November 27, 2011

The Arab Spring: Stormy Weather Ahead

by Hal Gershowitz

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And so, like the old Dynasties of Europe, the strongmen of the Middle East, who held their respective nations in an iron grip for decades, if not generations, began to fall in a truly historic sweep of history.  The first to fall were the dictators of Tunisia, then Egypt, followed by Libya, with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad still hanging on by slaughtering his angry countrymen as they inch closer and closer to his center of power in Damascus.

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile is maneuvering like a whirling dervish, managing its own anti-monarchist militants, brokering a bloodless exit for Yemen’s president of 30+ years, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and propping up Bahrain’s tottering regime.

Yemeni dictator Saleh has agreed to step down in return for a promise not to be prosecuted.  Adding to the turmoil on the Arabian peninsula is the fact that key players in the opposition in Yemen, especially activists who had camped in downtown Sanaa and Taiz for months, are not happy with the accord that gives Saleh and close aides, including family members, immunity.

“We did not go out to the street and offer sacrifices so Saleh and his relatives are accorded immunity from legal pursuit,” said Fayez Ahmed, a 26-year-old demonstrator who had been camping at Sanaa’s Change Square for months. “We want the killers to be tried.”

Meanwhile, King Abdullah of Jordan last week helicoptered into Ramallah in an effort to reach some accommodation with the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.

This firmament has been poetically and a bit romantically dubbed the Arab Spring.  It calls forth a vision of hope and progress, and some commentators have concluded that the Arab world is at last experiencing a coming of age…a dash to modernity.  That’s a conclusion to which we’re not quite ready to jump.

In Tunisia, where the Arab Spring was born, a liberal, mostly secular and not very well organized protest movement hastily propelled the North African country into an election in which not very liberal, not very secular, and very well-organized Islamists prevailed, as the Islamic Ennahda Party grabbed 89 of the 217 seats in Tunisia’s new parliament.  While members of Ennahda campaigned with promises of moderation, their past pronouncements seem to promise anything but moderation, at least as we in the West would define moderation.

Rachid Ghannouchi, Ennahda’s founder and current leader, didn’t sound terribly moderate when he spoke out against America’s campaign to depose Saddam Hussein, “We must wage unceasing war against the Americans until they leave the land of Islam, or we will burn and destroy all their interests across the entire Islamic world,” he said at the time.

Regarding the long effort of the West to arrive at a two-state solution to the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conundrum, Ghannouchi was unambiguous.

“I think that the approach of Palestinian Islamists must be the liberation of Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea,” Ghannouchi said. “Any part that is liberated is a gain, provided the price is not the sale of the rest of Palestine. Palestine belongs to the Muslims and must be liberated in its entirety.”

Tunisia has had a long tradition of moderation, at least in its capital city of Tunis.  The North African nation has generally looked westward and the Islamists, as in Algeria, had been held at bay.  Those days may be over for now, and the young, mostly secular protestors who succeeded in chasing their ruthless President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali from power suddenly find themselves out in the cold following the elections they made possible.  The Islamists are disciplined, well organized and well positioned to use democratic elections to achieve power.  Once in control, the policies they will pursue are not apt to be to the liking of the young, liberal protestors who made their ascendancy possible, nor to the Western democracies, which have, for the most part, been spectators to the extraordinary events that have unfolded.

Islamic ascendancy is no less evident in Egypt, where young, liberal, mostly secular men and women succeeded, at great risk to themselves, in toppling the regime of Hosni Mubarak only to find the Muslim Brotherhood and the adherents of the even more conservative Salafis strain of Islam poised to dominate the upcoming elections.

The military, once the pride of the Egyptian people, have now incurred the wrath of the crowds packing Tahir Square.  The military council (SCAF) has been running the country ever since Mubarak’s downfall and has quietly assured Western nations that it will maintain close ties with the West, especially Washington, and that it will honor all commitments made by the Mubarak government, specifically the peace treaty with Israel.  But now SCAF itself seems to be hanging on for dear life.  The people in the Square have been calling for an immediate end to military rule, not in 2013 as promised by the military, not next year, but now.

The demonstrations in Tahrir Square have, however, led to the appointment of an interim Prime Minister, the once popular, Kamal el-Ganzouri, 78, but his long service and association with the old Mubarak regime has left the protestors unimpressed.,

Few doubt that the parliamentary elections, scheduled for this week, will be dominated by the well organized and well funded Muslim Brotherhood and, perhaps, the more fundamentalist Salafists who favor an Islamic state, with Sharia law, as soon as possible. The Brotherhood professes to embrace the separation of state and religion, but no one should expect a Jeffersonian Democracy to rise from the ashes of the still smoldering Mubarak dictatorship.   The Brotherhood speaks one way for western media consumption, but makes little effort to hide its agenda when talking to fellow Islamists.

Dr. Naguib Gabriel, a Coptic Christian and the head of the Egyptian Union of Human Rights Organization (EUHRO), warned of a pattern of persecutions against the Copts and their churches by the Brotherhood. After the overthrow of Mubarak the Muslim Brotherhood declared “ . . . it is impossible to build any new church in Egypt, and churches which are demolished should never be rebuilt, as well as no crosses over churches or bells to be rung.”

During the recent riots at the Israeli embassy in Cairo, members of the Brotherhood threatened to kill Israel’s ambassador to Cairo if he didn’t leave the country. The radical group had been leading daily protests at the Israeli embassy in Cairo, demanding the expulsion of the envoy and a break in relations between Egypt and Israel.  “Revolution,” cried out Muslim Brotherhood activists. “Revolution is stronger than the Zionist attackers. The entire Egyptian people are Hamas.”

The most recent revolution that initially had a promising outcome, insofar as Western interests are concerned, is Libya.  It is too early to tell what the government of Libya will look like once the various tribes whose members brought down Muammar Qaddafi have completed their inter-tribal bloodletting, and elections have taken place.  The interim government just appointed by Prime Minister Abdurrahim el-Keib was a surprise to many in the west and upsetting to many  Islamists.  President Mustafa Abdul Jalil had previously declared that Sharia law would form the basis of a new constitution.  So, already there are signs of tension with members of the National Transition Council who apparently are unhappy with el-Keib’s appointments, which reflect a pro-western leaning. “There are some people who do not accept some of the names,” a source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters last week.

Prime Minister Abdurrahim el-Keib seems to have chosen western-style democracy for Libya by naming a cabinet of secularists, which, no doubt, has many prominent Libyan Islamists bristling.  We suspect they will not quietly ride off into the sunset.

Revolutions are always messy and never entirely predictable. Our own revolution was decidedly rare among such transformative movements because of that intangible quality with which the citizens of our new nation were imbued. Tocqueville called it American Exceptionalism.  The Enlightenment, which so informed the founders of the American experiment, is still an alien phenomenon in most of the Islamist world, and in its absence, narrow and ultra orthodox forces are alert and waiting to define the future. In summary, no one really knows how the dust will settle as seasons come and go and the Arab Spring morphs into whatever its historical reality will be.

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5 responses to “The Arab Spring: Stormy Weather Ahead”

  1. Donald Borsand says:

    I am afraid that military heads will soon roll in Egypt as I think you have implied – then for Israel its ………………….??

  2. chuck anderson says:

    well done. we have seen the western media and politicians repeatedly indulge in idealizing these uprisings with a decidedly western, mostly American, historical perspective. this is, I believe, a naive and dangerous assessment albeit typical of our foreign policy missteps.

  3. sandy goldman says:

    Thank you . Your essay expresses well what so many of us have been fearing. It is another major foreign policy problem and inventive solutions are in short supply

  4. Andrew E. Porter says:

    From Voice Of America News (11/28/11): “Esam Alarian, spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, says his party will continue to make sacrifices to achieve the objective of the revolution, which he said, is to embrace democracy.”

    So there you have it. Egypt is on a clear path to democracy!

  5. mark j levick says:

    Apparently the events you describe were either unanticipated by those who run the US Department of State and our President or were welcomed. What was Obama thinking when he spoke in Cairo and then went to Istanbul to support the Islamist President in his take over of a secular Muslim country. Things are not going well for the West in Morocco. Yet our Secretary of State is lauded in the press for the great job she is doing and Obama has continues to support the protesters criticism in Egypt without concern as to where these protests will lead. You noted that the Islamist groups are well funded. The source of those funds has traditionally been Saudi Arabia, the UAR and Iran. The US has influence in the first two which has never been used and none in Iran which has been permitted to have its way with us. There is no mention of US funding for secular Muslim groups. Were it not for oil I’m afraid this Administration would abandon the only democracy in the region and let events take there course. Brings back memories of Jimmy Carter and the Shah of Iran. Seems like we never learn.

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