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The Arab Spring and the appropriation of the “war on terror”

The Arab Spring arrived 10 years after George W. Bush declared the advent of the “war on terror”. The events of September 11 allowed the Bush administration to launch a crusade at home and abroad, pledging to destroy “terrorism” wherever it may be and imposing an ultimatum on state-counterparts through the US president’s infamous doctrine, “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.”


Since January 2011, Arab regimes have also employed the terrorism card to maintain their grip on government. While power dynamics are shuffling in the region, the struggle for change naturally collides with a taxing resistance by those who refuse to accept that the status quo cannot prevail. While much debate around the Arab Spring deals with assessing whether it is a success or a failure, little time has been spent evaluating what factors, if transferred to the long term, have the potential to undermine the struggle of the Arab street.

One of these harmful elements is the appropriation of Bush’s war on terror by regional actors. A campaign constructed with content determined strictly by and from “the West”, the use of the war on terror in the Middle East by Arab leaders is hijacking a crucial and historic moment in the Arab World. As such, it blocks the way to any real power shift emerging from the Arab Spring.

The appropriation of the war on terror is fine-tuned with Frantz Fanon’s concept of “misrecognition”. By this Fanon implied the internalisation by the native of the image that the colonial power constructed of, and imposed upon, him. In this case, the image created for an Arab is that of a terrorist; an angry, violent actor due to his barbaric, uncivilised Islamic roots. Interestingly, Arab leaders have been articulating this very same colonial fabrication against their own citizens. Among others, Gaddafi’s Libya, Egypt under both Mubarak and Sisi, Baathist Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and even the Palestinian Authority have all attempted to benefit from it by self-proclaiming themselves as saviours or the West’s partners in a phoney war against terrorism.

In Libya, Gaddafi pushed a notoriously violent campaign against “the terrorist”, targeting especially the towns hosting revolutionaries. The old regime claimed repeatedly that the Libyan Revolution was spearheaded not by freedom seekers but by Al-Qaida militants seeking to create an Islamist state. Gaddafi even flirted with fascist discourse in one of his last speeches: “I call upon millions from desert to desert. We will march to purge Libya inch by inch, house by house, alley by alley.”

In March 2011, after more than a month of street protests in Yemen calling for Ali Abdullah Salih to resign, the president also played the Al-Qaida card. He claimed that terrorists were taking advantage of the political unrest to carry out further attacks against the Yemeni government and foreign interests in the country.

In the same vein, General Sisi has portrayed himself as a guru for anti-terrorism efforts. Terrorism in Egypt, in Sisi’s mind, is a product of the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters. On June 30, Sisi called for big demonstrations so that people could give the military a “mandate” to wage a “war on terror”. In effect, he tried to legitimise his military coup through “war on terror” rhetoric. As Sisi’s military administration continued its persecution of anti-coup Egyptians by the thousands, the handy appropriation of “anti-terrorism” action helped Sisi’s forces in their bloody crackdown. This misrecognition in Egypt betrays the very essence of the Arab Spring as, for Egyptians, the January 25 Revolution was partly about destroying the permanent state of emergency that the Mubarak regime had put in place for three decades. Even more tragic is the Saudi King Abdullah’s open support for the Egyptian junta by using the very same justification: “the fight against terrorists”. Here, King Abdullah borrows the war on terror once again in order to frame any type of opposition to the regional status quo, within or without his borders, as terrorism.

An incongruous appropriation of the war on terror is also being seen in Syria. Assad claims that his presence is a safeguard against terrorist entities in Syria and beyond. In his logic, as long as the violence is not generated by the opposition it should be observed as a favour for regional stability. Indeed, observing Assad since the inception of the carnage against the Syrian people, it is clear that he has succeeded in keeping the “war on terror” rationale intact in every press release, interview or TV appearance. Assad, as Bush did in 2001, justified his orders with terrorism: “I need to protect my nation from terrorism, the terrorists are creating chaos, do not fear, we have it under control.” The result has been almost 2 million Syrians displaced and more than 100,000 killed.

The war on terror was also exploited by politicians watching the Arab Spring from the sidelines. The Palestine Papers reveal that in a meeting with the EU back in 2006, senior Palestinian Authority negotiator Saeb Erekat warned that dissolving the PA “will have serious repercussions on the region… it means handing the region to Bin Laden.” In other words, the PA saves the region from “terrorism” and should, therefore, be supported internationally.

These politicians internalise the war on terror in its Western understanding to frame levels of opposition against them as a form of terrorism. They transfer the guidelines of who makes the cut on the terrorist list and apply it to whomever they feel needs to be targeted for the protection of their own positions and power. The irony of this appropriation is that the war on terror is an American foreign policy construct that eased the meddling of the White House in the affairs of a changing Middle East under the guise of a security-based approach. As such, those who want to keep a grip on power have utilised the most damaging foreign policy emerging from the West since colonial times. The question then becomes what does it signify when a quintessentially discriminatory foreign policy is appropriated by political figures in a region that was identified and targeted directly by the West as the source of a global threat?

This appropriation is not merely subconscious; the amnesia involved in misrecognition is strategic, too. While keeping them in power, it allows these Arab leaders to identify with Western powers, who have managed to sustain the regional status quo, including the rule of these Arab leaders, for decades. On this point, Fanon warns that in internalising what the empire has depicted of you, “The risk in the end is finding that nothing has been gained, or that what has been gained is illusory.” Indeed, the way in which these regimes were governing was based on a deceptive foundation of democratic and just rule. By extension, their resistance to the popular upheaval of the Arab street via the embedment of the Bush Doctrine to their own political agency will only produce adverse outcomes for the region.

As a way forward, the hegemony of the war on terror cannot be pushed on an Arab World in transition, one where the people have chosen, despite their differences, converging ideas and specificities, to challenge collectively the system of control affecting them all.

A great deal of what the Arab Spring showcased, then, is a desire by the Arab population, in Fanon’s words, to “make a new start, develop a new way of thinking, and endeavour to create a new man.” In other words, undertaking actively the exercise of defining their identity, not in opposition or in agreement with the Western hegemonic view of what they are supposed to represent but by building their collective and individual identity through their specific trajectories and changing realities.

For this crucial exercise to take place effectively, we must acknowledge first that one of the key challenges which the Arab Spring highlights is this battle with misrecognition, which has made the “war on terror” rhetoric an easy-sell at home and abroad.

Ufuk Ulutas is the Director of Foreign Policy Research at SETA Foundation in Ankara. Sabrien Amrov is a research assistant at Foreign Policy Research for SETA Foundation in Ankara.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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