One-and-a-half years after the start of the Arab Spring, Islamists have taken power in some countries, Gulf rulers are suppressing dissent with cash and Syria is descending into civil war. The Arab revolutions are at a turning point, but the horrors unleashed by Damascus could inspire moderation elsewhere.
The rebels advanced into the center of Damascus, even into the garage of the Palace of Justice and a Republican Guard base next to the presidential palace. Syria and Turkey moved tanks and batteries of antiaircraft guns into position, as they faced off on both sides of the country’s northern border. “We are at war,” Syrian President Bashar Assad said last Tuesday, when he met with his newly appointed cabinet.
In Cairo, newly elected President Mohammed Morsi made it clear that he attached no importance to his portrait being hung in Egyptian government offices in the future. The Egyptian stock index rose by 7.6 percent on the day after the election results were announced. It was the biggest gain in nine years.
A court in the Tunisian city of Monastir upheld a ruling against bloggers Jabeur Mejri and Ghazi Béji, who had been sentenced to seven years in prison for “transgressing morality, defamation and disrupting public order.” They had published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad on their Facebook pages.
A year and a half after the Tunisian street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi took his life and the torpor of Arab despotism was interrupted, the optimistic visions of the future generated in those first few months are now obsolete. The leaders of four nations, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, have been driven out, sentenced or killed. A fifth Arab leader, Syrian President Bashar Assad, appears to be fighting a losing battle for survival.
Hopes and Fears
The hope that the Arab world would become democratic as quickly as Eastern Europe did 20 years ago has not been fulfilled. But fears that the countries of North Africa and the Middle East — from Morocco in the west to Oman in the east — would sink into chaos one after another have also not materialized.
Instead, the picture is more confusing than ever. In Damascus and Aleppo, a secular bourgeoisie — the same class that supported the uprisings elsewhere — fears the consequences if Assad is overthrown. The royal family that rules neighboring Jordan behaves as if it were unaffected by the general turmoil. Yemen, a tribal country that ousted its longstanding president, is being praised as a model of a peaceful transition, even though al-Qaida sometimes controls entire provinces. And in Tunisia, the land of the Jasmine Revolution, cinemas are being destroyed and brothels burned to the ground.
As confusing as the events may seem at first glance, there are some recognizable patterns. After experiencing a political earthquake, the Islamic Middle East can be divided roughly into three seismological zones. First there are the “emergency zones” — Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen — countries that have already survived the initial shocks and are now trying to rebuild. The people in these countries want to reorganize themselves and find stability with whatever elements of society that are still functional, even if it’s the military.
The second zone contains the “unshakable countries” — the seemingly stable regimes in Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf monarchies, Morocco and Jordan. This is the zone of the reactionaries, who are attempting to solidify their positions with money, repression and cosmetic reforms.
Then there is the zone of the “traumatized.” It includes countries like Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon and, on the fringe of events, Iran and Sudan — countries that have already looked into the abyss of civil war in their recent history and which now prefer to take a cautious approach.
The Rise of Islamism
Among the countries of the first category, Tunisia has come relatively far. The country has an elected parliament, a government dominated by the Islamist Ennahda party, a secular president and an army that is monitoring the transition process without forcing its way into the foreground.
Ironically, it is precisely in Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, that it’s becoming clear that political freedom is not necessarily accompanied by cultural freedom.
Tunisia was always the most westernized of the Arab countries, a tough bastion against the underlying Islamist current of more recent Arab history.
Only a few days after the overthrow of Ben Ali, self-appointed morality police turned up in the Tunis red-light district, where they threw Molotov cocktails into the brothels and threatened the women. Two weeks ago, a group of Salafists stormed an exhibition called “Spring of the Arts.” The rampage was triggered by a picture in which ants formed the words “Praise to God.”
Competing Institutions in Egypt
In Egypt, which followed in Tunisia’s footsteps, political Islam emerged strengthened from a revolution in which it played no part, at least at the beginning. The Muslim Brotherhood and the radical Salafists won the country’s first free parliamentary election with an overwhelming majority. Their extremist representatives made a claim that, if fulfilled, would transform the country into an Islamic republic: the unconditional introduction of Sharia, or Islamic criminal and civil law.
However, the clean sweep by the Islamists is being checked by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and by judges appointed by former President Mubarak. The constitutional court, in a decision that was politically controversial but formally correct, declared the parliamentary election to be invalid, and the military council curtailed the authority of the president even before the Muslim Brotherhood’s Morsi came into office.
Nevertheless, the army did not risk an open coup, which would have entailed installing Morsi’s secular rival as president, as most Middle East experts had expected. And Morsi himself, since his election win, has attracted attention with the sort of moderate rhetoric that hardly anyone had expected from him. Last week, Morsi said that he intended to abide by all international treaties, including Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, and that he planned to appoint a woman or a Christian to be his deputy. He also categorically denied giving an interview in which he had allegedly advocated strengthening ties with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Egypt is seeing a struggle among institutions that could very cautiously be described as an Egyptian take on the concept of checks and balances, a situation in which constitutional entities can limit each others’ power.
Thirst for Democracy in Libya
Former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi did not leave behind even the beginnings of a workable state. On Saturday, the country plans to hold elections for a constitutional assembly, which will appoint a new interim government and a panel charged with drafting a new constitution. The vote has already been postponed once. But the country hasn’t had any political parties in 40 years.
The Libyans are apparently determined to have democracy. Some 80 percent of eligible voters have registered, 2,500 direct candidates are running, as are 1,200 representatives of more than140 parties that were virtually established overnight. They are competing for 200 seats in a quasi-parliament that will be elected for 18 months and will have two goals: to appoint a prime minister and a 60-member constitutional commission. It would seem to be a good start, at first glance.
But a closer look reveals some troubling aspects. In a poll conducted by the University of Oxford, a third of Libyans surveyed said that they would prefer to be ruled by a strongman. Many of the individual candidates are wealthy businesspeople, while others are front men for parties, including many representing the Muslim Brotherhood, which is also seen as a strong and well-organized force in Libya.
Memories of War
As much as Lebanon, Sudan and even Iran differ from Algeria and Iraq, their populations look back on similar traumas. Hardly a family in Beirut, the South Sudanese capital Juba or Tehran hasn’t lost at least one member in violent conflicts during recent decades, including the Lebanese civil war (1975 to 1990), the unrest in Sudan (1983 to 2005) or the Iraq-Iran war, which erupted shortly after the Iranian revolution.
The trauma of violence that pervades the more recent history of the Middle East will shape the future of the revolution, even more so than the question of the legitimacy of its rulers and all the money they may choose to distribute.
How do the oppressed react to violence? For decades, the people of the region succumbed to violence. If they hadn’t, the dictators wouldn’t have stayed in power for so long. But eventually a point was reached, in every conflict in the region, at which fear changed sides, and at which the effect of violence was reversed. Instead of producing subjugation, it triggered revolt. It happened under the shah of Iran in 1978, in Tunisia in 2011 — and now it is happening in Syria.
Those in power often fail to recognize this and are convinced that all they have to do is increase the dose. But the balance between fear and fury is the critical factor. If there is little fear, perhaps because the last violent excesses happened generations ago, the spark of revolution takes hold more easily. But if the experience of horror is more recent in a population’s memory, it is more likely to hesitate, as is the case in both Algeria and Iraq.
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