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The Arab Uprisings: A Democratic Spring or Islamist Winter?

The Arab Spring is not your ordinary revolution.

More than a year has passed since the martyrdom of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Boauzizi sparked the Arab Spring. Throughout 2011, the Arab World was convulsed by a wave of popular protests and uprisings which toppled several long-standing authoritarian dictators: Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak, and Muammar Gaddafi. Experts have attributed the widespread scale of the Arab Spring to various factors including the role of social networking sites, satellite television media and a common Arab-Islamic cultural sphere. Trigger points include corrupt despotic regimes whose policies had failed to alleviate socio-economic hardship caused by neoliberal market policies and the 2008 financial meltdown. This situation was worsened by higher-than-average fertility rates.

Some commentators have compared the Arab Spring to successful historic revolutions like the French Revolution and the collapse of Eastern Bloc Communism in 1989. Others have exaggerated the influence of Facebook and Twitter, downplaying the role played by prayer meetings in rallying the masses. In Tunisia and Egypt, democratic elections have elected Islamist parties with considerable grassroots support. In Libya, NATO military intervention played a decisive role in the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime, at the cost of a civil war that wrecked much of the country’s infrastructure.

Still, this wave has not met success everywhere. In Bahrain,

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the Sunni-dominated elite ruthlessly suppressed peaceful Shi’a protestors with the assistance of the Gulf Cooperation Council. In Syria, the Assad regime has embarked on a brutal nationwide crackdown against popular protests which have plunged the country into chaos. Meanwhile, incumbent regimes in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Gulf States have remained intact due to oil patronage and strong security apparatuses.

Currently, there are two rival, antithetic perspectives dominating popular perceptions of the Arab Spring’s prospects. Rosy-eyed optimists including Western liberals, Third World advocates, leftists and populist Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) have hailed the Arab Spring as marking the dawn of genuine ‘democratic reforms’ in a region long dominated by authoritarianism and oppression. Theoretically, once the authoritarian dictatorships are removed, freedom and prosperity will flourish and Islamist groups and Al-Qaeda would disappear. Optimists also point to the combined participation of both Muslims and Christians, liberals and Brotherhood supporters in the Egyptian protests. World leaders, namely Barack Obama, David Cameron and Nicholas Sarkozy have also expressed support for the protestors.

In response, skeptics such as secular Arab progressives, Western conservatives and the Israelis bemoan the successes of Islamist elements whose policies are seen to be detrimental to Western and Israeli interests. Christian elements in the West have expressed concern about increased hostility towards Christian minorities and the fundamentalist agenda of some of the new rising political forces particularly the Muslim Brotherhood. Will the Arab Spring go down the same path as the Iranian Revolution in 1979 where conservative Islamist elements outmaneuvered secular reformist elements, implementing a theocratic dictatorship?

Less savoury critics have included undemocratic, authoritarian regimes in China and Russia which value state stability at the expense of human rights. While welcoming popular protests in Egypt, Tunisia and Bahrain, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejab has slammed developments in Syria as a ‘Western conspiracy’, reflecting Tehran’s Shi’a kinship ties to Assad’s regime and Hezbollah.

Now let’s look at the facts. In Tunisia, the moderate Islamist Ennahda won the October 2011 elections. In the recent Egyptian parliamentary elections, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and the Salafist Al-Nour won a combined 75% of the total votes. In contrast, secular parties performed poorly in those elections. Analysts have attributed the success of Islamist-oriented parties to their emphasis on “bread-and-butter” issues and religious appeal. Islamic-based movements were also the most effective sources of opposition since their operations transcended the tightly-controlled political system.

In contrast, the weak popular base of secular parties can be attributed to their emphasis on intellectual concepts like ‘liberal democracy’ which meant little to the masses. They were also structurally weakened by institutional barriers enacted by the previous regimes to stifle political opposition. Interestingly, while the Tunisian Constituent Assembly has introduced women’s list seats, the Egyptian interim Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has abolished the women’s quota of seats in the new parliament. Should democratic rule be defined solely according to Western conceptions?

What is undeniable is that there’s been an upsurge in communal violence between Muslims and Christians throughout the Middle East since the Iraq War. In Iraq, the Christian community has experienced many murders, bombings and kidnappings. In Egypt, there have been attacks on Coptic churches while 80 have been killed in clashes with the military and Islamists. In Syria, there have been reports of Christian girls being kidnapped and forced into prostitution. Meanwhile, others have argued that the Arab uprising has only facilitated regime change rather than genuine democratization. In Egypt, secular activists have alleged that the SCAF and MB struck a deal following the revolution whereby the Brotherhood would support the SCAF in exchange for being able to operate. While Ennahda and the FJP have promised to uphold democracy, human rights and gender equality, only time will tell if they can keep their promises. Will democracy mean adherence to a rigid interpretation of Sharia law where hands are chopped off?

On the other hand, has the bogeyman of Islamism merely substituted the bogeyman of Communism? Just as in the Cold War, many Western strategic and foreign policy-makers have come to view Islam as a monolithic force, overlooking differences between the various schools and movements. Even Robert Satloff, the director of the pro-Israeli Washington Institute of Near East Policy, alluded to the existence of at least six different factions within the Islamist movement in Egypt including moderate elements. They also seem to have applied the discredited Domino theory onto the War on Terror. Again, it ignores differences in local social and political conditions. In Tunisia and Egypt, protests were directed against secular albeit autocratic and corrupt regimes. In Bahrain, Shi’ite protestors were protesting against the discriminatory policies of the ruling Sunni regime. In Libya, there were elements of tribal sectarianism since Gaddafi had favored members of his own tribe – the Qadhadhfa.

In Libya, the West’s role in backing the National Transitional Council (NTC) was driven by a desire to settle scores with a recalcitrant Gaddafi. While relations have warmed since the 1990s, Washington and London have neither forgotten nor forgiven Gaddafi’s sponsorship for anti-Western terrorists. While Gaddafi is best remembered for atrocities like the Lockerbie bombing, political assassinations and excesses like Amazonian bodyguards, he also used Libya’s oil wealth to support social redistribution policies which improved living standards, healthcare and education. His mistake was to implement a totalitarian one-party dictatorship and practice favoritism.

Despite all the rhetoric about promoting democracy, the Europeans’ primary interest is in gaining access to Libyan oil while the intention of the US is to base their Africa Command in Libya. Prior to 2011, Western security services also used Libya to intern terror suspects where they were subject to torture. Who exactly is the National Transitional Council? Will they be able to guarantee justice and security for all residents including Black African migrants who have been subject to vicious attacks?

Another concern would be the role played by Al-Qaeda fighters, some of whom had fought against Western forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many of these same fighters have recently fought in militias like the Libyan Islamic Fight Group (LIFG) that played a major role in subduing Gadaffi loyalists in Tripoli. The NTC’s chairman Mustafa Abdul-Jalil has expressed interest in turning Libya into an Islamic state based on Sharia law, reversing the secular socialist-orientation of the previous regime.

Summary and Outlooks

In summary, we should neither be too optimistic or too pessimistic about the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring reflects the problem of socio-economic inequality and religious intolerance. These are the roots of many conflicts, both hot and cold. While it is undeniable that Islamist forces have been the biggest winners of the Arab Spring, it is unlikely that they would develop overnight into an anti-Western bloc. The rest of the world including the West will still need to engage in business with the Arab countries, so they cannot be isolated in the same manner as with North Korea and Myanmar.

The West should not repeat their Cold War folly of backing authoritarian and undemocratic regimes friendly to their interests, whether it be anti-communism or currently anti-Islamism. Likewise, Islamists should not treat democracy as a “train” to a rigid theocratic society and majority rule should also not mean trampling on the rights of minorities. The future of the Arab Spring will certainly depend on even the

most delicate alternatives and actions leaders will take at this moment.

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