The most essential feature of governance is law and order, which requires a monopoly on the organized use of force. The surest sign of state failure is the rise of armed gangs, or at least the widespread breakdown of law and order.
The rise of militias in those parts of the Arab world experiencing state failure or disintegration is a familiar phenomenon. But the creeping chaos in Egypt and Tunisia threatens to unleash a new and extremely dangerous version of organized violence.
In Lebanon, Iraq, and now Syria, militias have largely been defined along sectarian and ethnic lines. In Libya, Yemen and elsewhere, these divisions are largely regional and tribal. This is surely a symptom of a lack of national consciousness and the persistent primacy of sub-national identities.
During the era of the “Arab Cold War,” though, divisions between left and right, as well as between ideological factions were definitive. In more recent decades, such ideological confrontations have generally been between secularists and Islamists.
The worst instance of this, obviously, was the fratricidal Algerian Civil War in the 1990s. Among Palestinians, too, the division between Hamas and the leadership in Ramallah is almost entirely ideological.
Numerous Arab states have had to deal with waves of terrorism by religious fanatics. But, however dangerous, these groups have usually been small in number, with their violence targeting society in general and the rule of an established, entrenched government.
Such was the case in Egypt in the late 1980s and early 90s, where extremist groups like Tanzim al-Jihad, Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya and Egyptian Islamic Jihad were involved in attacks on government, civilian and tourist targets. They were successfully suppressed by the state with the support of the overwhelming majority of the population.
Now, however, the groundwork appears to be emerging for the potential rise of a new, different and extremely dangerous form of sub-state or even militia violence in the new post-dictatorship societies in Egypt and Tunisia.
Unlike the militia violence rocking so much of the Levant, Libya, and Yemen, this potential mayhem isn’t ethnic, regional or sectarian. And unlike the “jihadist” terrorist campaigns, it probably wouldn’t be mainly aimed at a coherent, coordinated central government.
Instead, what may be brewing is street warfare and gang violence between ideological groups associated with rival parties. This bears some resemblance to the situation in, for example, Iraq in the 1950s and 60s, or even unstable European states between the first and second world wars.
In Tunisia, bellwether of the Arab uprisings, this phenomenon is expressing itself through the rampages of Salafist gangs smashing up what they deem to be “un-Islamic” cultural phenomena such as literary festivals, art galleries, bars, cinemas and any area of gender mixing. More ominously, the recent assassination of secular opposition leader Chokri Belaid – which is not in fact the first, but only the latest, political assassination in post-dictatorship Tunisia – could be a harbinger of more political killings. Political assassinations could certainly now spread to Egypt too.
Just before he was killed, Belaid said that the Islamist en-Nahda party had decided to approve political assassinations. Whether they were directly responsible for his murder or not, they have certainly helped create the conditions for rampant lawlessness based on political intolerance.
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood government is not only relying on the police and security services, but also on ideological hired thugs to attack their protesting opponents in the streets. Among the opposition, the reputed rise of a “Black Bloc” of masked and violent opposition toughs willing to do battle with both the police and Islamist hoodlums, portends an unending series of violent and entirely ideological street battles. The extent to which the perennially anti-government “ultras” soccer hooligans may or may not be overlapping with the so-called “Black Bloc” is unclear, but they add another volatile element to the street-level unrest.
Rumors are swirling that Iran is helping to train Islamist street militias in Egypt to support the Brotherhood government, and for its part the government has fallen back on the familiar accusation “foreign hands” in the ongoing street battles.
All of this seems eerily reminiscent of the hooliganism and street violence of many European countries, particularly Germany and Italy, during the 20s and 30s, in which weak governments were unable to prevent rival gangs of thugs from fighting it out on a daily basis. In the context of collapsing economies, weak central governments and a total breakdown of consensus, such movements thrive.
Wherever such gang violence becomes endemic, it almost invariably gives rise to the birth of a new and, at least at first, popular authoritarianism that bases its legitimacy on the imposition of “law and order.” And that may indeed be the cynical calculation of those, particularly Islamists, who are looking for rationalizations and excuses to re-impose authoritarian rule in Tunisia and Egypt.