The Rise of Sectarian Populism

In Syria, Egypt, Lebanon and elsewhere, religious identity is back in force.

As many Americans were celebrating independence, the national-security community was focused on the protests in Egypt, a military coup and the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi. Many expected protests on the one-year anniversary of the Morsi government. But there was a sense that the effects would be small or contained, particularly when compared to events in Syria, which have continued to spiral toward a brutal regional conflict.

At first glance, the protests and coup in Egypt have little in common with the Syrian sectarian violence. Yet less than a month before the coup, Morsi called Shiite Muslims “filthy” while on stage with hardline clerics. A group of Sunni Muslims beat four Shia to death after prayers a week later. With ethnic tensions boiling over in Syria and a poor record of economic performance at home, Morsi tried playing on sectarian tensions. It could not save him, but it may well offer a glimpse of things to come. Recent political transitions towards democracy have added a new element to a region long-plagued by sectarianism: populism.

Sectarian populism, the tendency for political leaders to align themselves along sectarian lines as show of solidarity with their constituency, is quickly becoming the dominant factor in Middle Eastern politics and a critical driver of regional instability. Events in Syria have thrown the region, already moving towards sectarian populism after the Arab Spring, into a tailspin with no clear exit options. As Syria disintegrates, Iran will look for a new ally. Iraq will grow concerned about its territorial integrity with a Sunni-controlled government in Aleppo next door, while Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt will likely face spillover effects that could mean even more political turmoil.

The regional events of the last eighteen months have released the genie of grassroots political activism from the bottle. A return to the fear-induced, tightly controlled information environments that limited even modest forms of political expression seems unlikely. A return of autocracy would likely look different and have to account for the historical success of grassroots activism.

Nascent democracies and grassroots activism will pave the way for political upstarts with no clear track record of governance. While these individuals search for political platforms, individuals with little faith in government will turn to local forces that can offer basic services. Since local actors are often arranged along sectarian lines, this will deepen the sense of sectarianism in many communities. Political upstarts will feel this divide and seek to exploit it. The implications of grassroots politics in the region will be felt globally.

Influence, Sectarianism and Violence

The violence that ensued in Giza after Morsi’s sectarian comments is just the latest in a growing trend of sectarianism in the Middle East. Perhaps the most toxic sectarian political exchange is focused on Syria. On May 25, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah pledged support for Bashar al-Assad. While this should have come as little surprise given the anecdotal evidence of Lebanese and Hezbollah fighters funneling into Syria, it was the first public declaration of support. It would also trigger a wave of sectarian posturing.

Yusef al-Qaradawi, an influential Egyptian Sunni cleric, took little time to respond. In a speech on June 2, Qaradawi called for jihad in Syria, declaring it an individual duty at a rally in Doha. He accused Iran of sending fighters in support of the Assad regime while the Sunnis stood idle. Qaradawi also reversed his position on Hezbollah, having historically pledged support of the organization. He went so far as to call Hezbollah the “party of Satan.”

The war of words, thus far limited to a few historically vocal sheikhs, escalated further when the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia weighed in on June 6th. Sheikh Abdelaziz Al al-Sheikh did not call for jihad in Syria, but he declared support for Qaradawi. Voicing agreement with Qaradawi’s position on Hezbollah, Abdelaziz called them a “hateful, sectarian” party and called upon Muslim clerics to take steps against Hezbollah. The position of the Saudi clerical establishment may prove pivotal over time.

While Nasrallah blames Saudi Arabia for the presence Sunni foreign fighters in Syria and claims that Hezbollah is defending Shiites against extremists, sectarian violence has continued to escalate throughout the region. Over two thousand people have been killed in Iraq since April. Sunni militiamen in the Lebanese coastal city of Sidon killed twenty members of the Lebanese armed forces on June 24. This attack came just a few weeks after an influential jihadist cleric named Abu Mundhir al-Shanqiti sanctioned attacking Hezbollah in Lebanon, even if it inflicts civilian casualties. The time for an all-out sectarian war, he wrote, was now.

As Goes Syria

There is an old adage in the Middle East: there is no war without Egypt and no peace without Syria. But what happens if there is no Syria?

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