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Strongman Stability: The Post-Arab Spring Midde East

In September 2013 I wrote a rather odd editorial which posited that the Hamas group in Gaza may actually prove to be a force for stability for Israel. Immediately after publication I suspected there was a good chance it could come back to haunt me and make me look quite foolish.

At the time I quoted the chief of the Israeli Army’s Southern Command (Major General Shlomo Turgeman). He pointed out at the time that as unsavoury as Hamas was to Israel it was the central government in Gaza and has the means to reign in other groups and enforce ceasefires Hamas and Israel agree to. A force for stability in other words. Even then there were reports that Hamas had armed motorcycle squads which could quickly reach any part of that Palestinian territory in order to ensure that no other armed group in Gaza violated ceasefires by firing projectiles at Israel.

Since that time we have of course witnessed another escalation of violence between the Israeli military and Hamas in the summer of 2014, Operation Protective Edge. Today it is clear that Israel and Hamas have back-channel communications and are cooperating on an ad-hoc basis. The controversial blockade Israel had maintained over Gaza is gradually being done away with. Through Qatari meditation both rivals may even reach a long-term ceasefire which will see to the blockade being lifted. It’s not certain but it’s certainly possible.

Think about it: an imploded and anarchic Gaza Strip could prove to be very dangerous for Israel. Therefore coming to terms with Hamas solely as a containable force for stability and bulwark may prove to be a better alternative than trying to force Hamas from power through military operations, blockade or coup d’état. All of which have not only failed but seem to have actually strengthened that groups resolve and its hold on power.

The present circumstances in the region lend greater credence to this theory today. Hamas is presently cracking down on supporters of the Islamic State within Gaza. The Islamist group south of Gaza operating in the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula has pledged allegiance to Islamic State which doesn’t have much time for Hamas. So again the reasoning in Israel may well be that it’s better to deal with the enemy they know.

These apparently subtle shifts in Israeli policy towards Hamas come amidst what appears to be a regional trend whereby strongman authoritarian regimes are being once again acquiesced to in the post-Arab Spring world given the fact the alternative is often proving to be either instability, violence or terror. In Egypt the Egyptian peoples attempt at establishing some form of democracy after their popular grassroots revolution in January 2011 led to a short-lived Muslim Brotherhood government which became quite unpopular and was done away with by the military which now essentially backs another strongman autocrat (President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi) who has rigorously cracked down upon dissent and rounded up thousands of activists, secular and Islamist alike. President Sisi is quite clearly yet another autocrat who expects the Egyptian people to forgo political freedom in return for stability and security against Islamist terrorists.

In Syria many of those who made up the grassroots uprising which opposed the authoritarian governance of President Bashar al-Assad find his regime to be a lesser evil in light of the fact that various armed groups opposing him in Syria have been defeated by his military or infiltrated by the likes of the infamously notorious Islamic State terrorist group who would doubtlessly install a much greater tyranny in Syria were they able to topple Assad. The International Business Times has a great piece which details the loss of hope many Syrians have for what was destined to be their revolution who now long for the lives they had before the war. One such refugee quoted went as far as saying that, “He [Assad] made many mistakes, but now his solution is better than his mistakes. Assad is defending his country from the people who are destroying it.”

Again, this is the same man who violently crushed a rebellion which people regret having started given how abysmal a failure it has turned out to be. Meaning in turn that many Syrians are ready to give up on this revolutionary dreams just to get back the old highly imperfect, but much less worse, order back.

Libya no longer functions as a state – even a failed one – in the wake of NATO’s supporting of an armed uprising of ragtag rebels against the rule of the hated dictator Mu’ammer Gaddafi back in 2011. We may inevitably see the rise of yet another strongman who can bring to a forcibly end the tribal infighting and also combat the Islamist terrorism and violence which has torn post-Gaddafi Libya to shreds.

There appears to be a general recurring trend here. One which has seen the risks many Middle Easterners took to free themselves from the shackles of authoritarianism backfire and plunge their states and societies into morasses of instability, turmoil, terrorism and war. So bad has the state of chaos become that many, like those aforementioned Syrians, welcome the old status quo. As oppressive and undesirable as it had been.