In the second of a two part series, Eamon Lahrach looks at the future of the Arab Spring, and the Islamist movements that are seeking to shape it. Part 1 here.
Of course, the revolution in Egypt is far from over. Since the resignation of President Mubarak, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces inherited executive powers after promising to honour the revolution and lead the country into democracy. Mubarak’s downfall would also become a splitting point for the revolutionaries. Now that the old regime was overthrown, there remained a power vacuum, with all sections of Egyptian society gazing hungrily at the opportunity to implement their version of Egypt. With no doubt, the Muslim Brotherhood jumped at the bone thrown to them. Forming an official party, it took part in the political process and finally achieved what it had been aspiring for 82 years for. Winning most seats in parliament, it proclaimed to the world that it does have a legitimate place in Egyptian politics. In the West, this new wave of ‘Political Islam’ is taken with extreme caution. Before the Arab Spring, the only known models of Islamic states since the 20th Century were Saudi Arabia, Iran and Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia’s royal family gathers its legitimacy from its religious establishment; an ultraconservative implementation of Islamic law. The monarchy’s tool uses religion to justify the continued rule of the family i.e. if sharia is employed then any act of revolt is considered sinful. Western coverage of the Kingdom usually relays the oppression of its female citizens and so, as Saudi Arabia is supposedly ruled under sharia law, the opinion in the West is that Islamic rule is backward and only brings about regression while justifying itself with holy texts. In Iran, power is directly in control of clerics. The Supreme Leader himself is unelected and more powerful than the President and uses democracy as a guise for his continued rule. From this, the West would react to Islamic rule as not only repressive of basic human rights but also undemocratic and authoritarian. And of course, this negative stereotype would continue to be fuelled after the example of Taliban in Afghanistan. Images of the burka on television only serve to reinvigorate the anti-Islamist forces in the West.
A serious debate needs to be held about the new wave of political Islam emerging in post-revolutionary countries. A recent quote by Tony Blair compared the revolutions in the Middle East to the fall of the Berlin wall but with a major difference. While the Eastern Europeans looked beyond the wall with a united view, in the Middle East there are two different emerging views; one secular and one religious. One of the reasons the United States will be watching the Egyptian elections carefully is for how it will need to re-shape its Middle Eastern security agenda. Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel serves as the backbone of America’s policy in the region. Islamic forces in the Arab world are known for their hostility towards the State of Israel. Muslim Brotherhood man Mohamed Morsi’s victory in the Egyptian elections means that Washington will have to re-evaluate its approach with Egypt. It’s no secret the Muslim Brotherhood is very sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and has strong links with its Palestinian offshoot, Hamas.
However, the Brotherhood have made it clear that their primary objective is to carry out the goals of the revolution, which include improving the lives of normal Egyptian citizens, curbing corruption and improving the already weak economy. It is evident that the bulk of civil disobedience stemmed from poverty-stricken lifestyles that most of the 80 million Egyptians live through. This explains why a popular slogan in the Egyptian revolution was “bread, dignity, and social justice.” The Brotherhood has also noted it would respect the Israel-Egypt peace treaty in a bid to reassure western governments that it is much more pragmatic and diplomatic than what it appears to be. After the recent victory of Brotherhood candidate Mohammad Morsi in Egypt’s first free and fair Presidential Elections, the President-Elect pledged to represent all streams of Egyptian society including women and Coptic Christians. He also pledged to appoint Vice Presidents and a Prime Minister outside of his party to dampen fears that the Muslim Brotherhood intends to dominate all sections of Egypt’s political society. As there has never been a democratically elected Islamist President before in history, the Muslim Brotherhood aims to demonstrate to the world that political Islam is not the authoritarian and regressive ideology perceived by the rest of the world, but an Islamic combination of social conservatism, civil rule and progressiveness. The next 4 years will be critical in order to prove its success since Egypt was left by Morsi’s predecessor in a cesspool of corruption, broken institutions and widespread poverty.
However, the Muslim Brotherhood is not the only emerging force to have appeared in Egypt’s political sphere. Gaining second place in Egypt’s parliamentary elections, the Noor Party was founded on strict Salafist interpretation of Islam. A new political Salafist movement also came into fruition; more proof of how deeply religious Arab society is. The Noor Party won more seats than even the more historically established parties such as New Wafd. It proves that religion resonates very closely with Egyptian people and is also a sign of the rejection of parties that have sullied their name by taking part in the game hosted by corrupt dictators.
Once the euphoria in Tahrir comes down from the success of preventing a regime remnant from enacting a counter-revolution, the people of Egypt will need to focus on a new problem that has risen. The Supreme Council of Armed Forces played their final card before the Presidential run-offs; a soft coup that took away almost all authority over the armed forces away from the President. SCAF also entrenched themselves in the writing of the new constitution. But to add insult to injury, the Constitutional Court, which had conveniently been silent throughout Mubarak’s thirty years of corruption, decided that one third of the parliament’s general assembly had been unlawfully elected and so the entire parliament must be dissolved. This then automatically added to SCAF legislative powers as well as their de facto declarations of self-authority. The new Egyptian President is left with little power and some now wonder how relevant the Presidential Elections have become. But this also proves that the Tahrir activists have matured after 16 months of turmoil and uncertainty. The revolution had not ended, and it is still far from complete, but at the very least, Morsi’s victory rejuvenated their morale after lengthy political anxiety.
We must not forget the other nations that tumbled thanks to the domino effect that originated from Egypt and Tunisia. Libyans also felt that they had enough of a 40-year long leader. Muammar Gaddafi responded with military might and a message of hate and defiance. As Libya blew into a full-scale civil war, the UN Security Council responded with a resolution that aided rebels with the toppling of their dictator and later his gruesome death. A difference between Libya and Egypt, in their post revolutionary states, is that Libya was now left with a complete power vacuum. The National Transitional council, up till now, has trouble taming rivalries between armed militias who feel they deserve a share of the reward for putting their lives on the line. Nevertheless, Libya, with a population just over half of Tunisia’s, has arguably driven its revolution further than its neighbouring countries, as it now struggles to produce a brand new state. Syria, on the other hand, has responded more fiercely to its revolution. A country ruled by a family of a minority Alawite sect over a majority Sunni population, with no doubt, any major crisis occurring in that land would result in something catastrophic. Bashar Al-Asaad, followed in his father’s footsteps, by implementing the only policy his family knew to crush dissent. Unlike Tunisia and Egypt where the military did not follow orders to attack civilians, the Syrian Armed Forces responded with obedience. As the army, including reserves, are mostly made of Alawite Syrians, it would be easier to command soldiers who see Sunni Syrians as a different people residing in their country. With over 15,000 dead already, there is seemingly no end to the ongoing campaign of genocide due to all diplomatic efforts to end the crisis resulting in failure. Russia’s only military base outside of its former Warsaw allies is its naval base in Tartus, Syria. Seeing the Syrian uprising as a threat to its national interests, Russia has strongly resisted efforts by the international community to cease its support of the Syrian regime. And of course, as a permanent member of UNSC, all resolutions aimed to resolve the conflict were immediately vetoed. The conflict in Syria gets even more complicated than a simple tug of war between former Cold War rivals; Syria has had a long standing relationship with Iran, a key enemy of Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom hopes to undermine the Persian nation’s aura of influence by siding with the predominantly Sunni opposition in Syria. Iran, sensing the imminent threat to its powerbase if the Asaad regime falls, has decided to strongly support the regime thus forming a proxy war in the Levantine country.
The Arab Spring has brought about wide change in North Africa and the Middle East. Some revolutions have resulted in huge success in toppling not only the regime but entire system itself like in Tunisia and Libya. Some are still ongoing, making small progress as time progresses such as in Egypt. Others are in an area of unknown where no end can be seen and deep paranoia plagues its people like in Syria. With all the confrontations occurring, whether it is a military council versus activists or a civil war split along sectarian camps, it’s clear that whatever phenomenon occurred in the world’s most unstable region is something that will last for a long time and will be remembered even longer. And so when the dust cleared, and the smoke settled, the Arab Spring continued.