Thinking Aloud: “From Deep State to Islamic State”

Oct. 12, 2015 by Darius 

I recently read From Deep State to Islamic State: The Arab Counter-Revolution and Its Jihadi Legacy by French Middle East scholar Jean-Pierre Filiu. The book is an up-to-date analysis of why the Arab Spring crashed and burned, woven into the larger narrative of Middle Eastern despotism over the course of the last six decades.

Filiu combines two metaphors to frame Middle Eastern despotism. The first metaphor, with which Filiu starts the book, is that of the Deep State. The Deep State was coined as a phrase in Turkey during the government’s first war with Kurdish separatists. A car crash exposed major links between Turkish security forces, organized criminals, and ethnic militias, leading to the claim that the intelligence apparatus in Turkey had gone “deep,” permeating the shadowy, unelected regions of the state to manipulate the elected government to its own ends. Filiu discusses the Deep State in the context of Middle Eastern governments, especially Egypt, where the ancien regime managed to seize back the reins of power after the 2011 popular revolution.

Filiu’s second metaphor, much more central to the book, is the idea of modern Arab governments as Mamluk states. The Mamluks were originally slave-soldiers serving the rulers of Egypt. Eventually, though, the Mamluks effectively overthrew the government, becoming Egypt’s de facto rulers for centuries. Throughout their rule, though, Mamluks claimed to be acting under the aegis of the caliph, who had been reduced to a powerless figurehead. Filiu likens modern Arab governments, like those found in Algeria, Egypt, Yemen, and Syria, composed of cliques of military or former military men, radically opposed to the idea of democracy, to the Mamluks. The publics of these countries are the powerless caliphs: “elections” are held by the Mamluks to grant themselves a new fig leaf with which to cover their brutal rule.

From Deep State to Islamic State is effectively a decade-by-decade, country-by-country analysis of how the Arab people have been deceived, repressed, and ultimately crushed by their governments. Filiu details how a generation of military officers, including Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, and a whole host of Algerians, seized power, then portrayed themselves as rescuing the nation from foreign or monarchical oppressors. Over time, these governments, composed of small groups of military officers, grew to control the political arena, economy, and all other facets of life in their countries. Rigged elections ostensibly showed popular approval rates for the government reaching as high as 99%.

One of the characteristics of a Mamluk state, according to Filiu, is an absolute refusal to compromise in any way on the economic and political power of its members. Democratic twitches were strangled in their cradles, and when a democratic movement did break out, as in the case of Algeria in 1991, the Mamluks did not hesitate to use massive violence to crush it. In Algeria, the Mamluks preferred to ignite a decade-long civil war, killing hundreds of thousands, than budge an inch. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad has made the same choice.

Filiu expounds on the Egyptian revolution, where the Mamluks managed to hijack the popular revolution in order to maintain their positions in society and, eventually, roll back the revolution entirely. Here, too, the Egyptian Mamluks did not shrink from violence, slaughtering hundreds of nonviolent Islamist protesters in the streets when they dared challenge the counterrevolution.

From Deep State to Islamic State starts rather ponderously, and Filiu’s best work comes in two chapters towards the end of the book. In the first, “The Rise of the Security Mafias,” Filiu details how Arab Mamluks from Algeria to Syria manufactured military crises to funnel ever greater shares of the budget into their own pockets (Algeria escalated a border crisis with Morocco to create a lucrative smuggling operation, and Hafez Assad engineered a Syrian occupation of Lebanon, which turned into a years-long looting spree). In addition to domestic pillaging, the Mamluks became experts at sucking up to the teat of foreign donors, managing to siphon off billions without giving up the slightest bit of leverage on policy. Remarkably, Egypt and Syria managed to make billions off the 1973 war with Israel. By signing a peace treaty with Israel, Egypt received more than $1.3 billion from the United States for decades. Syria, for its part, remained at “war” with Israel, despite not firing a shot since 1974, but nonetheless reaped enormous sums from Gulf Arab states for its “confrontation” policy.

The second chapter, “The ‘Global Terror’ Next Door,” details how Mamluk states, most notably Egypt and Yemen, managed to hook themselves up to American largesse by positioning themselves as “partners” in the War on Terror while at the same time their intelligence agencies continued to collaborate with jihadi groups. Filiu also paints a damning picture of the ways in which Mamluk regimes have sacrificed their people yet again by intentionally unleashing jihadist insurgencies, ideally at a low enough level so as not to seriously threaten the Mamluks but a high enough level to justify massive military spending and a crackdown on freedoms. These two chapters make for some jaw-dropping reading.

Based on From Deep State to Islamic State, the future of the Middle East is not bright. The lone success story of the Arab Spring, Tunisia, was never a Mamluk state: the Tunisian military was small and non-political. No Mamluk regime has ever peacefully given up power. It is unlikely that any will.

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