Has the Arab spring run off course?
Nov 13, 2012
By Shafey Danish (JasolaTimes.Com)
Nearly two years from the day that Mohammad Bouazizi set himself on fire in a Tunisian town, the great political uprising called the Arab Spring has changed the face of the region beyond recognition. While fight against dictatorships go on in many of the nations of the region, there new governments in three of the key countries of the region - Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya - there are strong opposition movements in the rest.
This, undoubtedly is a great win for democracy and liberty, and seemingly a fulfilment of what the West has always wanted for the region. The dictatorships are down, and democracy is sweeping across the region. Yet, there is already talk of the Arab Spring giving way to Islamist winter.
What has gone wrong?
In Tunisia the new government headed by the Ennahda is looked upon with suspicion. There are fears that it might try to impose Sharia law, and roll back the ‘freedoms’ that women of the country have come to enjoy. Some see the move to recompense those who had suffered at the hands of the earlier regime headed by Zine El Abidine Ben Ali – overwhelming belonging to Ennahda itself – as a way for the party to reward its followers and enrich itself. All of this means that protester are back on the streets and the government is having to resort to some of the same tactics that the earlier government used against itself.
In Egypt, the delay by the government headed by President Mohammad Morsi in condemning the attack on the US embassy in Cairo, was seen as proof of mala fide intentions. US President Barack Obama had to place a terse call to the President before he issued a statement condemning the violence. Later Obama not only refused to call Egypt an ‘ally’ but the White House rebuffed attempts by the Egyptian President to get a meeting.
The worst events were reserved for Libya which remains essentially lawless. Some militias decided that killing the US ambassador was the right thing to do, and went out and killed him.
No wonder then, that the Western press, especially the US media has been talking up the Islamist winter. Though events like the attack on the US embassy in Benghazi are cause for concern, that does not diminish the magnitude of the transformation in the Middle East. A revolution is a rare event in history. One that is led by the masses is rarer still. How many of these do we know of? There have been communist party led ‘revolutions’ in Russia, China, and many other countries that went on to create communist dictatorships, often with brutal consequences for the people. There was the American War of Independence, still hailed as a fountainhead of revolutionary ideology, though it was hardly a peoples revolution, and then there was the French revolution, a genuinely peoples revolution but then we know what followed after. Bloodshed and anarchy overtook the revolution, and soon brought Napoleon Bonaparte to power. Despite the grand failure that it was, the French revolution is still remembered as the revolution.
A signal event in which the people rose up against their despotic masters and succeeded in overthrowing them. In western history the event glows with hope for all teeming oppressed millions. It says that it is possible to defeat great odds and topple despots.
Compare all these earlier revolutions to what is happening in the Middle East today. While all these earlier revolutions were isolated events – the revolution in France did not spread to its neighbouring countries – the Arab Spring has shaken up the entire region. Not one but three despotic regimes have already fallen. These were followed not by dictatorships or despotic one party rule but by genuine democracies in which the people voted the next government to power.
Unlike the French revolution these have not led to bloodshed and chaos, and though the regimes have tried every trick in the book, from persuasion to intimidation to all out war, they have failed to quell the tide of protests. In the face of deaths in the hundreds every day, the people of these nations have stood steadfast, and have succeeded in overthrowing their regimes.
There is no parallel for anything like this in all of history.
That said, of course there are problems. Parties like the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been in the opposition for its entire existence, which has never wielded power, are now in power, and they are going through a period of adjustment, as the delay in the response to the attack on the US embassy showed.
For the countries themselves, democracy is a new chapter, and the entire nation is having to readjust as the continuing protests signify. There is a disjuncture between the realities of politics and the expectations of the people, they expect sweeping changes. Politics dictate a more gradual approach, especially since there is so much internal division. The Islamists want one thing, the secular parties want another, and the parties in power, generally liberal Islamists, have to walk a fine line to balance.
Change will take time, but at the very least, if the people do not like the government or its policies, in the next election they would be able to boot it out. That itself is a huge achievement.
And let it also be said that some of the fears of a Islamist winter are nothing but fear mongering. The West said it wanted democracy for the region, now there is democracy, and it has put Islamists in power, and the West does not like this. What did it think? That in a largely Muslim nation, secular parties will come to power? That in a region where American support for Israeli aggression has poisoned whatever goodwill it had, democratic parties would be as amenable as the dictators, who could simply ignore the people? One of the costs of democracy is that parties have to heed people’s wishes, even if symbolically, and that means maintaining America at arm’s length.
From the time when the popular thinking said that democracy was alien to the Arab nations, and a strong dictatorship was the best bet and the most suitable for these countries, the West has had to readjust its views in the face of this passionate thirst for liberation and democracy.
It was difficult, in those earlier months, to criticize a revolution that so nicely aligned with the best ideals of the West itself. Now, that phase is past. It becomes clear that while democracy might be the best thing for the Arab nations it is not the best thing for US interests. Hence the change in line, and hence the fear mongering. Yet, the criticism is short sighted. These governments and their tilt towards Islam is not going to go away, even if some other party were in power in Tunisia and Egypt.
In Libya a liberal party has won but it too is in certain ways, an Islamist government. So would be any that replaces the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or Ennahda in Tunisia. Because that is what the people want. The West has better readjust to the new reality and treat their leaders with respect and not with suspicion. The days when it could dictate Egyptian foreign policy is over, and the US has best adjust to it.