Be Wary of the Hypocrites

Historians of conflicts within the Jewish people have oft quoted a famous statement made during a time of vicious conflict between two sects of Jews, the Prushim and the Tzdokim. A famous rabbi, who had no connection to either sect stated, “I am not afraid of the Tzdokim nor do I fear the Prushim, I only fear the hypocrites who acts like Zimri (a king famous for backstabbing) and believe they ought to be rewarded like Pinhas (a righteous man from the times of the Exodus from Egypt).”

The violent religious conflict between various streams in the Islamic world is being led primarily by people who take to battle in order to further political interests, as their involvement prevents the possibility of reaching understandings through dialogue. The Arab Spring has served as a cover for violent confrontation by various interest groups, leading the Middle East to a level of chaos that the region has not experienced for years. However, even before the Arab Spring, various violent and non-violent confrontations existed for leadership of the Muslim world. In the 1950s, Gamal Abdel Nasser attempted to lead a Pan-Arabism, which began as a military coup and progressed to an attempt to extend his rule to the entire Muslim world and to the non-aligned states.

Since his death, various leaders of different streams of Islam have attempted to take over leadership of the Muslim world. On one hand, since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has attempted to unify Islam under a Shiite revolution. The small state of Qatar, through its media empire, has attempted to lead the Sunni world, through a partnership with the Muslim Brotherhood, under the leadership of Sheikh Qaradawi. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Erdogan views himself as the leaders of the Muslim world, attempting to return Turkey to its former glory of the Ottoman Empire, in part, based his status in the West, which views him with a mix of suspicion and respect.

Following the fall of various regimes across the Middle East, the Arab and Muslim worlds have become deeply divided. States such as Tunisia, Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Egypt have been swept into a sea of sectarian and tribal violence. Despite the fact that dictators have fallen, no consensus has emerged in these states regarding the future of the regimes. Every group fears the other and defends its status through violent means. Each side is well aware that if it loses a battle against the other, it could be both politically and physically annihilated.

The West has little understanding of how this game operates and has made every possible mistake in attempting to spread its ideology of democracy and human rights, which is largely meaningless to the hungry masses. The ability of the Western leader to learn from past mistakes is apparently limited.

The current situation in both Syria and Egypt is not new to the region and should not surprise us. Since the mid-1950s, Algeria has followed a similar pattern. In 1954-1962, a bloody war of independence was fought in Algeria against French colonial rule. Historians have estimated that between 30,000 and 150,000 civilians were killed by the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) or by lynch mobs in Algeria. The FLN used terrorist attacks in Algeria and France as part of its war, and the French conducted severe reprisals and repression. The war concluded in 1962, when Algeria gained complete independence following the March 1962 Evian agreements and the July 1962 self-determination referendum. The first President Ahmed Ben Bella succeeded in stabilizing the government, but was quickly overthrown by a military coup led by 1965 by Houari Boumédienne, his former ally and defense minister. Boumédienne increased the authoritarian and military nature of his rule by dispersing parliament and disposing of the constitution written by Ben Bella’s government. His was a government led by the military. In 1978, Boumédienne passed away and was succeeded by Chadli Bendjedid, who introduced several reforms, such as a new constitution and the institutionalization of democratic elections in a multi-party system.

In December 1991, the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS), an umbrella party of Islamist organizations, dominated the first of two rounds of legislative elections. Fearing the election of an Islamist government, the authorities intervened on January 11, 1992, cancelling the elections. Bendjedid resigned and a High Council of State was installed to act as Presidency. It banned the FIS, triggering a civil insurgency between its armed wing, the Armed Islamic Group, and the national armed forces, in which more than 100,000 persons are thought to have died, many at the hands of fundamentalist Islamic terrorists. The Armed Islamic Group declared a ceasefire in October 1997.

Algeria held elections in 1999, which were won by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. He worked to restore political stability to the country and announced a ‘Civil Concord’ initiative, approved in a referendum, under which many political prisoners were pardoned, and several thousand members of armed groups were granted exemption from prosecution under a limited amnesty. President Bouteflika attempted to reach understandings with the Islamist factions through dialogue. However, with the onset of the Arab Spring, Islamic factions have begun setting off violent unrest, despite the amnesty granted to the members of their armed groups.

The current shockwaves in Egypt are quite similar to this recent history of Algeria. Indeed, there is nothing new under the sun. Many of these violent outbursts between military people and Islamists include the participation of foreign insurgents who wish to impact the outcome to suit their interests. Furthermore, we can see that many of the events that occurred in Algeria have been, unfortunately, exported to various other countries across North Africa and the Middle East.

The West has a deep lack of understanding of the issues at hand and is trying to serve as mediator between the sides. However, the West does not appreciate that each side views compromise as weakness which would likely lead to its end. In a similar vein, Turkey, which used disproportionate violence against its own civilian protesters, is attempting to get involved in the Egyptian crises by condemning the way that the Egyptian army has handled violent protests by the Muslim Brotherhood. Just as in Syria, Turkey is involving itself in an internal conflict in which it has no moral right to get involved. Qatar is also attempting to advance the cause of the Muslim Brotherhood against the army. Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood attempts to find a common enemy which will unify the Egyptian people under its leadership against the army.

This kind of internal conflict between military and Islamic forces in various states is nothing new in the Middle East, as the Algerian example illustrates. The West should know better than to condemn various players for acting in an anti-democratic fashion and to try to dictate terms for dialogue, when each side views dialogue as a recipe for suicide.

About the Author
Dr David Altman is senior vice-president at the Netanya Academic College and vice-chair of the college's Strategic Dialogue Center