The Rise of Sectarian Populism

The Rise of Sectarian Populism

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

Saudi Arabia also has an interest and a hand in Syria. While the Kingdom is tucked away from the war zone, it is difficult for the monarchy to remain silent in the face of Iranian and Hezbollah support to the Assad regime. While Syria blames Saudi Arabia for the conflict and a flow of Sunni foreign fighters, the Saudis have been lobbying to arm the rebels. The monarchy would surely suffer a loss of domestic credibility should it sit by and let the Sunni rebels be killed by Assad forces without so much as trying to help. Once again, sectarian populism is pushing towards conflict, and the grand mufti’s remarks suggest that Saudi Arabia is not prepared to let Iranian power projection go unmatched.

Egypt is also likely to face renewed pressures as sectarian tensions mount. Other politicians may feel the need to stake out a populist, sectarian platform for political survival, but that does not necessarily bode well for domestic or regional stability, as Egypt learned. Events that empower the conservative end of the political spectrum may over time make it more difficult to keep the most radical elements, including those in the Sinai, in check.

And yet, the strangest of bedfellows has gone unmentioned: the United States and Iran. Should the Assad regime fall to a Sunni government, or the country disintegrate, the Alawite Shia population will be at risk. The longer the conflict lasts, the more likely the victor will seek retribution against the loser. Should the Assad regime fall, a position long desired by the United States, and the Sunnis take power, both Washington and Tehran will have an interest in protecting the Alawite population from slaughter. Rarely do the two countries find themselves with aligned interests, but this might be one of them.

Broadly speaking, four camps have emerged from events in the Middle East. Democratic optimists suggest that changes will eventually lead to a more inclusive and stable region. Democratic pessimists suggest that democracy is unlikely to bring peace, prosperity or stability. Autocratic optimists suggest that the political change will be short-lived and ultimately overturned by dictators prioritizing stability. The autocratic pessimists suggest that the new weak governments will eventually backslide to autocracies controlled by radical individuals.

Events over the last month in Syria, Egypt and the broader region suggest that each of the paradigms has something to offer and something worth leaving. Rather than root for the best and plan for the worst, policymakers should focus on engaging a region increasingly driven by populist agendas and sectarian interests, as opposed to democratic, autocratic, secular or religious political regimes. There is a rocky road ahead in the best of circumstances.

Scott Helfstein is the director of research at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. All views expressed here are his own.