By Roger Boyes
From Cairo to Baghdad, corrupt hardline regimes are struggling to keep a lid on mass dissent.
As long as the West and its dwindling number of allies in the Middle East concentrated on the task of defeating the jihadist thugs of Islamic State there was a kind of ramshackle consensus about the task in hand. Now that the caliphate has been broken, all hell is breaking loose.
Partly this is because of the ugly compromises needed to smash a nimble enemy such as Isis. In Syria, America (under both Barack Obama and Donald Trump) enlisted the Kurds as its janissaries, ready to risk their lives on the ground.
The US did so in full knowledge that some were more than hardened soldiers. One faction was also affiliated to the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party that has been a thorn in Turkey’s side for more than 40 years.
There was always going to be a bill to pay. Here it is: the prospect of a Nato army, Turkey, occupying with President Trump’s blessing a chunk of some of the most sensitive terrain in the world’s bloodiest battlefield, soon to be pitted against a large guerrilla force that once considered itself an ally of the United States and its coalition partners.
A force, moreover, that is guarding thousands of Isis prisoners whom nobody wants. Could it get any messier than that?
Well, yes actually it could. Many of the autocrats of the Middle East regarded Islamic State, for all its barbarism, as something of a gift. Before anyone had a chance to inhale the fresh air of the 2011 Arab spring, tough leaders were taking over from deposed slightly-less-brutish leaders.
In Egypt, in Iraq, strongmen presented themselves as champions of stability over chaos. The threat of Isis and al-Qaeda was real enough, as was the idea that societies could be ripped apart by sectarian violence. Now, with Isis either on the run or in captivity, it’s difficult to legitimise iron-fist rule.
And so middle-class professionals and entrepreneurs shoved aside by self-serving military establishments, regime enforcers and propagandists today side with students and workers demanding the complete overhaul of governance that was promised eight years ago.
In Egypt protesters are enraged by online videos claiming that the president (and former general) Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has been squandering millions of dollars on building palaces.
The nub of the criticism: the Egyptian army whose companies supervise the construction of new cities as part of Sisi’s supposed national modernisation is feathering its own nest.
The proportion of Egyptians living below the poverty line has increased from 25.2 per cent in 2010 to 32.5 per cent this year.
Private businessmen feel squeezed, academics muzzled. Poorer families are furious that subsidies have been removed from rice and pasta at a time when generals and their offspring are living the high life.
Is this what 2011 was all about, they ask? Right under its skin, says the Egyptian human rights activist Mohamed Zaree, Egypt is boiling up.
Protests in September led to thousands of detentions. Many are held in state security camps scattered around greater Cairo because the regular cells are full.
Sisi fears the disruptive effect of social media on influencing the popular mood against him (on one day last month the Twitter hashtag #That’s_enough_Sisi was retweeted a million times); he fears the spread of discontent from students to the factories, from the cities to the countryside. Rule by anxiety does not encourage reform.
The Muslim Brotherhood, now outlawed, at least understood the political importance of the yawning gap between rich and poor.
Sisi doesn’t have that sensitivity — and that may one day be his undoing.
This month’s protests in Iraq have been even more brutally quashed. In one week alone police killed more than 100 people and wounded more than 2,000.
The root discontent is similar to that in Egypt: despite the end of major battles against Isis (and higher oil revenues), not enough money is being put into job creation for young people or improving services.
One senior officer, General Abdulwahab al-Saadi, popular because of his successes against Isis in Mosul and Fallujah, was demoted and resigned.
His reputation as a fierce critic of corruption and his refusal to bow to the will of the multiple Iran-backed Shia militias grouped within the so-called Popular Mobilisation Forces have made him a poster boy for the demonstrators.
This is not a sectarian upheaval; it’s about the way parties award themselves plum jobs and contracts, about the politicisation of the officer corps.
Across the region regimes are on the hunt for fall guys. Turkey, Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood are the usual suspects. But the problems are overwhelmingly homemade and government solutions overwhelmingly brutal, just like (or worse than) the bad old days.
The countries that today celebrate themselves for beating back Isis may through their misgovernance be simultaneously creating the circumstances for an Isis 2.0.
Instead of building the authority of robust state institutions, too many politicians have been focused on building palaces.
The real challenge facing these regimes is how to create a political order deriving authority from a sense of genuine citizenship.
Until leaders make that leap they will preside over ever weaker, permanently unstable states that stumble into conflict.
If Trump intends to signal a commitment to getting out of “endless wars” by withdrawing from Syria, he should be aware that these wars will rage on with or without American involvement.
And that one day they will come back to bite the US and its allies.
Roger Boyes is a British journalist and author. He is the diplomatic editor for the British newspaper The Times. He also has a column in the German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel entitled ‘My Berlin’.