For now, the insurgents in Syria are held together by the shared commitment of destroying Assad’s regime, but the divisions over what precisely an Islamic political order ought to look like are already present and will surely deepen in a post-Assad state. So what we see in Syria is a split within what Huntington regarded as a single civilization (Islam) and tactical alliances that cross civilization boundaries.
The intra-civilization clash is also visible in Bahrain, where a Sunni-dominated monarchical state lords it over a restive Shia underclass, which constitute close to 70 percent of the population. Bahrain’s Shia rose up during the Arab Spring and continue to rebel (though without much notice from Washington, given that Manama, in Bahrain, is home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet). What arguably saved the Bahrain’s rulers was the March 2011 intervention by Saudi troops, who quashed a rebellion rooted in the Shia community. Saudi Arabia was moved to act by its abiding fear of a fellow Islamic state, Iran, which it believed would become the patron a Shia regime in Bahrain.
Mobilization vs. Institutions
The second trend highlighted by Chokri Belaid’s murder, and by the Arab Spring more generally, is the imbalance between social mobilization (peoples’ newfound freedom to participate in politics) and political institutionalization (new political structures struggle to gain legitimacy, to provide venues for reconciling political disputes, and to maintain public order).
This is a feature of politics that Huntington got right in Political Order in Changing Societies, a book that, though not nearly as well known beyond the ivory tower as The Clash of Civilizations, is a far better one. The consequences of disequilibrium in the emerging political orders that Huntington depicted are clear in Tunisia and Egypt. Nascent institutions must manage energized and impatient citizens. Opposition parties that once led a marginalized existence, were banned, or whose leaders were jailed (or worse), have gained power only to find that they now have become the suspect establishment that the masses mistrust, with one difference: postauthoritarian politics enables public mistrust to morph more easily into popular mobilization.
But it is in Libya that the social mobilization-versus-political institutionalization dynamic is visible in its most dramatic form. A weak government struggles to create basic stability. Political institutions are feeble. A multitude of militias consisting of former anti-Qaddafi fighters are a law unto themselves. These armed statelets do not share a common agenda, bar the one of paying as little heed to the directives of the central government as possible, and that aggravates the chaos. So feeble is the center that it often relies on one set of militias to fend off challenges from others. But this has had two pernicious consequences: the state has become more dependent on militias, and violence among militias persists. The attack on the American consulate in Benghazi on September 11 that resulted in the killing of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans—apparently the handiwork of a radical Islamist militia, Ansar al-Sharia—was but the most tragic example of the weakness of Libya’s institutions in the face of social mobilization.
Chokri Belaid’s killing was a particular (and particularly tragic) illustration of some of the larger forces that are now at play the Arab world—but are far from being played out.
Rajan Menon is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of Political Science at the City College of New York/City University of New York, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the author, most recently, of The End of Alliances.
Image: Chokri Belaid. Flickr/Surian Soosay, CC BY 2.0.