The Arab Spring held such promise. Peoples made captive by tyranny appeared to unbind the chains of servitude. Once-muted voices were suddenly emboldened. In the West, a conceited thought arose that, at last, the democracy we had long known and loved was taking organic root in places where we knew it must eventually do so.
And yet, on Wednesday, the Middle East’s latest terrorist outrage shocked the very country in which the democratic uprising began just over four years ago. Tunisia, which seemed better than anywhere to have adapted to life without autocracy, suddenly finds itself face to face with the same extremist horror which has come to rule the roost across swathes of Syria, Iraq and, increasingly, Libya too.
Tunisia is important because it is the region’s only standard-bearer for a successful, recent conversion to democracy. In Egypt, democracy was swiftly ousted by the military and the country is divided. The removal of Gaddafi in Libya was followed by a descent into vicious, factional infighting. Syria is a bloody mess. So is Iraq, the place where American-imposed democracy signally failed to bring either security or unity.
That Isis should be responsible for the attack that left at least 21 innocents dead in Tunis is of no surprise. Its monstrous tentacles reach across borders, seeking to corrupt decency and free will wherever they are found. Indeed, as this week’s brilliant series by The Independent’s Patrick Cockburn has made all too clear, Isis remains at heart a guerrilla force. True, it has established many of the structures of a state in its strongholds of Raqqa, Mosul and elsewhere. But at its core it is a nimble terror group which can strike in places where its presence has barely been detected.
Even so, as Cockburn’s dispatches have underlined, Isis as a governing power is unlikely to be driven out of Iraq and Syria soon. Iraqi armed forces are hindered by corruption and by an over-reliance on necessary co-operation with Shia militias. American and other Western governments are wary of providing air support where they believe it will help to fuel Shia sectarianism. Likewise, they will not co-ordinate their activities with President Assad in Syria. The reasons for that are understandable, but it makes military defeat of Isis more difficult.
More fundamentally, the wholesale collapse of the so-called Islamic State will not happen without an alternative Sunni power base, and there is currently no sign of one emerging. In its absence, ordinary Sunnis face only two options: rule by Isis, with all its attendant horrors, or a return to Shia-dominated governance, under which Sunnis fear being marginalised at best; and slaughtered in a morass of vengeful bigotry at worst. With no Western forces to referee the bloody parochialism, many Sunnis believe they have nothing to gain from an Isis collapse. There is a sickening irony in this: that for many living in the Islamic State, the greatest terror is what might follow its defeat.
None of this bodes well for the chances of peace. And with violence spreading further afield – to Tunis this week, to the shores of the Mediterranean last month – few places in the Middle East offer much in the way of a stable example on which the hopes of others might be pinned.
Just as there is no simple explanation for the region’s descent into turmoil, so there is no straightforward path to its resurrection. Nor should it be imagined that the answer to problems in one place is applicable to others. Patrick Cockburn’s first report this week quoted Omar, a 45-year-old Sunni farmer, who reflected that Isis, the Americans and the Iraqi government had all brought disaster. “All of them are killing us,” he said. There is no end in sight.Reuse content