'Contagion of polarisation' dominates post-Arab Spring scene

Nadeen Shaker , Wednesday 26 Mar 2014

Issandr El-Amrani of the International Crisis Group tells students and academics at the American University in Cairo that resource issues are at the heart of spreading polarisation in Arab uprising states

Issandr El Amrani
Issandr El Amrani giving a talk at The American University in Cairo (Photo: Nadeen Shaker)

Pundits studying the Middle East often cite Islamism as the most scathing malaise currently afflicting the region. To Issandr El-Amrani, owner of The Arabist blog and project director of International Crisis Group's North African Project, however, differences between ruling groups, aside from their ideological beliefs, drive polarisation in post-revolutionary Arab countries.

In a lecture at the American University in Cairo on Wednesday, entitled “Egypt, Libya, Tunisia: From the Contagion of Revolution to the Contagion of Polarisation,” El-Amrani developed the metaphor of “contagion” — adapting the domino effect scenario, in which Arab uprisings contagiously spread — to one where "polarisation", not revolution, was the final outcome.

In other words, Arab Spring countries are deeply polarised and these polarisations — which are comparable to the Palestinan-Israeli conflict, the long-standing Sunni-Shia split, and even the Syrian conflict in modern Arab history — are spreading fast.

El-Amrani estimates that such deep divides could create a “civil war different from one perpetuated in the 1960s Middle East.”

Existent ideological splits (between Islamists and statists or secularists in Egypt, Ennahda Party and secular parties in Tunisia, and between the Libyan parliament and secularists as well as regime remnants) are merely superficial. Through his own reporting on the uprisings for the Crisis Group, a non-governmental organisation dedicated to conflict resolution, El-Amrani concluded that the real conflict lies in the politically and economically motivated moves and decisions taken by Islamists to wipe out and invert state institutions that had done them wrong.

Perceived once as “outsiders who had a history of hostility against the judiciary and police,” of which they were victims, Islamists carried this belligerent sentiment towards the pre-existing state when they rose to power, and responded in line with this sentiment in various ways.

In Egypt, they tried to reform the judiciary. Tunisia saw the placement of some 10,000 civil servants allied with Tunisia's Islamist Ennahda Party in state institutions. Libya’s new government attempted to apply radical reform.

“Judicial reform in Egypt was really about taming an institution that had done Islamists wrong … Ennahda in Tunisia was not only trying to secure bases in the government, but was finding a way to maintain electoral advantage,” El-Amrani said.

After success at the polls, Islamists extended their hands to state institutions in order to achieve legislative and other powers. Unlikely alliances were forged between ideological opposites, such as militias in the Libyan city of Misrata and the Islamist-allied army and other militias, for instance.

In Tunisia, an understanding of a different sort took root between the ruling Islamist party and secular parties struggling to take its place.

Ennahda’s celebrated relinquishing of power in January in return for elections and a consensus-based constitution was rather a political “laissez faire,” an attempt to dodge a litany of lawsuits coming its way for corruption and other offences, El-Amrani argued.

Scrambling to control and monopolise state resources is another strategy that was played by Islamists in their short runs in power.

For example, in the greatest example of state expropriation, deposed Tunisian president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali’s personal assets were confiscated by the state.

In Libya, the manifestation of resource control is much larger and glaring.

In the greatest crisis to hit post-revolutionary Libya, rebels seized key ports from the government and even succeeded to load crude oil onto the Morning Glory, a North Korean-flagged oil tanker, causing the country international embarrassment over its inability to secure its ports.

“Far from being an ideological battle, it is a battle over control of resources,” El-Amrani reiterated, one which has come to dominate the post-revolutionary political economy of Arab Spring states.

Other major divides causing polarisation in these countries are those associated with sociological and geographic affiliations, and also image and public perception.

For example, power brokers from non-coastal areas are pitted against coastal elites. The biographical fact that Rachid Ghannouchi hailed from a rural village in Tunisia set him vastly apart from other ruling elites.

“The rejection of Mohamed Morsi as Egypt’s [now deposed] president was also because he comes from humble origins, the way he spoke, because his wife was veiled. To many Egyptians, he did not share the same cosmopolitanism as the traditional wider social elites,” El-Amrani explained.

Other countries chipped in, feeding this arising polarisation.

Saudi Arabia, for one, acted as a main promoter of divides when it labeled the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group.

“Whether it did that because it was afraid of domestic repercussions or believed that to really be the case, a state with the resources of Saudi Arabia to be invested in this shows how it is willing to add to this polarisation.”

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