In Defence of the Arab Spring Uprisings: How Al Qaeda and ISIS Proponents and Detractors Misappropriate the Narrative?

fawaz-gerges  —– Public Talk by Fawaz Gerges, Professor of International Relations at The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), UK
When: Thursday, 3 March 2016, 3:30 PM – 5:00 PM

Where: B-45 Henry Marshall Tory Building, University of Alberta

The event is free and open to the public

Please RSVP here

Abstract: In early 2011, millions of Arabs across the Middle East and North Africa burst out onto the streets and called for social justice, freedom and a life of dignity. They not only defied prevalent conceptions of the region as being “dormant”, but also debunked Salafi- jihadists’ depiction of acts of civil resistance as weak, ineffective and hopeless. Yet both Al Qaeda’s supporters and detractors have attempted to establish a link between the revolutionary moments that erupted in 2011.

Al Qaeda’s black flags remained notably absent in the Arab streets in 2011. However, Salafi-jihadists did benefit from the post-Arab Spring chaos that erupted as a result of the collusion between counter-revolutionary forces at home and abroad. As a subversive social movement, Al Qaeda feeds on mayhem and breeds in conflict zones.

The rallying cries of the Arab Spring uprisings fell on deaf ears. In Libya, Yemen and Syria, and to a lesser extent in Iraq, the brutal suppression of protesters militarized the largely peaceful uprisings and caused a breakdown of state institutions. Al Qaeda Central and like-minded local factions found a receptive home among disaffected local Sunni communities in Iraq and Syria, gradually replacing peaceful collective action with an armed collective insurgency.

The Arab Spring uprisings did not occur in a vacuum. The Arab state system had broken down long before the uprisings. Thus it would be misleading to blame foreign conspiracies for the ruptures that have shaken the old regimes to their foundation. Equally important, these narratives confuse cause and effect; they entangle an emancipatory moment with still-unfolding contentious and violent transition. They project a vision of change as linear and straightforward, excluding constitutive elements of change such as violence, chaos and digressions. It is too early to pass an indictment on the Arab Spring because such historical developments cannot be measured in a short time span. In reality, the Arab Spring was sabotaged by a multitude of actors, including autocratic rulers and their regional allies, the military-security apparatus in each of the countries, al- fulul (elements of the old regime), as well as Salafi-jihadists of the ISIS variety.

Neither ISIS nor Al Qaeda in Syria (Jabhat al-Nusra) could have surged without the spectacular cooperation between authoritarian Arab rulers and their regional and global patrons to maintain the status quo at all costs. A regional war-by-proxy is a Godsend to Jabhat al-Nusra, ISIS and other Al Qaeda local factions. From the very beginning of the hostilities in Syria and Iraq, Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS indirectly obtained finance, arms, and a religious cover from neighbouring Sunni states. This precious social and material capital was decisive in the growth and success of these Salafi-jihadi organisations.

Biography: Fawaz A. Gerges is Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), and holder of the Emirates Professorship in Contemporary Middle East Studies. Professor Gerges was the Inaugural Director of the LSE Middle East Centre (2010-13) and Christian A. Johnson Chair in Middle Eastern Studies and International Affairs at Sarah Lawrence College, New York. He has been the recipient of MacArthur, Fulbright and Carnegie Fellowships. Professor Gerges’ most recent books are The New Middle East: Protest and Revolution in the Arab World; Obama and the Middle East: The End of America’s Moment? The Rise and Fall of Al Qaeda; ISIS: A Short History (forthcoming); The Struggle for the Arab World: The Nationalist-Islamist Long War (forthcoming); and Contentious Politics in the Middle East: Popular Resistance and Marginalised Activism beyond the Arab Uprisings (forthcoming).