Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1127, 20 - 26 December 2012
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1127, 20 - 26 December 2012

Ahram Weekly

The Arab Autumn

Two years after the Arab Spring revolutions brought down regimes across the Arab world, aspirations for freedom and the respect for human rights have given way to widespread tensions and uncertainty, writes Galal Nassar

Al-Ahram Weekly

“Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.” George Orwell

Egyptian and Arab citizens may well be perplexed as they ponder what has become known as the “Arab Spring”, particularly as they contemplate the upheavals that have taken place two years after the young Tunisian, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire and sparked off revolutions throughout the Arab world.
Bouazizi became an icon of the Tunisian revolution and the spark that ignited the Arab streets on 17 December 2010, crowning a long struggle by the people of the region against dictatorships across the Arab world.
When the people of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain and Syria took to the streets in the wake of Bouazizi’s death, they raised the banner of “bread, freedom and human dignity” and demanded the overthrow of regimes that had been in power for decades and had ruled with an iron fist. These were regimes that were involved in corruption, suppressed freedoms and tortured opponents, limiting their freedom of movement and preventing them from communicating with the masses.
As a result, not a single political party in the Arab world today has an authentic popular base, although some of them are linked to charismatic figures. The liberal current has a negligible popular base, for example, the left is splintered and plagued with ideological disputes, and the nationalist current is directly linked to the ideology and person of former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser. It too lacks connectivity, organisation and mechanisms for popular action.
The only exception to this rule is the political Islam current, which, despite its long struggle with the Arab regimes and the deals and agreements that have created an ebb and flow in relations with those in power, has succeeded in finding a popular following because of people’s natural religious tendencies. It has been able to build a popular base because it employs the language of the masses and religious rhetoric and because many Arab citizens prefer to escape from their daily problems and frustrations to a better life in paradise.
Such promises and visions of sin and reward have been further embedded through a broad network of mosques and representation in universities and unions, along with charities that provide healthcare and social services replacing those not provided by the state. This has been true in many Arab countries and notably in Egypt.
The day after the dictatorships were toppled in the Arab Spring, political Islamist groups came to the fore in moves to monopolise power and occupy the vacuum left by these regimes. The US dominated the transitional phases in the Arab countries and supported from behind the scenes a form of reform that would allow forces representing the grassroots — from the perspective of the Obama administration — to take control. Ironically, these same forces had historically represented a threat to US interests, and the US was engaged in gruesome battles with them in areas such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Yemen.
Washington began to make the transitional arrangements it wanted in Egypt, the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood, through the offices of former Armed Forces chief of staff Lieutenant-General Sami Anan. Anan acted as a bridge to the Muslim Brotherhood, and he worked to guarantee US support for the Brotherhood’s win in the parliamentary elections to both chambers of Egypt’s parliament. He also perhaps helped the Brotherhood on its way to the presidency, despite his own ambitions in that direction.
The US’s contradictory positions are rooted in its overall perspective on the Middle East, which in turn is part of the current US strategy. The US wants influential forces in the region to remain divided and distracted by domestic problems, especially if these evolve into armed confrontation. There is no movement more qualified than political Islam to execute this strategy because of its influence on the ground and its constant struggle with other forces in society.
There are also multiple forces within this current, including the Brotherhood, the Salafis and the jihadists, and each faction has its own leadership, structure and ideology that is at odds with the others over issues of religious jurisprudence and governance. However, all of them disagree with Al-Azhar, the main reference in Sunni Islam in Egypt and the Islamic world.
Reading reports issued by US think tanks close to decision-making circles, it is easy to conclude that Washington took the decision more than a decade ago that it could deal with the Islamist current in general and with the Brotherhood in particular if it came to power. This largely explains how quickly the US abandoned the former regimes during the Arab Spring, even though these same regimes had played a role in the former US strategy by combating the Islamist currents and delaying their rise. The US strategy also took Israel’s security into consideration and pledges by the alternative regimes to uphold the peace treaty with Israel, Washington’s ally.
In fact, the rise of political Islam, reviving the concept of an Islamic caliphate and applying Sharia law as a key component of US strategy, began after the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1989. This caused the formerly bipolar world order to collapse in which the US, acting as the “leader of the free world”, had sought to rival the USSR as the representative of communism. In 1989, unipolar world order emerged that was entirely dominated by the US.
It was not easy for a new sense of nationhood to emerge under the bipolar system, and this can be seen in the example of Sudan, where Islamist leader Hassan Al-Turabi, in power at the time, tried to establish an Islamic nation headquartered in Khartoum. Al-Turabi exerted a lot of efforts towards this end, most notably by inviting Muslim leaders from around the world to Khartoum in order to create a committee that would guide this emerging sense of Islamic nationhood.
Yet, Al-Turabi’s project failed because he misread the changes in the new world order that would not accept the creation of religious states governed by intolerant policies towards others or an Islamic nationhood that aspired to unite the Islamic countries under one leadership. Although the unipolar order dominated by the US still remains in place, since then there has been a gradual decline in US power because of its failure, or defeat, in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Regarding the regional Arab order, the most critical developments here have been the Arab Spring revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria. These revolutions did not surprise either the US or the EU, though both may have been surprised by the rapid ascension to power of the Islamist groups. In Tunisia, the Islamist Al-Nahda Party led by Rachid Al-Ghannouchi won the elections to the country’s constituent assembly, and in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood in alliance with the Salafist Nour Party won a majority in Egypt’s upper and lower houses of parliament. The Brotherhood was surprised by its landslide victory against liberal and leftist forces in these elections, as well as by the eventual victory of its presidential candidate, the leader of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP).
Despite such surprises, however, it is certain that US decision-makers before the Arab Spring revolutions had a detailed understanding of the Islamist currents and that the US supported several youth groups in the Arab world to undermine the former Arab regimes when necessary. These included youth groups belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups. A 2003 study by the US RAND Corporation, entitled “Civil Democratic Islam: Partners, Resources and Strategies”, mapped out a detailed picture of the Islamist currents and called for support and training of moderate Islamists in the Arab world.
The study also proposed a strategy to prepare Arab society for the ascension of the Islamists to power, paving the way for US decision-makers to deal with them if they reached power through coups d’état or elections. The question remains of what role is being played by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt now that Mohamed Morsi has become the country’s president.
Brotherhood leaders, notably the group’s Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie, have made “historic” statements by saying that after the FJP won a parliamentary majority “it seems that the dream of Sheikh Hassan Al-Banna [the group’s founder] of restoring the Islamic caliphate is near.” In a few words, Badie thus outlined the path of the Brotherhood, and this is helpful when seeking to understand the group’s actions and disputes with other forces, even those also belonging to political Islam.
Al-Banna’s aim was to set up an Islamic caliphate, and anyone who did not follow him in this he considered to be lacking in faith, an opinion similar to that later entertained by Al-Turabi. As a result, the Egyptian, Tunisian, Yemeni, Syrian and Libyan springs have flouted the expectations and aspirations of those who went out two years ago to seize freedom, break the shackles on public debate and demand human rights. These aspirations clash with the archaic religious rhetoric of the Brotherhood, which has not evolved.
The Islamist groups have tried to claim that they want to bring about societies modelled on more advanced countries, such as Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia, but they have forgotten that these models were not frozen in time in the Middle Ages. Rather, their success has been due to their having linked 14 centuries of human experience and the development of the state and governance to the original insights of Islam. In our region, religious rhetoric unfortunately lacks this accumulated human heritage and is at odds with the international and regional environment, as well as with the majority of the Arab peoples, who also aspire to different progressive models.
In order to achieve the Islamist project, these groups have targeted all institutions that are at odds with it under the pretext of purging them and achieving the original goals of the revolution. The blood of the martyrs in Tahrir Square has been used to justify such measures. The clashes that have taken place with the judiciary, media, army, police and many other agencies and institutions have ignored the importance of national reconciliation and the character of transitional phases after major revolutions. If under normal circumstances the judiciary is the cornerstone of democracy, then the country needs it even more during transitional periods when the rule of law can falter.
During the London blitz during World War II, the British prime minister, Winston Churchill, wanted to know whether the country’s courts were functioning. He was told that they were, and he responded that in that case all was well with the country. Difficult times require the implementation of systems of transitional justice that can uncover the truth of what has occurred and guarantee accountability. This should not be in a spirit of lawlessness or revenge, but with the intention of reversing damage, compensating victims, laying the foundations for rebuilding, and reforming legal and security systems, with a view to preventing any repetition of violations or abuses. Any talk of safeguarding and respecting human rights in the absence of an independent judiciary is nothing more than sophistry and propaganda.
What has happened in Egypt, where there have been attempts to limit public freedoms and impose constitutional declarations that shield one individual and the president’s decisions, as well as threaten the media and the press, is part of the main goal of political Islam, as led by the Muslim Brotherhood. The objective is to write a permanent constitution that will bring about Al-Banna’s dream and apply the directives of Badie — an Islamic caliphate that will apply God’s laws as the Brotherhood interprets them.
The present battle over the draft constitution is the moment that the Brotherhood has revealed its true face, and it is continuous with the deals it made with the former ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the US and any other currents that might support it. It was also expressed during crucial milestones of the revolution, such as the 19 March referendum, the parliamentary elections, and the struggles to overthrow the governments of former prime ministers Essam Sharaf and Kamal Al-Ganzouri.
To some extent the Brotherhood’s overriding aim also defined its position regarding the clashes in Mohamed Mahmoud Street in Cairo, the confrontations at the cabinet headquarters, the battles with the other political forces, and the clashes with various courts about the formation of the Constituent Assembly and the Brotherhood’s attempts to ensure that this had an automatic Islamist majority.
This is what has led us to where we are now and the bloody confrontations that have divided the Egyptian people. It complies with the aforementioned US strategy, which is to support a group that has a popular base and distract it with constant internal disputes with other forces in society. This has been accompanied by political, financial and media support to guarantee the continuity of such clashes until such a time that the masses are able to change the situation.
It is no secret that two years on, the Arab Spring revolutions are facing colossal challenges, especially after the ballot box put political Islamist currents in power. Will these currents be able to overcome their totalitarian leanings, adopt democracy, and find their way towards a comprehensive reform process that goes beyond the ballot boxes? Or will the desire to monopolise political power and keep a grip on authority continue to be their priority, after their long years of exclusion and repression?
Such are the questions that now confront Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya, Syria and all the other countries touched by the winds of the Arab Spring.

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