Jean-Pierre Filiu is a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Sciences Po, Paris School of International Affairs. He has held visiting professorships at Columbia University in New York and Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Filiu is the author of several books, including The Arab Revolution: Ten Lessons From the Democratic Uprising (2011), Gaza: A History (2014) and From Deep State to Islamic State: The Arab Counter-Revolution and its Jihadi Legacy (2015). His book on Gaza received the Palestine Book Award in 2015. And the third and last volume of his graphic history of the United States in the Middle East, co-written with David B. and titled Best of Enemies: A History of US and Middle East Relations, has just been published in English.
Michael Young: You recently published in French an updated and expanded version of your From Deep State to Islamic State: The Arab Counter-Revolution and Its Jihadi Legacy, titled Généraux, Gangsters et Jihadistes: Histoire de la Contre-Révolution Arabe (Generals, Gangsters, and Jihadists: A History of the Arab Counter-Revolutions). The book is effectively a deconstruction of the nature of Arab dictatorships and how they have managed to survive. Can you briefly tell us what you argue in the book?
Jean-Pierre Filiu: When I published the original version of the book in English, in July 2015, my main argument was that Arab dictatorships, far from being ramparts against jihadi terrorism, in fact played a crucial part in fostering the Islamic State and its allies. I wanted to show that only democratic transitions in the Arab world could effectively act as an antidote to jihadi escalation.
When the expanded French version of the book came out earlier this year, the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate had been dismantled in Syria and Iraq, with a very late and limited contribution by the Assad regime in that regard. Even Palmyra, “liberated” from the Islamic State in May 2015, was lost again to the jihadis in December 2016, to be retaken with the heavy involvement of Russia and pro-Iran militias, this time definitely. The counter-revolutionary cycle had come full circle in the Arab world, but nowhere with a return to the pre-2011 situation. That is why I subtitled the French version “A history of the Arab counter-revolution.”
MY: Why did you adopt such an approach to an understanding of the Arab uprisings and the counter-reaction to them? Did you feel something was missing in the previous analyses of these popular uprisings?
J-PF: In as early as July 2011, I wrote The Arab Revolution: Ten Lessons From the Democratic Uprising in English. I did not believe in an “Arab spring,” nor in an “Arab winter,” but I tried to describe the revolutionary crisis that emerged at the beginning of 2011. There was only one successful democratic transition, in Tunisia, and a revolution without transition, in Libya, while counter-revolutionary reactions were raging everywhere else. Egypt’s military twice hijacked the popular protests through a coup—first toppling then-president Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, to replace him with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces; then doing so in July 2013 to president Mohammed Morsi, to replace him with Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi.
I readily confess that my initial focus on revolutionary dynamics prevented me from grasping the full extent of the counter-revolutionary wave. That is why I focused my latest book on a study of the historical formation and operational logic of the apparatus of repression in Arab states. Compared to the vast literature available on Islamist movements and violent extremism, very little has been published about those power structures, partly because of their opacity and the risks involved in any attempt to lift the veil on their dirty business. It is also why in the title of the updated version I associated “generals” with “jihadists,” but also “gangsters,” who often provide the bridge between those two underworlds.
MY: A theme you address is the existence of what you call a new Mamluk class in certain Arab regimes. What are the characteristics of this class?
J-PF: As a historian, I draw a parallel between contemporary military cliques in the Arab world and the Mamluks who ruled over Egypt and Syria between 1260 and 1516. They constituted an elite, or khassa, clearly distinct from the masses, or amma, the same way the generals in power today live in military enclaves with their gated communities, their own clubs, schools, and hospitals, directly connected to the hubs of the globalized economy. There is always a tension between the Mamluk’s collective decisionmaking process and the temptation for the ruling sultan to establish a dynasty. That was the case in the Middle Ages as it is today, with the only successful exception being the Assad regime in Syria. Despite attempts by Mubarak in Egypt or Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen to found a hereditary dictatorship—well described by the Arabic word jamlaka, a combination of the two words “republic” and “monarchy”—neither succeeded. The medieval Mamluks derived their legitimacy from a caliph who had only nominal power, while a sultan ruling under his own name was undisputed.
However, the most important analogy is that of the Darwinian dynamics of power. Back then, like today, the final victory went to the most cruel of the contenders for power, the one who was ready to go all the way against his fellow Mamluks in order to achieve absolute power.
MY: Two models for this neo-Mamluk leadership that you highlight are Algeria and Egypt. In what ways are they similar or different?
J-PF: In those two countries, the elites that had fought for independence were liquidated through coups. In 1952, the Free Officers in Egypt toppled not only the monarchy, but also the parliamentary system that was in place since Egypt’s formal accession to independence in 1922. But it was the showdown between general Mohammed Neguib and colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1954 that set the course for the regime. Since that time, this regime has systematically suppressed any dissent, with a brief revolutionary interlude in 2011–2013.
In Algeria, in 1962, the Army of the Borders, units of the National Liberation Army that were stationed outside the country, moved in to crush the indigenous resistance that had fought French colonialism and achieved independence. Ahmed Ben Bella was the only founding member of the National Liberation Front to side then with the military, who helped him to eliminate his political rivals. But he was toppled in 1965 by his own defense minister, Houari Boumédiène, whose despotic rule lasted until 1978.
There are however two main differences between the Algerian and Egyptian regimes. First, the Algerian rulers can rely on the considerable income derived from the hydrocarbons sector, while Egyptian rulers have been able to depend more on their own strategic importance. In light of this, it is fascinating to see how Anwar al-Sadat, Nasser’s successor, could switch from an alliance with the Soviet Union based on armed conflict with Israel, to a Pax Americana based on peace with Israel, without substantially amending the ruling system.
Second, the Algerian military, often referred to as “les décideurs,” or those who decide, have preferred to rule from behind the scenes since they toppled president Chadli Bendjedid, Boumédiène’s successor, in 1992. This process has led them to put in place a travesty of rule by an old and ailing President Abdul-Aziz Bouteflika, effectively a “presidential mummy” of sorts, while their Egyptian counterparts relish the perks of official power.
MY: An implicit message in your book is that neo-Mamluk regimes will destroy their own countries to remain in power, as in Syria. Yet you are not someone who advocates that populations remain eternally silent. What options are open to societies suffocating under authoritarian regimes?
J-PF: This book is dedicated to all the women and men who continue under terrible hardship to fight for collective and personal emancipation in the Arab world. I am always impressed by their courage and resilience. And I am also aware of the ongoing debate about non-violence as a strategic weapon. Presidents Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt had to back down in the face of non-violent waves of popular protests. By contrast, armed insurgency contributed to the fragmentation of the revolutionary camp in Syria as well as in Libya, paving the way for foreign interference that proved very detrimental to the local aspirations to freedom. I know it is easy to speak about non-violence while sitting in my office in Paris, at a time when ferocious repression is being unleashed against any form of opposition by Arab despots. But the debate about non-violence is there and it is active. There is also deep soul-searching about the social issues, the “bread,” associated in the revolutionary slogans with “justice” and “liberty.” One of the main reasons Tunisia could go through its democratic transition was the strength of its social movement, embodied in the General Tunisian Labor Union, or the UGTT.
MY: And what is the role of the West in all this, when any intervention can lead to disaster or lead to accusations of neo-imperialism?
J-PF: One should accept at long last that between the disastrous U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and U.S. passivity after the chemical weapons bombings in Greater Damascus in 2013, there is room for a more sophisticated policy that could combine elements of intervention and non-intervention.
On top of that, the very concept of “West” is more and more debatable in the Middle East, with a Trump administration blatantly opposing its European allies, first on the issue of Jerusalem, then by pulling out of the Iranian nuclear deal. In general terms, the Arab peoples have to be brought back to the center of the regional equation, since their democratic aspirations are the contemporary manifestation of their inalienable right to self-determination. No Arab dictator can “deliver” his own people, in the same way that no international conference can “deliver” peace to a war-torn country such as Syria.
MY: The year 2011 was seen as a fundamentally new moment in the Arab world, yet in your book you show the forces that impose continuity without change. Where are we today, and how do you anticipate the future?
J-PF: Nowhere did counter-revolution imply even the illusion of continuity. Rather, unprecedented violence was unleashed to quell democratic aspirations. To find massacres comparable to the one perpetrated in Cairo in August 2013, one has to go back to the French invasion of Egypt in 1798. The only precedent for the horrors inflicted by Assad on Syria can be found as far back as Tamerlane, who sowed terror all over the country in 1400–1401. Significantly, one has to compare the tyrants of today with past invaders, since the ruling cliques oppress their populations like an occupying power. And despite this descent into hell, no Arab autocrat can pretend that he has restored the “stability” he claimed to uphold at the cost of individual and collective “liberties.” It is obvious the revolutionary wave of 2011 was largely defeated, but the counter-revolutionary backlash has everywhere failed miserably to achieve its goals. Since no authentic stability can be achieved without a democratic transition, the crisis will remain endemic in the Arab world for as long as popular aspirations remain denied.