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What Happened to the Arab Spring?

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Nameer Galal/NurPhoto/Corbis
Demonstrators with a portrait of General Abdel Fatah el-Sisi—now Egypt’s president—at a rally in Tahrir Square, Cairo, January 2014

In 1938 George Antonius, an Egyptian Christian of Lebanese origin living in Jerusalem, published The Arab Awakening: The Story of the Arab National Movement. In his path-breaking book Antonius, who had been educated at Cambridge, charted the Arab national idea from its ethnic and linguistic beginnings in the early Islamic conquests, through the intellectual renaissance in nineteenth-century Syria, and to the grassroots—and eventually armed—political movement that overthrew Ottoman rule in Arabia, Iraq, and Syria—in alliance with Britain—during World War I.

In his indictment of British policy Antonius demonstrated that promises made by Britain to the ruler of Mecca, Sharif Hussein, whose sons Faisal and Abdullah led the Arab revolt against Ottoman Turkey, contradicted commitments Britain had made to its allies France and Russia under the secret 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement and to the Zionist leaders who were promised a Jewish homeland in Palestine under the terms of the November 1917 Balfour Declaration. Though Antonius, who died in 1942, did not witness the triumph, and debacle, of Arabism in Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser, The Arab Awakening powerfully set the stage for its trajectory.

Taking his cue from Antonius, Marwan Muasher, a Jordanian diplomat and former foreign minister now working at the Carnegie Endowment, argues that what some have called the “Arab Spring”—and others the “Arab inferno”—should really be seen as a “second Arab Awakening.” The liberal promise of the “first Awakening” was aborted at the end of the colonial period, he writes, “when foreign despots were replaced by homegrown ones, who went on to rule the region for more than fifty years.” The fatal flaw of these post-independence governments was, at heart, constitutional: none of the regimes,

whether monarchist or “republican,”…paid much attention to developing pluralist systems of government, building systems of checks and balances on executive power, or promoting the rich diversity of their populations. Instead, the legitimacy gained during independence struggles hardened into diverse forms of autocratic rule.

In short the inadequacy of the first Awakening made the second Awakening—the wave of uprisings beginning in the winter of 2010–2011—inevitable. But that failure also conveys a warning:

Toppling despotic rulers alone is no guarantee of a healthy political development. A constructive vision for future polities must be hammered out and must be founded on an unshakable commitment to pluralism—leading to systems of protections and inclusiveness that enable what may be the Arab world’s greatest asset: its ethnic, cultural, religious and intellectual diversity.

In most of the countries he visits in the course of preparing his book Muasher finds that a pluralistic approach embodying a respect for differences of values, religions, and ethnicities is conspicuously absent. His book was already being printed when Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s only president to have come to power through a transparent electoral process, was removed from office by the military. But he cannot have been greatly surprised, having noted that many of the secular leaders to whom he spoke were prepared to “accept the military’s undemocratic practice of appropriating legislative and executive powers if that would check the growing influence of the Islamists.” A post-coup note added to the book reinforces his argument

that the Islamist and secular forces in the Arab world, both before and after Arab uprisings, have shown no solid commitment to pluralistic and democratic norms. Each side has denied the right of the other to operate and has often ignored the popular will.

While he does not provide details of the events that followed the coup, when some nine hundred protesters were killed in a confrontation with the army and police—in which armed Brotherhood activists may well have fired first—he sees the Islamist and secular forces as equally intransigent. He blames the Islamists for pushing through a partisan constitution without adequate protections for religious and other minorities, when the very purpose of a constitution must be “to achieve consensus among the various forces in society.” He criticizes the secular side for continuing

to act as if the elections in Egypt meant nothing, refusing to cooperate with the Islamists, until they finally sided with the armed forces in deposing a democratically elected president. Thus they practiced the same power-monopolizing behavior of which they accuse the Islamists.

Muasher’s critique of the secular forces, including the judiciary, gains further credibility from recent events. In December 2013 Egypt’s military-backed government designated the Brotherhood a terrorist organization. This was followed in March by the death sentence imposed by Judge Saeed Youssef on 529 protesters in the southern city of Minya for the killing of a single policeman. In April, Judge Youssef sentenced an additional 683 Muslim Brotherhood supporters to death, including Mohamed Badie, its “supreme guide” or spiritual leader. He upheld thirty-seven of the 529 death sentences passed in March, commuting the rest to life in prison.

While none of these sentences are final, and all can be appealed, the repression is much more severe than under the Mubarak regime, when Brotherhood deputies were permitted to stand as independents in the national parliament. According to a recent report from Amnesty International, dozens of civilians have been arrested and held for months at a military camp outside Cairo, where they’ve been tortured with electric shocks and other illegal treatment, in order to make them confess to crimes or implicate others.1

The Egyptian Brotherhood, or part of it, may now be expected to abandon the democratic path to power and take up a jihadist position toward the regime and its foreign protectors. Yet as Muasher points out, Islamism is far from monolithic: apart from the Muslim Brotherhood itself, there are significant differences between movements that are “violent and exclusionary” such as al-Qaeda; those such as Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon that are committed to liberating territories they regard as being under foreign occupation; and some “salafists” who live by a strict puritanical code while advocating “total obedience to the ruler.”

These types can shift according to the obstacles they meet. In Syria, the regime began shooting and torturing peaceful protesters. When activists started arming themselves in response, they were denounced as takfiris—a label attached to militants who anathematize their opponents as infidels. In time the official rhetoric became self-fulfilling. The Syrian opposition is now dominated by takfiris, some from outside Syria, some cynically helped by the regime in order to undermine the opposition’s appeal and its legitimacy with outside supporters, including Western governments. In Egypt, as in Syria, authoritarian, military-backed regimes have found the threat of political Islam a highly “convenient excuse for keeping their political systems closed.”

In Muasher’s view the threat of Islamist rule has been exaggerated by secular groups in the Arab world and beyond who harbor the suspicion that whatever gesture Islamists make toward pluralism and democracy is just a tactic for grabbing power. According to this theory Islamists will tolerate just “one man, one vote, one time.” The warning issued by former US Assistant Secretary of State Edward Djerjian in 1992 reflects a widespread concern among minorities as well as the advocates of secular government.

Muasher thinks this fear to be greatly overstated and he produces a number of arguments and survey figures with a view to allaying it. He cites at length a 2011 declaration by al-Azhar, Egypt’s foremost institution of Islamic learning and widely regarded the leading academy in the Sunni world, stating that democracy “represents the modern formula to achieve the Islamic precepts of shura (consultation),” and that “Islamic precepts include pluralism, rotation of power,…freedom of thought…with a full respect of human, women and children’s rights,…multi-pluralism…and…citizenship as the basis of responsibility in the society.” Muasher claims support for this view from his talks with a number of senior Islamic figures, including the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Egypt’s highest religious authority, Imad El Din Abdel Ghaffour, the leader of the Salafist al-Nour party, and Khairat al-Shatir, the FJP’s chief strategist, who told him that for the next five to ten years “Egypt must be ruled by a broad coalition” of forces.

Such arguments, of course, cut no ice with the military. Al-Shatir is now in jail along with the ousted President Morsi, who is accused of treason. Muasher deploys these interviews, and other materials including survey data, to illustrate his general thesis that the problems of Arab states derive more from the structure of power than from ideology. In Muasher’s view the religious question is much less divisive than practical issues of governance and particularly of economic management.

To support his argument Muasher cites a Gallup survey taken in three countries—Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco—in the spring of 2012 after mass protests had ended decades of one-party rule. Some 94 percent of the respondents in Egypt, 95 percent in Tunisia, and 75 percent in Morocco agreed that all citizens should be allowed to express their opinions on political, social, and economic issues.

However, the figures in favor of freedom of religion were somewhat lower, with 70 percent of Egyptians, 84 percent of Tunisians, and 49 percent of Moroccans agreeing that citizens should be free to observe and practice any religion of their choice (the lower figure for Morocco is partly accounted for by a high percentage of “don’t knows”). Muasher concludes that

while they support these freedoms, most Arabs also want some role for sharia as a basis for legislation. To many Muslims, the term sharia means not necessarily a specific code but rather general principles. The percentage of those who prefer no role for Islamic references is in the single digits in the three countries.

But it is clear that many more Egyptians (47 percent) favor sharia as the “only source” of law than Tunisians (17 percent).

In Egypt the survey found that 46 percent thought sharia should be a source of law, but not the only one. The difference between those who think sharia should be the source as distinct from a source can hardly have been sufficient to take the country to the brink of civil war, as appeared to be happening before the military overthrew Morsi’s government in July 2013.

Nevertheless the differences between Egypt and Tunisia are instructive. Under Morsi, constitutional delegates from the Brotherhood, the al-Nour party, and other Islamist movements insisted on drafting a document that amplified the religious language of the existing 1971 constitution and omitted mechanisms for protecting politically vulnerable constituencies such as Christians, women, and journalists. In mid-November 2012, before the finished draft was published, representatives from the Coptic Church, whose followers number around 7 percent of Egypt’s population, withdrew from the assembly in protest. More than forty churches were attacked and a number of Christians were killed. With the military takeover, however, Copts are now said to feel safer—though their situation remains precarious.

In contrast to the disputed efforts toward producing a new Egyptian constitution (with two elected constitutional assemblies dissolved by judges, followed by a commission of experts chosen by the military), the Tunisian process has been impressive in its effort to be inclusive. The Constituent Assembly elected to draft the new constitution reflected a broad consensus. Unlike Egypt, where the army remains the foundation of the old guard and has a huge stake in the economy, the small Tunisian army is neutral and removed from politics. Tunisia’s electoral law makes it difficult for any one party to gain an absolute majority. The Islamist Ennahda party, the biggest winner in the 2011 elections with 89 out of 217 parliamentary seats, formed a coalition with two secular parties before stepping down for a nonpolitical, technocratic government that will serve until elections are held under the new constitution later this year.

  1. 1

    “Egypt: Dozens of Disappeared Civilians Face Ongoing Torture at Military Prison,” May 22, 2014. 

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