The juxtaposition of the terror attacks this week with the meeting of the foreign ministers of Israel, the US, Bahrain, Morocco, Egypt and the UAE at Sde Boker in the Negev perfectly reflected one of the less noted dilemmas of the current Mideast strategic picture.
The challenge of Iran and its proxies, and the perception of a US focusing away from close engagement with the Middle East are the key components behind the slowly crystallizing alliance linking Jerusalem with the key states of the Sunni Arab world.
But the Bnei Brak and Hadera attacks, and the Beersheba one that preceded them, are a reminder of the sharp distinction that should be drawn between the perspectives of the Sunni Arab elites who gathered at the Kedma Hotel in the Negev, and significant elements among the populations over which they rule. In this regard, it is worth noting that none of the Arab governments represented at the Negev meeting has a popular mandate deriving from free elections.
Ten years ago, the Sunni Arab world was rocked by a wave of popular unrest. Regimes were toppled in Egypt and Tunisia. The Syrian regime survived only because of the efforts of its external allies in Tehran and Moscow.
The will of the Sunni Arab populations in each of these countries was reflected in the popular mandate given to political Islam in subsequent elections in Tunisia and Egypt. The rapid domination of the Syrian insurgency by Islamist forces confirmed the picture. The Hamas victory in the only free election ever held by the Palestinian Authority, in 2006, was an early indicator of the trend. At the street level, political Islam had no real competitor for the support of the population.
There is no reason to assume that this picture has substantially changed in subsequent years. Yet despite this clearly expressed popular preference, Sunni political Islam in the Middle East today appears largely as a defeated force.
In Israel’s immediate vicinity, the wave of Islamist ferment beginning in 2010 resulted in three significant political projects. These were: the Muslim Brotherhood’s emergence to government in Egypt, the Syrian Sunni Arab insurgency, and the effort at state-building by the Islamic State organization, beginning in 2014, across a large swathe of Syria and Iraq.
All these projects were decisively defeated by their opponents. In Egypt, an elected Muslim Brotherhood government, which was in the preliminary stages of seeking a profound transformation of Egypt’s regional orientation, was removed from power by the military in a July 2013 coup. In Syria, a combination of Assad regime brutality, Russian airpower and Iranian-supplied cannon fodder vanquished the insurgency. The Islamic State, meanwhile, was destroyed by a combination of US and allied air power, and Kurdish and Iraqi forces on the ground.
The eclipse of these three projects is mirrored further afield. In Tunisia, President Kais Saied is in the process of rebuilding an autocratic, Western-oriented regime. In Sudan, a military coup in 2019 overthrew the long-standing Islamist regime of President Omar al-Bashir.
THE CURRENT state of Palestinian politics fits with this general trend. The Ramallah Palestinian Authority is the local representative of the old Arab order, which has largely reasserted itself. The Hamas authority in Gaza, meanwhile, represents a rare example of continued Islamist governance. The large Sunni Arab population west of the Jordan River remains divided into four publics in terms of governance: namely the Arab citizens of Israel, the Arab population of Jerusalem, and the residents of the Ramallah and Gaza Palestinian authorities.
So the general picture is one in which the forces of counter-revolution in the Arab world appear victorious. The old Arab order of monarchs and generals was threatened from 2010 by a wave of Islamist revolt. Everywhere, it appears to have triumphed. The projects of the Islamists (Muslim Brotherhood governance, Syrian insurgency, Islamic State) are in ruins.
It might have been expected that the defeat of Islamism’s revolutionary wave would produce a more pragmatic politics among the Sunni Arab populations in question. Until now, however, there is little evidence to suggest this.
The result is the current situation in which while the old order appears to have triumphed, its triumph takes the form of repressive regimes that rule over large Sunni Arab populations whose own political orientation remains quite different and opposed to that of their rulers.
In this regard, it is worth noting that there is an odd commonality here between pro- and anti-Iranian forces. The Assad regime and the Hezbollah ascendancy in Lebanon are aligned with Iran. The Ramallah Palestinian Authority and the Egyptian government are broadly clients of the West. Yet they have in common the fact that they rule over large, restive Sunni Arab populations without a popular mandate.
This reality – of large, restive Sunni Arab populations excluded from political representation, whose own preferences appear according to all the evidence of the last decade to incline toward support for political Islam – offers hope for the ambitions both of Islamist political movements and of violent jihadi networks. This is the environment in which Islamic State and similar networks are now seeking to recruit.
Here, however, one is returned to the essential dilemma of the Sunni Islamist political orientation. As seen in the period of the Islamic State’s “Caliphate”; of Muslim Brotherhood governance in Egypt, in the fratricidal enclaves established by the Syrian Sunni insurgents, and in the Hamas enclave in Gaza, Sunni Islamism has nothing to offer in the field of governance, and little even in the field of political and military organization. It remains apparently peerless in its appeal to the Sunni Arab “street.” But it is able to lead that street only to further defeats and humiliations.
This situation appears to produce mainly inchoate explosions of murderous rage from the populations concerned, rather than anything resembling a coherent political or revolutionary program. The latest attacks in Bnei Brak, Hadera and Beersheba offer recent examples of this. The events of May 2021 were an expression of this general orientation on a larger scale.
At root, the political orientation preferred by the Sunni Arab populations of these areas appears to derive from a gap between a perceived right to supremacy, and a reality of weakness and disorganization in the face of stronger and better-organized rivals. This produces, at least for now, explosions of violence rather than an adjustment to reality.
It may be that the failure of Islamist movements to successfully foment mass insurgency over the last two or three years indicates a quieter adjustment to reality on the part of large elements of their target populations. This latter adjustment would be reflected in an unwillingness to mobilize on behalf of political Islam, alongside an equal unwillingness to support a political alternative to it.
Nevertheless, the presence of large Sunni Arab populations, which remain unrepresented by any of the main power brokers currently cooperating or competing in the Middle East, is one of the salient elements of the current regional situation. Complacency or indifference to this, perhaps based on an assumption that these populations have permanently internalized their defeat, would be misplaced.