The grim organic crisis of the Middle East

Fawaz Gerges is professor of Middle East politics and international relations at the London School of Economics, author of several acclaimed books on Middle East turmoil, and is frequently appears on international news networks. At the recent Economist Mediterranean Leadership Summit, Gerges painted a grim picture of a Middle East trapped in an ‘organic crisis’ that will take years to resolve. Chief editor Gary Lakes attended the summit in Malta for Global Sources Magazine.

CHALLENGES gripping Europe today pale in comparison to those the Middle East faces, Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle East politics and international relations at the London School of Economics, told an international conference the Economist magazine hosted in Malta last week.

“This is the most dangerous moment in the modern history of the Middle East,” Gerges said. “Although we are distracted by terrorism and the Islamic State, IS, what we are witnessing in the modern Middle East is a revolutionary process [with] implications for the very survival of the modern state system and for regional and global security.”

Europe’s refugee crisis is a byproduct of this revolution and a direct result of both European neglect of the Middle East and constant intervention by the great powers for all the wrong reasons, he said, adding that it may take many years, maybe decades, for the dust to settle.

The ruins of the once great Aleppo city. [Newsweek]
The ruins of the once great Aleppo city which has been savagely bombed by government forces in the past week, despite an alleged ceasefire. [Newsweek]

The heart of the Middle East, the Mashreq [eastern sector of the Arab world], is being shaken to its foundations, Gerges said. He used the concept of an “organic crisis,” a term coined by the radical Italian writer Antonio Gramsci in the early 20th century.

“An organic crisis is multifaceted and encompasses both the state and society. It is a massive developmental crisis – a failure of state-making and state-building, economically, politically and institutionally.” Islamic State, al-Qaeda and the various tribal, ethnic and parochial groups and militias – what he called “anti-hegemonic forces” – are symptoms of the organic crisis, Gerges said.

Professor Fawaz Gerges, Middle East expert.
Professor Fawaz Gerges, Middle East expert.

“They are symptoms of the fragility of the state system, symptoms of the creeping sectarianism that has ravaged the heart of the Arab and Islamic world, symptoms of the fierce cold war raging between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This particular cold war, even though it is about power and politics and influence, has adopted sectarian connotations, and it is devastating Arab societies, poisoning the veins of Arab and Muslim politics.”

Gerges said that there is little doubt that IS will ultimately be defeated, but the al-Qaeda linked al-Nusra Front may survive in Syria for many years unless there is a settlement. He said IS and other anti-hegemonic groups are dangerous is because they are trying to fill security, ideological and institutional vacuums.

“IS is offering an alternative to the failed state system,” he said, using as an example the first online video IS posted in 2014 which showed its fighters dismantling border posts between Syria and Iraq. The video was actually titled “Demolishing Borders,” placing IS on the front line of destroying the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, which demarcated the national boundaries of the modern Middle East. According to the video IS is stating: “We are the only ones equipped to bring the Palestinians back to Palestine, the only ones equipped to destroy the failed secular system. We want to destroy the system based on sovereignty and offer an alternative based on Islamic identity”.

“Think of the symbolism, think of how powerful this particular message is,” Gerges said. “Here is IS promising millions of Arabs and Muslims that they are the only vanguard, not just to destroy the failed state system, but to destroy the Sykes-Picot Agreement and establish a new authentic system. This message resonates with many people.”

“The most important factors in the rise of IS are the geo-strategic rivalries that have allowed this social, political and religious movement to blend with local communities, particularly Sunni communities in Iraq and Syria that feel persecuted for whatever reason. Now it is threatening a cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and this is the most important factor,” he said.

A street fighter in the Salah al-Din district of Aleppo.
A street fighter in the Salah al-Din district of Aleppo. [L’Orient-Le Jour]

The civil war in Syria (estimated to have caused the deaths of 400,000 people so far) has enabled the rise of IS and al-Nusra Front and has allowed IS to establish strategic depth and to exploit the economic resources. Gerges said the estimated 30,000 foreign fighters that have crossed into Syria have been able to do so because of this geo-strategic struggle. “We know the strategy of the local powers – they want to bring the temple down, to get rid of Assad.”

The US policy in the Middle East is now retrenchment, Gerges said – “keeping a healthy distance from the Middle East, avoiding military adventures that have cost the US a great deal in blood and treasure.” Russia is looking to fill “this global vacuum of power,” he said, and its military intervention has “changed the balance of power, shifted the diplomatic priorities.”

“Are we talking about regime change? Even the US accepts that Russia determines and defines the rules of the game, on the diplomatic front and also in terms of the military balance of power,” Gerges said.

He believes Europe has a much bigger stake in the Middle East than either the US or Russia, yet it is not really interested in the problems of the Middle East. Sadly, he said, the links between the two regions have been uncovered the hard way.

“We are talking about a century after the making of the modern Middle East and I think Europe has a moral and political responsibility to rethink in terms of a strategic blueprint,” Gerges said. “It is a matter of leadership, a matter of constructing a blueprint, rebuilding the state, reconstructing state institutions, putting out fires and beginning a process of reconciliation. I would go a bit further and urge helping Arab and Muslim societies to imagine a Middle East different from the colonial and post-colonial order.”

The 'organic crisis' – not just an abstract concept for these residents of Homs.
The ‘organic crisis’ – not just an abstract concept for these residents of Homs. [Newsweek]

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