Book Review: Modern Mamluks and the Arab Spring Aftermath

Revolution in Tunisia, January 20, 2011, six days after the country's leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled.

The Assad regime’s tactic of presenting itself as an indispensable bulwark against jihadi barbarism was once again on display in its response to a recent British proposal for the establishment of a transitional Syrian government to ease it from power. National information minister Omran al-Zoubi accused the government in London of acting “illogically” and “ignoring those who are really fighting” the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) and the threat it poses to the international order.

In reality, the Syrian administration has often been seen to have ignored, or even encouraged, the growth of ISIS and other extremist groups in Syria and elsewhere as a means of diminishing its opponents and increasing its political legitimacy.

French scholar Jean-Pierre Filiu expertly highlights this in his new book From Deep State to Islamic State: the Arab Counter-Revolution and its Jihadi Legacy, where he writes that this subversion of the jihadi menace is chief among the tools Assad has used to crush the “Arab Spring” uprisings that began in 2011. Assad is one of several leaders that responded to the largely pro-democracy movements in such an underhanded manner, and with the collusion of a wide range of security elements.

There is a temptation to describe the approach as Machiavellian, but Filiu, a noted Arab historian and political scientist at Sciences Po in Paris, prefers to invoke the Mamluks—the military caste largely composed of non-Arabic former slaves who arose during the 13th century and established a sultanate centered in Cairo.

Along with Assad, Filiu’s modern Mamluks include Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh; Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak (later Abdel Fattah el-Sisi); and Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika. These are leaders who, like their medieval predecessors, “lacked the legitimacy of century-long dynasties, but compensated for their shortcoming with their strong belief that might was right.” Here the reference is to the shallow roots of the current crop in the military cliques that hijacked the hard-won independence of the Arab peoples during the middle part of the 20th century.

While the original Mamluks had sought to consolidate power by retaining a conquered Arabic caliph as puppet head of state, their modern successors, Filiu argues, seek rejuvenation through fraudulent mass plebiscites—the kind that delivered Assad near 90% of the vote in a 2014 general election, for example.

The “deep state” in the title is borrowed from the Turkish context, where, particularly in the 1990s, cooperation between state security and intelligence, the justice system, and organized crime seemed to “run the system behind the scenes,” and sought to suppress Kurdish separatism and political Islam.

Looking at the Arab Spring, the deep state is best illustrated by Egypt, where the military-led government, judiciary, and the pro-government baltagiya (“thugs”) conspired against the regime’s opponents, either instigating or allowing waves of mass violence, such as those seen in Tahrir Square and Port Said Stadium.

Egypt also offers the best illustration of Filiu’s Marxist invocation of the tragi-farcical repetition of history, with the current suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood, including the death sentences handed to Egypt’s brief president Mohammed Morsi and 100 other members, echoing Gamal Abdel Nasser’s brutal crackdown of 1954, which saw 20,000 of its ranks jailed.

Filiu’s ability to link together much longer historical and geographical chains of cause and effect is the greatest strength of the book. Critically, this includes the troubled legacy of the United States intervention in Iraq of 2003, which, he argues, was the origin of the direct links between the deep state and jihadi movements, via the breakdown in Iraq’s security institutions and the enthusiasm of recruits from elsewhere to join their insurgency. That these types of connections are always made in lucid yet compelling language is vital to making any sense of the incredibly complex mess of political, religious, economic, and other factors that continues to sustain regional conflict.

From Deep State to Islamic State is a reminder that, no matter the attention paid the brutality of jihadist movements, the state retains greater capacity to inflict pain and suffering on citizens in Arab countries—an apt lesson for the international coalition currently targeting ISIS in Syria, in place of pursuing a political response to the far more lethal regime of Assad.

The state, moreover, has the institutional capacity and command of the political narrative to control jihadi movements to achieve its own aims, much to the frustration of the international community and the ultimate detriment of those people squeezed in the middle. These victims include the tens of thousands of Syrians now seeking asylum in Europe and those Yemenis killed as a desperate Saleh empowered al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Houthi movement to destabilize the replacement government, making a mockery of what had been celebrated as a model of democratic transition.

It is not, it should be fairly obvious, an overly cheery tale. Indeed, Filiu explains that the book was partly intended to correct some of the more sanguine and somewhat flawed conclusions of his earlier, more hastily prepared Ten Lessons from the Arab Revolution. There is, nonetheless, a note of some optimism in the consideration of the “Tunisian Alternative,” which remains the one Arab Spring success story, despite the determined efforts of terrorists who attacked the Bardo Museum and the seaside resort of Sousse, in separate incidents this year.

Here Filiu argues for a critical lack of a deep state in Tunisia, owing to the non-Mamluk development of the country; though as guilty as other Arab leaders of hijacking the post-independence movement for his own political gains, long-time leader Habib Bourguiba emasculated the armed forces and kept power centralized.

But, as the author goes on to illustrate, the virtues of this non-Mamluk heritage inevitably have a counter-example in the regimes of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, which were more totalitarian in nature than even those of Syria and Egypt, and did not rejuvenate power through the ritual of fraudulent elections. Once they were decapitated by the Arab Spring and the earlier American-led upheaval, they were unable to re-emerge, and left an even worse mess in their wake.

There are certainly a few long bows drawn and a degree of confirmation bias in the way Filiu fits various actors into his rigid analytical framework, but this only slightly diminishes what is an excellent treatise on a complex history, and an even more complex present. While outside observers continue to wrestle with the best way of solving conflicts such as Syria and Yemen, forever beset by lethal double-binds, the challenge for those caught in the crossfire is patently more difficult, as it would seem is the task of one day reviving the momentum of the Arab Spring. As Filiu writes at the book’s conclusion, any new movement’s champions will have “learned the hardest way possible how to confront such ruthless adversaries.”

James Bowen is Assistant Editor of the Global Observatory.