The momentary defeat of the global jihadist project (first Al Qa’ida and then ISIS) in the Levant has changed the political and social dynamics in the region.
In the years 2000-2004 (with Al Qa’ida) and then 2007-2018 (with ISIS) the political strength and the presence of these two organizations meant that the intra-community dialectic was centredd on the Weltanschauung of global jihadism as a political project : a “defensive” struggle against non-Muslims (which in the declination of ISIS had taken sectarian connotations as a fight against Shi’ism) with a focus on the territory (“dar al-Islam”, the house of Islam as opposed to “dar al-Harb ”, territory of non-Muslims).
Al Qa’ida interpreted this struggle in a more global way (fight against the “distant enemy”, that is, the infidels) compared to ISIS (fight against the “near enemy”, that is, the apostates, because of its being closer to the Islam of the origins), but the goal was always against the “non-Muslim” (non-Sunni) and the focus was always on the territory. With ISIS, the focus was even primarily on the territory. Which returned to the Caliphate, and then became a state.
With the refocusing of these projects on other regions (specifically the Sahel and Asia), social dynamics reopen the intra-community dialectic in the Levant, Also because political Islam returns for the moment to a “revolutionary” set up of political Islamism which, before the arrival of Al-Qa’ida in the late 1990s, in the 1970s – early 1990s (as in Algeria) had as its enemy the Muslim government or regime that were accused of ruling badly.
Today the social pressures of the Levant have – luckily – no longer opted for global jihad to express themselves. Nevertheless this problem remains regarding radicalization processes in the West, where a franchise without project and territory is enough for frustrated identity claims.
The momentary jihadist retreat leaves space to bring in the fore the frustration and anger of the younger generations, expressed in the so-called “Arab springs” (2010-2012) against the authoritarian Arab regimes of the “mamlukie” (crasis between Mamlaka – in Arabic kingdom – and Jumhuria in Arabic republic, to signal the peculiarity of hereditary republics), which successively flowed back sometimes towards the jihadist project and sometime went underground.
The two factors – global jihadist political project and claims (right or wrong) for a different representation in the national dimension – are in fact inversely proportional. When one progresses, the other recedes and vice-versa (see how Osama Bin Laden replies to the letter of his daughter Sumayya on the “Arab Spring” and regarding Western intervention in Libya, Abottabad papers released by Office of the Director of National Intelligence)
Meanwhile in the Levant
In Lebanon and Iraq, and partly also in Jordan, with the possible extension to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, if the external pressure from the Israeli “enemy” should diminish, there is therefore a “comeback home” of social and political dialectic.
The counterpart becomes the government again or more precisely the “power”, with requests for representation that by their very nature tend to transcend the sectarian representation, which instead was part and parcel of the previous social and power structure. This is particularly visible in Lebanon and Iraq, where the issue of minorities affects negatively the whole political system.
The outcomes are not predictable, nor is it possible to predict their success in the “pars destruens” (especially in Lebanon, less in Iraq), that also depends on the internal forces willing to embrace change. This regards also external actors (international community, actors in and around the region) that could support change, by avoiding militaristic twists from the outside that already helped suffocating this new generational nationalism.
For this reason, the work for a new Middle East as a “fight against Iran” (still a regional player, there to stay) risks being not only unrealistic but also counterproductive, and also having a negative impact on the Iranian reformist forces themselves.
The old-new dialectic between military and civilians
As for the Arab states, on the other hand, if such dynamics were aimed at continuing and gaining momentum, it is possible that the dialectic between old and new (precisely due to the temporary defeat and relative current weakness of the global jihadist project) acquires the form that is not as much the stereotyped secular-Islamist confrontation (a canned vision dear to Westerners) but much more the military versus civilians (as it is already in Egypt, Algeria, and how it is becoming in Libya despite Haftar’s instrumental use of the so-called Islamist “fight against terrorism”).