To paraphrase a mantra of the early (1920s) self-help movement, the Mideast and coterminous regions appear "in every way and every day to be growing worse." For those of us who are fans of collapse and chaos, these are the glory days for the benighted folk living in the vast arc from Pakistan to the Persian Gulf and beyond to the point where sand dunes meet the surf in Morocco.
Pakistan remains what it has been for some years now, a national definition of the old military term SNAFU. You almost have to feel sorry for the Pakistanis. In the rush to use Islam of the Wahhibist flavor to unify the nation, the result was not only to undercut whatever potential for unity might have existed but to assure the place would dissolve into a bloody froth of differing views of what sort of Islam held the total truth for the Pakistani national identity.
The crimson foam of theological disputation conceals but does not mitigate the other divisions which constitute the political and social terrain of Pakistan. Corruption is an ever present "flavor of the day," providing the basic diet of politics and business. The Baluch defensive insurgency refuses to simply go away despite the fervent desires of Islamabad. The national judiciary would provide much comic relief were it not for the tragic results of its combination of lethargy and incompetence. The national fisc is a disaster area such that the country depends upon international aid (aka protection money and bribes) so that the army can continue to prepare for the hoped for next round of war with India.
Arguably, the real world challenges of inefficiency, bankruptcy, insurgency, corruption, broken government, and general poverty would be solvable were it not for the more powerful threats presented by the aforementioned religious disputes. Stripped to the politically incorrect essentials, Pakistan is rumbling dangerously close to the cliff of failed state status due to the Islamic tendency to stay stuck in a war of religions, or, more properly, a war of competing sects not all that unlike those which left the German states in utter ruin nearly four hundred years ago.
The same dynamic of warfare between conflicting interpretations of theology threaten to turn the "Arab Spring" into an endless winter of very violent discontent in Egypt and, perhaps, Libya, as well as other countries--here Syria comes to mind. No matter the gloss applied by Western journalists, academics, and politicians, the ugly face of conflict between adherents of austere Islam, Salifists, Wahhibists, and others of similar ilk with adherents of less austere forms as well as "secularists" can be seen easily.
Bad ideas do not die. It does not matter to the True Believers of austere Islam that the appeals of their form of Islam have been shown in Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, and elsewhere to have a short life in the real world. The seeming exception of Iran can be explained easily by reference to the numerous and well equipped internal security forces. The lesson of life remains the same. Austere Islam is not acceptable to the vast majority of Muslims and can be imposed and maintained only by robust, eternal repression.
Taliban in Afghanistan had outworn its welcome before the Americans arrived a decade back. Al-Qaeda in Iraq rapidly expired as a direct result of its dreadful behavior in Anbar province. Even in Somalia, the "kids" of al-Shabaab have insured their own ultimate defeat by their efforts to forcefully impose an unacceptably harsh interpretation of Islam on a people who previously wore their Islam lightly.
These lessons are lost on the Salifists of Egypt, a group which has not garnered the attention in the West lavished on the better known Egyptian Brotherhood. It might be noted that a self-proclaimed voice of Salifism in Egypt, a man named Ismaili, has a very good chance of becoming Egypt's first democratically elected president. The Salifists are dead set against peaceful relations with Israel. Rather they are fully committed to seeing an end to the Jewish state. Even more than the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's Salifists are anti-West, anti-American. They are also of the view that the current regimes in the region are apostate and must be overthrown.
The Salifists of Egypt are four square in favor of Shariah. They are equally firm in their opposition to making any accommodation to the West (or Western tourists.) Some would go so far as to treat the monuments of Egypt's long pre-Islam history as "unlawful" suitable to be treated as Taliban did the great statutes of the Buddha. Others would allow them to exist--hidden behind protective screens.
The Salifists are not so evident in their presence in Libya. The invisibility doesn't imply absence. Rather, it is indicative of caution, the same sort of caution which impelled the Renaissance Party in Tunisia to deny its goals and interim agenda for weeks after the collapse of the old regime. It is a caution bred of the hard experience of Salifists and kindred souls in the deadly war between them and the Algerian army twenty years ago. While the old regime in Egypt suppressed Salifists as it did the Muslim Brotherhood, the Algerian armed forces obliterated these advocates of political Islam.
The Salifists, the Brotherhood members, the Wahhibists, all those who espouse austere and politically oriented forms of Islam learned the lesson and keep their heads well down until such time as they can be raised with impunity at the least and an expectation of victory at best. Splits between "secularist" militias and those representing the advocates of austere, political Islam are already apparent in Libya. There is not yet fighting between militiamen without beards and those whose faces are bearded (but lack mustaches--a clear sign of Salifist tendencies), but there is no reason that today's lack of inter-group trust will not degenerate into exchanges of fire in the not too distant future.
Egypt, Tunisia, Libya all face very large problems in the wake of their respective adventures in regime change. Big as the problems might be, seemingly insurmountable as the challenges seem, there is no reason to believe that each state and its people would not be able to overcome them. That is, there would be no reason were it not for the presence of religious disputes. The dynamic pitting those of powerful austere beliefs against all others bodes well to assure that each case is more likely than not to fail in achieving the goal of a more or less open, more or less democratic, more or less free market society, polity, and economy.
Once again it may be politically incorrect but it is not inaccurate to observe that each of these states is likely to dissolve in a welter of sectarian violence not unlike that which occurred in Iraq. This eventuality is not in the interests of regional or global stability--to engage in an exercise of belaboring the obvious. It is also an eventuality which cannot be halted or mitigated by Western action or inaction.
The takeaway? To paraphrase the campaign mantra of Clinton in 1992: "It's the religion, stupid!"