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Al-Qaeda and beyond: where do Arab dictatorships fit?

Four experts discussed the hidden relationship between dictators and extremist groups at an event held by MEMO in London.

Middle East Monitor (MEMO) hosted an event to examine the role Arab dictators have played in the rise of extremism in the region.

Yemen, Syria, Egypt and Iraq, four countries that are currently experiencing massive upheavals, were the focus of attention in the public seminar organised in partnership with LSE and SOAS' MENA Societies and SOAS Yemen Society.

Four experts were selected to discuss the hidden relationship between dictators and extremist groups in their respective countries.

Dr Maha Azzam, head of the Egyptian Revolutionary Council, examined the role Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi and coup plotters have played in fermenting extremism in Egypt and in particular the Sinai region.

"Egypt's current situation is a recipe for terrorism," she said referring to the alarming levels of human rights abuse in the country.

She spoke of western complicity through their support of dictators in "creating fertile grounds for terrorism to grow".

The conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Iraq occupied much of the evenings discussion. The unrest in these countries is commonly viewed as a clash between the regimes and non-state terrorist groups. The reality, as the speakers were keen to highlight, is very different.

In the case of Syria and Yemen, extremist groups like Al-Qaeda worked hand in glove with the regime. Speaking about the rise of extremism in Yemen, Baraa Shiban, a member of the Yemeni National Dialogue Conference, described the history of ties between ousted Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the country's security forces and Al-Qaeda linked groups. Saleh, Shiban said, often used Al-Qaeda linked groups to strike fear into his political opponents.

According to Shiban, there were even cases of security forces stoking extremism by incarcerating vulnerable prisoners with known Al-Qaeda members in order to radicalise them.

Yemen had become a hot-bed for extremist group as a result of Saleh's repression of his people as well as his tendency to use force against political opponents leaving no space for dissent. Yemenis were left with only one option, he explained, joining extremist groups.

This was the common thread in all four case studies examined by the panellists.

The activist and founding member of the Syrian Nonviolence Movement described how Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad encouraged the atmosphere for extremists to flourish in the country, in particular during the US-led invasion of Iraq.

Having been labelled one of the "axis of evil" Al-Assad stoked extremism and directed the anger of Syrians towards America. Under his guidance, Syria became the principal point of entry for jihadi fighters wanting to join the war in Iraq against US forces.

While there was consensus over the symbiotic relationship between dictators and extremism in the region, Iraq's extremism plague was seen as different.

Researcher Dr Muhanad Seloom said the rise of extremism in Iraq was a result of the US invasion. The US policy of "de-baathification" and breaking up the security apparatus under the Paul Bremmer administration fuelled radicalism.

After describing the instrumental role played by Sunnis in combating Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Seloom pointed to the sectarian policies of the Maliki government as the starting point for Iraq's ongoing conflict with Daesh. Sunnis fled former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki's repression into the arms of Daesh, he explained.

Western policy in the Middle East is often justified on the basis of a false choice between dictatorships and extremists. This belief has fuelled extremism. The growth of terrorism, concluded the experts, is a consequence of human rights abuse by Arab dictators. It's the decades of persecution of dissenting voices, suppression of free speech and the erosion of free spaces that is the root cause of terrorism in the region.

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