The Arab Winter
An undeniable shift is taking place in the attitudes
of people in the Middle East
It seems like a lifetime when the flames of rebellion swept across North Africa and the Middle East. Erupting in Tunisia and quickly spreading to Egypt, mass movements for change spread to countries as diverse as Morocco, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, and Libya. Yet, only a couple of years down the road, this so-called ‘Arab Spring’ is fast turning into an ‘Arab winter’.
The swift counter-revolution in Egypt shows that the old power structures remain firmly in place. As I recently stood in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in view of military armored personnel carriers, it was difficult not to feel sorrow for what seems like a lost revolution. The Egyptian case is worth examining in some detail, since it is instructive in understanding the forces driving events across the region.
Regardless of one’s view of the Muslim Brotherhood or its performance during a short-lived one year in power, the fact is that its democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi was deposed by Egypt’s military. That many Egyptians still support this move, despite the violent crackdown by security forces
and a continuing state of emergency, shows just how polarized their society has become. This has re-ignited the debate between political Islam and secularism. The question remains as to what is the reality of these two seemingly opposing philosophies as they apply to the Middle East and indeed other Muslim societies?
With its roots in pan-Islamism and anti-colonialism, it was the revolutionary Egyptian Hassan al-Banna who first gave concrete shape to political Islam by forming the Ikhwan al-Muslimun, the Muslim Brotherhood, in 1928. With the organization’s fate hanging in the balance today, it is hard to miss history’s sense of irony. But the consequences are not just limited to Egypt. The failure of the Morsi government is being heralded by many as proof that political Islam is not viable, and even that Islam and democracy are incompatible.
This assertion needs to be scrutinized against historical evidence. It can be argued that the forces of political Islam have always been marginalized from mainstream politics and, as such, have never had the opportunity to govern. Decades of repression against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt from Nasser up to Mubarak are well-known.
In Algeria in 1991, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was kept away from power by the military despite winning at the polls. Subsequent repression against the FIS led to a prolonged civil war that tore the country apart. While the situation may not deteriorate to such an extent, there are genuine fears that Egypt may be heading down the same path after the killings in August.
It seems democracy is a desirable thing for the Middle East, but only if Islamists do not get power. This narrative, heightened by years of state repression against Islamist parties, with Western powers either actively encouraging it or looking the other way, has significantly contributed to the rise of extremist forces such as Al Qaeda.
In a broader historical context, both European and Ottoman colonialism ensured that the region’s population had no experience in political evolution. Compare this with Europe, where crucially there was no outside power bearing down to snuff out the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, the seeds for the eventual emergence of liberal democracy. Even worse, the postcolonial period in the Middle East was dominated by dictatorial regimes that only replaced foreign masters with local despots. In this environment, is it really surprising that political Islam ‘failed’?
Still, it is worth considering the other side of the argument because, after all, there is a history of secularism in the greater Middle East. The central character in this story is Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and how he brought modern Turkey into existence. The Turkish example is held up to show that secularization is the way to go for Muslim countries if they are to become modern and successful states. But this is an idealized version of history and glosses over uncomfortable realities.
For starters, in post-Ottoman Turkey, secularism did not emerge in response to popular will but was imposed by Ataturk in the1920s. And ever since then it has existed uncomfortably in a relatively conservative religious population, a feature much in common with other Muslim countries. The Turkish army has directly intervened more than once in the name of protecting secularism, in the process entrenching its outsized political and economic interests. A very similar story played out in Pakistan and Egypt during the second half of the twentieth century: a strong military dominating the state and supported by a self-proclaimed secular civilian elite. Other variations were the secular socialist Baath Party regimes in Iraq and Syria, and the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran.
One common thread runs through all these cases; rather than espousing the European ideal of separating state from religion, this kind of secularism sought to attack and bring Islam under the state’s control.
In the Turkish context, the emergence of the AKP under Erdogan shows that this particular vision of secularism is ultimately doomed in Muslim countries. Of course, the success of the AKP is so far an exception and Islamist parties in other countries urgently need to rethink their strategies to become more inclusive in newly emerging democratic frameworks.
The real point, though, is that the political Islam vs. secularism debate is a hollow one. It misrepresents the past, and sabotages the way forward for the Middle East. In his book ‘Islam and the Arab Awakening’ published last year, reviewing the events of the Arab Spring, noted scholar Tariq Ramadan says: “Having broken free from political dictatorship, they must free themselves from the intellectual straitjacket and the false divisions that prevent them from exploring new ways and new horizons together.”
Without real contemporary experience of political evolution, the way forward for countries in the Middle East will be a tough one. It also does not help that the region is still central to global geo-politics, as the ongoing tragedy of Syria demonstrates. Democratic principles and humanitarian concerns are absent in the calculations of global as well as regional players and sectarian fault lines are as entrenched as ever.
To predict even the immediate future would therefore be foolish. There is an undeniable shift taking place in the attitudes of Middle Eastern people, who are demanding a greater voice in how they are governed. Real change will likely be slow and staggered, as we are witnessing in Egypt. However, history shows that once political evolution begins, the status quo eventually yields. How long that will take is anyone’s guess.