Al-Ahram Weekly Online   7 - 13 June 2012
Issue No. 1101
Focus
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A view from abroad

While the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring were welcomed by many Europeans, the recent Islamist election victories in the Arab world have been greeted with sometimes growing concerns, writes David Tresilian

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From Egypt's Tahrir Square and other Arab Spring countries Islamists emerged as part of the more obvious political landscape, raising European, and other concerns about the spread of Islamist ideology

When the popular uprisings against the incumbent regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria began some 16 months ago, they were generally greeted with enthusiastic support by European observers.

After the Tunisian regime collapsed on 14 January with the flight of former president Zein Al-Abidine bin Ali, swiftly followed by the ousting of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak after weeks of demonstrations on 11 February, commentators in the European media were generally quick to approve the changes, dubbing them the beginning of an "Arab Spring" and of a wave of democratisation in the Arab world.

Few will have forgotten the delight that seemed to fill observers as the news came through from Tunisia in early January that the country's security forces had apparently refused to support the incumbent regime in its battles with the protesters, leading to the regime's collapse and the establishment of a transitional government.

Few will have forgotten, either, the extraordinary bravery and determination shown by Egypt's young protesters in their battles with the country's security forces in Tahrir Square in Cairo, or the way in which they were eventually able to force the resignation of former president Hosni Mubarak and the beginning of a democratisation process that has thus far led to the country's first free-and-fair parliamentary and presidential elections.

As the world looked on, it seemed as if the countries of the Arab world, living under dictatorial or one-party rule for much of the last 50 years, were at last on their way to entering the international mainstream. It looked as if they could soon be joining the countries of eastern Europe, freed from Soviet domination after 1989, and Latin America, largely democratised in the 1990s after decades of military rule, on the path towards democratic transition.

Identified as "person of the year" by the British newspaper the Financial Times in its end-of-year edition in December last year, the revolutionary young people of the Arab world, particularly those who had led the uprisings that had overturned the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes, had "defied the clichés and clampdowns to fracture an adamantine order".

"As youths poured onto the streets in a largely peaceful human wave of fury and bravery, defying tanks and bullets and ignoring the torture they might suffer at the hands of brutal police, they demonstrated that they were no different from their Western peers, aspiring to embrace the same values of freedom and democracy," the newspaper said, echoing the opinions of many.

However, almost immediately more sceptical voices began to be heard, threatening the security of the original narratives. These voices suggested that, while popular uprisings had indeed taken place and regimes had fallen, it was still too early to tell whether these in themselves had led to democratic revolutions.

Events in the Arab world itself were also beginning to call the early optimism into question, with civil conflict and NATO intervention in Libya, followed, above all, by the ongoing conflict in Syria, perhaps suggesting that democratic transition in these countries at least would only come about as a result of force of arms and was very far from being something that could be simply taken for granted.

A year and a half after the beginning of the Arab Spring, it has almost begun to seem for many, their eyes fixed on the crisis in Syria and rising tensions in the Middle East, that early hopes of widespread and positive change in the region may almost have been misplaced and increasing polarisation may lie ahead instead.

For European observers, such fears have focused not so much on the possibility that the uprisings in the Arab world may not be fulfilling their democratic potential, though there has been regret that the Tunisian and Egyptian examples of relatively peaceful and swift-moving change have proved more difficult to emulate in Libya and Syria, as on the character of the democratically elected successor regimes.

It is feared that these regimes, dominated by Islamist political parties in Tunisia and Egypt and possibly also in Libya, may now pass legislation threatening women's and minority rights and potentially also alter their relations with the European Union countries and Israel.

WOMEN AND MINORITY RIGHTS: For what may be quite substantial sections of the European public, and possibly also for some of the continent's commentators, Islamism in general has long been synonymous with threats to women's rights and to the rights of religious or other minorities.

This being so, the European media has been much concerned about what the recent electoral victories of Islamist political parties in Tunisia and Egypt may mean for Tunisian and Egyptian women and for freedom of expression, notably for these countries' minorities.

A long article that appeared in the French newspaper Le Monde on 9 March this year described fears among women in Tunisia and Morocco that the revolution in Tunisia and the coming to power of an Islamist government in Morocco, part of the ongoing democratisation efforts in the latter country, may be threatening a "return to backwardness" as far as women's rights are concerned.

Tunisia has long had a legal code that guarantees equality between the sexes, notably as far as family law is concerned. It was introduced under the rule of former Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba, a noted secularist, in the 1950s following the end of French colonial rule, and it sets the marital age for men and women at 18, makes polygamy a criminal offence, and includes a legal procedure for divorce by mutual consent.

However, according to Tunisian women cited in the article, the appearance of Salafist currents in Tunisia after last year's revolution and the support that these may have received from the ruling Islamist Al-Nahda Party have led to "subjects being re-opened for debate that we thought had been settled long ago," among them women's dress, their right to work, their presence in public life, and their right to education.

One flashpoint has concerned the wearing of the niqab, or full face veil, by women in public schools and universities, something which is forbidden by law in Tunisia along with other some other Arab countries. Since the beginning of this year, disturbances at Manouba University in Tunis have targeted the classes of teachers applying the law on the wearing of the niqab.

According to Amel Jaidi, quoted in the article, who teaches in the Faculty of Literature at Manouba University, she and other colleagues have been physically attacked on campus by Salafists who have described them as "remnants of French rule" and therefore as not authentically Tunisian. For the moment, the attacks have been designed to intimidate rather than physically to hurt, Jaidi said, but they were none the less serious for all that.

Salafist groups in popular districts of Tunis have been intimidating young women wanting to go out to work into wearing the Islamic headscarf or veil, she said, though these had not yet spread to middle-class areas. However, the Al-Nahda Party in power "wants to raise the question of the status of women," taking away certain rights acquired under Bourguiba.

"Of course, they [Al-Nahda] said during the elections that they would not touch the personal status laws in order to reassure the voters," Jaidi said, referring to the laws on marriage, divorce and other matters. "But now that they are in power they don't bother to say that anymore," raising the possibility of a potential double discourse, partly designed for secularists and foreign audiences and partly designed for Al-Nahda's own supporters.

Le Monde has not been alone among European newspapers in its focus on gender issues in the wake of Islamist election victories in the Arab world. The British news magazine The Economist also published what it called a "briefing on women and the Arab awakening" last October, claiming that Tunisian and Egyptian women were fearful for their rights in the wake of the Arab uprisings.

Quoting various Egyptian and Tunisian women activists, the article said that Tunisian women in particular were worried about what Le Monde had identified as a possible double discourse on women and women's rights. While Rachid Ghannouchi, the historic leader of Tunisia's Al-Nahda Party, had "pledged that his party will 'defend the gains' that Tunisian women have made and has stated publicly that women's rights cannot be touched," there have been fears, the article said, that "this sort of remark is mere pandering to moderates and the West."

Moreover, while Europe's media have perhaps focused most on possible threats to women's rights in the wake of the Islamist election victories, they have not neglected the rights of religious and other minorities either. According to the Financial Times in its supplement on the "New Egypt" that appeared in December last year, "many Egyptian Christians are terrified" by the prospect of Islamist rule, "wondering how their community will fare under the rule of the Islamists, some of whom vow to impose strict religious law on the country."

Egyptian Christians "fear that the type of identity politics unleashed by the revolution will worsen discrimination and deepen the rift between the two communities," namely Egypt's Christians and Muslims, the newspaper said.

ISLAMISTS AT THE ELECTIONS: While the extent of European coverage of the success of Islamist political parties in the elections has been striking, it has tended to concentrate on certain themes, women's and minority rights among them, without necessarily informing audiences about ongoing social debates in the Arab world after the Arab Spring.

Struggles for labour rights, for example, or the modification or reversal of Mubarak or Bin Ali-era privatisations, have tended to be passed over by a coverage of events that sees things through a Western lens.

While the extent of the political coverage will not necessarily have come as a surprise as far as the French media are concerned, given the historical, cultural and geographical ties that link France and North Africa and the large population of French citizens of Tunisian, Moroccan or Algerian origin, it has perhaps been more striking with regard to the British media, generally more insular and less interested in what is going on in the non-English-speaking world.

However, even here the legislative and presidential elections in Egypt and the elections to the constituent assembly in Tunisia have been reported on in often impressive detail, testifying to intense and ongoing European interest in the contemporary politics of the Arab world.

Though it was possible to search the mainstream English-language and even French-language media without much success for detailed reporting on the recent elections in Algeria, let alone the actions of the Islamist government in Morocco, it has been possible to read accounts of the electoral positions of the candidates in the Egyptian presidential elections and detailed analysis of the results in most higher-quality European papers.

However, perhaps at least in part this interest in the politics of the Arab countries shown by the European media since last year's Arab Spring has come about because of fears of the direction in which that politics may now be moving, reflecting characteristically European concerns. According to an opinion piece in the Financial Times in May last year, "talk to Western officials about the uprisings in the Arab world, [and] you are likely to hear two contradictory views advanced, sometimes by the same person."

"The first is that the Arab Spring isê 'the best thing that has ever happened in my lifetime in the Arab world.' The second is that this is the most dangerous moment in the Arab world in decades."

Such worries have perhaps been most striking in France, where Islamism and Political Islam have often tended to be identified with extremism and even violence. As a result, media discourse on the success of Islamist political parties at the polls in Egypt and Tunisia has tended to overlap with domestic stories on the supposed "takeover" of parts of France itself by groups promoting Islamist ideas.

Such stories have had popular and less-popular versions, written for different audiences with different ends in view. But is has been hard to ignore the number of such stories in the French press, notably in the run-up to the recent French presidential elections, in which one of the candidates, the extreme-right Front National candidate Marine Le Pen, warned of what she called the "Islamisation" of France. This would come about, she said, as a result of the supposed spread, notably in the deprived suburbs surrounding the large French cities, of Islamist ideas.

Aside from a steady stream of stories in the popular press about the supposed boycotting of fast-food restaurants in certain Muslim-majority areas not serving halal meat, there have been others reporting, with greater or lesser degrees of drama or responsibility, on the "intensification" of Muslim religious practices and forms of identification particularly among young people of North African origin in deprived areas. This has perhaps led some of them to feel alienated from French society and to seek their primary form of belonging elsewhere, the articles have said.

The discussion that took place in the French press of political scientist Gilles Kepel's recent book Quatre-vingt-treize ("Ninety-Three," the name of an administrative district outside Paris), for example, reviewed in the Weekly on 8 March, concentrated on such possibilities. In its account of the book and the debate to which it had given rise, Le Monde commented that following the widespread riots that took place in many deprived areas of France in 2005, drawing international attention to the country's social problems, a religiously based form of identity linked to Islam could be replacing an identity based on common French or European citizenship for many young people.

In his book, Kepel speculated that for French young people of North African origin who had been poorly served by the country's rigid education system and had few opportunities on the shrinking job market Islam could represent a more attractive "reference point" than the official values of the French state, these having done little for them in terms of employment or life chances.

Whereas religion could act as a powerful source of identity, secularism, identified with the French establishment, had "nothing to do with everyday life, was not seen as something leading to a better future and was held to be something imposed from outside," Kepel told Le Monde in an interview last October. Unlike Islam, perceived as a value system giving rise to self-respect and meaningful, structured lives, secularism was "probably associated with [French] republican discourse and therefore with a whole set of broken promises."

A widely discussed recent film, La Désintégration (Disintegration) by French director Philippe Faucon, has also gone some way towards dramatising French fears of growing disaffection among such young people, even leading them, in the scenario presented in the film, to join armed Islamist groups and carry out acts of terrorism.

Such a scenario was given additional salience earlier this year when Mohammed Merah, a French young man of Algerian origin, shot dead three French soldiers and three children attending a Jewish school together with their teacher in the southern French city of Toulouse, apparently having been indoctrinated by terrorism.

According to Kepel, interviewed in the French cultural magazine Télérama in April this year, Merah's actions, though the isolated acts of a fanatic, had a larger meaning for French society as a whole, since they indicated that the latter "had not been able to integrate, either socially or culturally, a young man belonging to the 15-24-year-old age group living in a deprived urban area." Since the 2005 riots, Kepel said, "a Salafist movement has developed in France, which is still a minority and is mostly non-violent, but that promotes a complete cultural break with France."

"In Salafist eyes, other people are not human beings. They are infidels, or koffar, in Arabic," Kepel said, the implication being that perhaps this kind of thinking could have explained Merah's actions.

ISLAMOPHOBIA: While naturally not true of all French media, there have nevertheless been signs that the reporting of the Islamist election victories in the Arab world may also have overlapped with that of other phenomena that are both geographically and logically distinct, including the rise of Islamophobia in Europe.

The striking increases in the share of the vote gained by extreme-right parties in European elections, perhaps most notably in the first round of the French presidential elections in April, in which the extreme-right Front National gained 17.9 per cent of the vote, may be a symptom of growing European Islamophobia since these parties tend to have an explicitly anti-Muslim platform.

In a long article that appeared in Le Monde on 26 May this year, it was noted that these parties, strong in France, the Netherlands, Austria and elsewhere, have tended "to reject the xenophobia, racism and anti-Semitism" classically associated with the extreme right in Europe, in favour of a common "battle against Muslim immigration" into Europe and warnings of the alleged Islamisation of the continent as a whole.

Whatever the local differences between the extreme-right parties, some of them favouring what the paper described as "social nationalism," in the case of France's Front National, and others a kind of "popularist liberalism," in the case of Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, all were "agreed on one point, which was virulent criticism of Islam and of multiculturalism." Such criticisms were especially clear in the case of the Party for Freedom, the paper said, "which considers Islam to be a kind of 'fascist ideology' and one that is homophobic and profoundly sexist" with regard to women.

According to the article, Carl Hagen, leader of the Norwegian Progress Party, had described Muslims as having "said what they have to say as clearly as Hitler did, their aim being to Islamise the whole world," starting with Europe. According to the European extreme-right parties, marginal, but sometimes gaining significant proportions of the popular vote, notably in France and the Netherlands, "Islam is a threat to Europeê and the European Union will soon be taken over by an expansionist Arab world as a result of massive immigration encouraged by a multiculturalist elite" in the countries concerned.

The responsibility of Europe's intellectuals was directly engaged here, the paper said, since while Islamophobic ideas have generally had an incoherent or vulgar provenance, as they had in the case of the Islamophobia argued for by the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik, who killed nearly one hundred young people in Norway last year apparently in protest at the country's multiculturalism, writers who should know better than to spread ignorant and prejudiced ideas have sometimes done so, with what may be serious and as yet unknown consequences.

For the time being, while the initial welcome given to the uprisings of the Arab Spring and the admiration evinced in many parts of Europe for the determination and sacrifice of the young revolutionaries who helped to bring it about have perhaps now passed into history, the new reality in the Arab world that they have ushered in has become "part of the accepted political landscape," as one observer put it.

Europeans have been fascinated by the changes taking place in the Arab countries for a variety of reasons, some good and others less so, with some of that fascination, at least, being generated by domestic concerns, notably regarding the spread of Islamist ideology, or even extremist views, among sections of the European population.

How far the European countries are able to reset their foreign policies with respect to the changed political realities in the Arab region, moving away for good from their historical support for dictatorial and police regimes, will be a test of Europe's sincerity and good intentions over the years to come.

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