisation was banned and many of its leaders went into exile, especially in Jordan.

Meanwhile the first Sufi group was founded by Sheikh Eid Abu Jerir, who inherited the Sufi order (tariqa) of Sheikh Abu Ahmad al-Ghazawy (from Gaza). During the Suez crisis of late 1956 and the war that followed it, Sufi jihadists appeared in Sinai. They cooperated with the Egyptian army and military intelligence against the Israelis who, after the end of the conflict, occupied Sinai (and Gaza) until March 1957 (1). Some of their current leaders are decorated former combatants officially honoured by the state, such as Sheikh Hassan Khalaf from Al-Joura, a village 7km south of Sheikh Zuwayyid.

But however strong the historical links between Sufism and the regular army, they do not stop the people of Sinai from regarding the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and

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