Why the Hope of the Arab Spring is Giving Way to Uncertainty and Desperation
Photo Credit: AFP/Khaled Desouki
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The "Awakening" is taking a turn, very different to the excitement and promise with which it was hailed at the outset. Sired from an initial, broad popular impulse, it is becoming increasingly understood, and feared, as a nascent counter-revolutionary "cultural revolution" - a re-culturation of the region in the direction of a prescriptive canon that is emptying out those early high expectations, and which makes a mockery of the West's continuing characterization of it as somehow a project of reform and democracy.
Instead of yielding hope, its subsequent metamorphosis now gives rise to a mood of uncertainty and desperation - particularly among what are increasingly termed "'the minorities" - the non-Sunnis, in other words. This chill of apprehension takes its grip from certain Gulf States' fervor for the restitution of a Sunni regional primacy - even, perhaps, of hegemony - to be attained through fanning rising Sunni militancy  and Salafist acculturation.
At least seven Middle Eastern states are now beset by bitter, and increasingly violent, power struggles; states such as Lebanon, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen are dismantling. Western states no longer trouble to conceal their aim of regime change in Syria, following Libya and the "non-regime-change" change in Yemen.
The region already exists in a state of low intensity war: Saudi Arabia and Qatar, bolstered by Turkey and the West, seem ready to stop at nothing to violently overthrow a fellow Arab head of state, President Bashar al-Assad - and to do whatever they can to hurt Iran.
Iranians increasingly interpret Saudi Arabia's mood as a hungering for war; and Gulf statements do often have that edge of hysteria and aggression: a recent editorial in the Saudi-owned al-Hayat stated: "The climate in the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] indicates that matters are heading towards a GCC-Iranian-Russian confrontation on Syrian soil, similar to what took place in Afghanistan during the Cold War. To be sure, the decision has been taken to overthrow the Syrian regime, seeing as it is vital to the regional influence and hegemony of the Islamic Republic of Iran." 
What genuine popular impulse there was at the outset of the "Awakening" has now been subsumed and absorbed into three major political projects associated with this push to reassert primacy: a Muslim Brotherhood project, a Saudi-Qatari-Salafist project, and a militant Salafist project. No one really knows the nature of the Brotherhood project, whether it is that of a sect, or if it is truly mainstream ; and this opacity is giving rise to real fears.
At times, the Brotherhood presents a pragmatic, even an uncomfortably accomodationist, face to the world, but other voices from the movement, more discretely evoke the air of something akin to the rhetoric of literal, intolerant and hegemonic Salafism. What is clear however is that the Brotherhood tone everywhere is increasingly one of militant sectarian grievance. And the shrill of this is heard plainly from Syria.
The joint Saudi-Salafist project was conceived as a direct counter to the Brotherhood project: the Saudi aim in liberally funding and supporting Saudi-orientated Salafists throughout the region has been precisely to contain and counter the influence of the Brotherhood  (eg in Egypt) and to undermine this strand of reformist Islamism, which is seen to constitute an existential threat to Gulf state autocracy: a reformism that precisely threatens the authority of those absolute monarchs.
Qatar pursues a somewhat different line to Saudi Arabia. Whilst it too is firing-up, arming and funding militant Sunni movements , it is not so much attempting to contain and circumscribe the Brotherhood, Saudi-style, but rather to co-opt it with money; and to align it into the Saudi-Qatari aspiration for a Sunni power block that can contain Iran.
Plainly the Brotherhood needs Gulf funding to pursue its aim of acquiring the prime seat at the region's table of power; and therefore the more explicitly sectarian, aggrieved discourse from the Brotherhood perhaps is a case of "he who pays the piper" ... Qatar and Saudi Arabia are both Wahhabi Salafist states.
The third "project", also highly funded and armed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar - uncompromising Sunni radicalism - forms the vanguard of this new "Cultural Revolution": It aims however not to contain, but simply to displace traditional Sunnism with the culture of Salafism. Unlike the Brotherhood, this element, whose influence is growing exponentially - thanks to a flood of Gulf dollars - has no political ambitions within the nation-state, per se.
It abhors conventional politics, but it is nonetheless radically political: Its aim, no less, is to displace traditional Sunnism, with the narrow, black and white, right and wrong, certitude embedded in Wahhabi Salafism - including its particular emphasis on fealty to established authority and Sharia. More radical elements go further, and envision a subsequent stage of seizing and holding of territory for the establishment of true Islamic Emirates  and ultimately a Kalifa.
A huge cultural and political shift is underway: the "Salafisation" of traditional Sunni Islam: the sheering-away of traditional Islam from heterogeneity, and its old established co-habitation with other sects and ethnicities. It is a narrowing-down, an introversion into a more rigid clutching to the certainties of right and wrong, and to the imposition of these "truths" on society: it is no coincidence that those movements which do seek political office, at this time, are demanding the culture and education portfolios, rather than those of justice or security. 
These Gulf States' motives are plain: Qatari and Saudi dollars, coupled with the Saudi claim to be the legitimate successors to the Quraiysh (the Prophet's tribe), is intended to steer the Sunni "stirrings" in such a way that the absolute monarchies of the Gulf acquire their "re-legitimisation"' and can reassert a leadership through the spread of Salafist culture - with its obeisance towards established authority: specifically the Saudi king.
Historically some of the radical Sunni recipients of Saudi financial largesse however have also proved to be some of the most violent, literalist, intolerant and dangerous groups - both to other Muslims, as well as to all those who do not hold to their particular 'truth'. The last such substantive firing-up of such auxiliaries occurred at the time of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan - the consequences of which are still with us decades later today.
But all these projects, whilst they may overlap in some parts, are in a fundamental way, competitors with each other. And they are all essentially "power" projects - projects intended to take power. Ultimately they will clash: Sunni on Sunni. This has already begun in the Levant - violently.