x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

The Battle for the Arab Spring: journalist and analyst weigh revolution

In the wake of regional revolutions, a journalist and an analyst weigh up what's next for the affected nations. Greater Islamist rule is a distinct possibility but not necessarily a barrier to democracy.

A tank in central Tunis in January 2011, shortly after the Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali 
was overthrown in the uprising that set the Arab Spring in motion. Martin Bureau / AFP
A tank in central Tunis in January 2011, shortly after the Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown in the uprising that set the Arab Spring in motion. Martin Bureau / AFP

In the wake of regional revolutions, a journalist and an analyst weigh up what's next for the affected nations. Greater Islamist rule is a distinct possibility but not necessarily a barrier to democracy.

Rattling about in the midst of the Arab Spring were some common slogans that reverberated across the region’s revolutions and are still heard today. Satellite television, social media and mobile phones created an “Arab public sphere” that functioned as a sounding chamber for the uprisings that either toppled despots or initiated liberalising reforms. And, indeed, where those revolts succeeded, the first phase of the spring concluded with free parliamentary elections.

Yet as the British-Lebanese journalist Lin Noueihed and the long-time analyst Alex Warren confirm in their sweeping account of the uprisings and their aftermaths, the contests to seize the political high ground in these societies after the Arab Spring look very different from territory to territory.

Even though each nation will be grappling with multiple issues including the role of Islam, the nature of democracy and the revival of moribund economies, these struggles are likely to result in very different types of states. Whatever the outcome, they are not going to replicate the distinct brand of liberal democracy familiar to those in Europe and the West.

In Tunisia, there is a vibrant civil society composed of NGOs, trade unions and human rights and feminist groups that are waging stiff resistance to the first vote’s surprise big winners, Ennahda. The Islamist movement is itself unique to Tunisia, a progressive religious force that explicitly recognises women’s rights and secular law. In fact, its moderation has made it the target of hardline Salafists, who have come out of the woodwork since the Jasmine Revolution. Down the line, it might be moderate secularists and moderate Islamists who team up to keep extremists at bay and burnish a democratic model for other countries in the region.

Egypt, where the political influence of Islam is significantly more present and potent, is another story. Yet, according to the authors, it will not be the Muslim Brotherhood that presents the greatest impediment to democratic transition but rather the Egyptian military, which is still lurking in the shadows. The military “was an entrenched part of the atrophied economic and political system which the protesters had sought to remove. There is an inherent paradox in entrusting the armed forces with the task of supervising deep and enduring political, economic and social change that, if successful, would fundamentally downgrade its own power”.

And then there are Bahrain and Libya. On the Arabian Gulf island it’s not religion that divides its 1.2 million inhabitants but Sunni-Shi’ite fault lines. Libya, on the other hand, will be grappling with Qaddafi’s distinct legacy for years to come. The country is an amalgam of ethnic, regional and tribal groupings long divided by intense factionalism. Moreover, the country is awash in arms, enough to fuel a years-long civil war. “Any unbalanced system that fails to use oil revenues in a more efficient and balanced way ... will not last long,” predict Noueihed and Warren.

The Battle for the Arab Spring is lucidly written and includes a wealth of astute analysis on the politics of the region, from Morocco to Oman. It answers questions I had long wondered about, as well as others that hadn’t occurred to me.

Why, for example, did Islamist parties score so well in the first elections when they appeared so peripheral to the uprisings? For one, the Islamist parties, like the Brotherhood and Ennahda, have structures that long predate those of the upstart revolutionaries at the Arab Spring’s core. Moreover, even if banned, there were always the mosques to disseminate their message. Also, their vision of a just society was translated in the philanthropic work the Islamic community carried out where the state fell short in terms of public services and welfare. Lastly, the Islamists had a cash infusion from domestic and foreign sources that the secular activists couldn’t hope to match.

The authors also devote considerable attention to the effect and nature of Islam, although they pointedly reject the simplistic interpretation of Islamism as a monolithic and dominant factor crushing the democratic hopes of secularists (and because this is so explicit, one can only surmise that the publishers and not the authors opted for the inappropriate term “counter-revolution” in the book’s subtitle).

As for Islam, they underscore that a win for Islamist political parties does not automatically compute into a loss for democracy. The Islamists range from Ennahda, one of the first Islamist movements to endorse democracy, to extremists, such as the Salafists, who indeed strive to impose oppressive restrictions on state and society. Observers have to distinguish “between the radical and the moderate, the non-democratic and the democratic, the violent and the peaceful”, they argue.

But the democratic process, at least in terms of elections, is the order of the day and, once in power, those elected will have to confront the enormous problems at hand, such as economic malaise, massive youth unemployment and corruption. The scope of these blights will force them to compromise and cooperate, and, should the root problems persist, will eventually unseat them. “It is only by engaging with Islamist parties who win at the ballot box, and are the legitimate representatives of the voters, and by allowing them to be tainted by the same inevitable failures and criticism that afflict every government, that post-uprising countries like Tunisia and Egypt can move beyond religion as a deciding factor in politics.”

For those countries that have held elections, the next battleground is the forging of new constitutions. The authors point out that very few Arab states – unlike Turkey – have had fully secular constitutions. Moreover, the role defined for religion in the constitutions is just one marker to gauge what kind of societies these will be. Issues of minority rights, decentralisation, judicial independence, the separation of powers, limitations on security services, media freedom and others will serve as critical signposts.

The post-Arab Spring democracies in the region aren’t going to look like those in France and Germany, or even Turkey, and, argue the authors, to expect this is naive. Even in Tunisia, Ennahda’s conception of democracy is one bound together by the spiritual and cultural values of Islam. “It is unrealistic,” conclude the authors, “to expect Arab countries to establish in a single year the separation of politics and religion that took centuries in Europe.”

Nor do the post-Arab Spring countries have anything like the Marshall Plan that benefited post-war Europe or the guiding hand of the European Union that smoothed the way for post-communist Central Europe. This is all the more reason for the EU, among others, to lend them a helping hand without trying to prescribe in too fine a detail what they should do to deserve it.

Paul Hockenos is the author of Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic: An Alternative History of Postwar Germany.