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On the “Arab Spring”: Thinking Beyond the Moment (II)

Original Guest Post

By Mehdi

What about Islam?

Disconnected commentators tend to associate all the problems in the Arab world with Islam, whether in order to explain the lack of democracy, overall poor economic performance, or even the complex status of women’s rights, always promptly manipulated by Islamophobes. The summary of issues explained in the first article in this series shows that Islam is not the problem. The problems faced by the Arab world are issues that exist in many other parts of the world and can be addressed in similar terms.

Islam is at the center of the identity of all Arab countries, even for countries that include a significant proportion of non-Muslims like Egypt, Syria and Lebanon. The countries that built some forms of secularism (for instance in the justice system, or the Cold War era Arab nationalist ideologies such as Nasserism or Baathism) have always acknowledged the importance of religion in general and especially Islam. Leaders of these countries have appealed to Islam during times of crisis, as Saddam Hussein did during the 1991 Gulf War, when, after decades of secularist discourse, he had Allah Akbar written on the Iraqi flag; using religion’s appeal to build a sense of national cohesion (uniting Sunnis and Shias) against the US enemy, after years of presenting himself as a champion of secularism against the so-called “Islamist threat” represented by Iran in the 1980s.

Beyond that example, Arab leaders consistently acknowledged the importance of Islam, maintained close ties with religious authorities or at the least acknowledged their role, there are several important examples:

  • In KSA, the royal family’s alliance with the Wahhabi school is the foundation on which the kingdom was built, and their funding of this Wahhabism has profoundly effected the Arab world
  • Kings Hussein and Abdallah in Jordan highlight their status as descendants of the Prophet at the core of their legitimacy
  • In Morocco, kings Hassan II and Mohamed VI put forward their role as Amir al mumineen, (Leader of the Believers). During the cold war, when king Hassan II’s authority was questioned by the left wing opposition and army-led coups, tradition and religion were at the core of his response, along with educational and justice reforms. A discrete and behind-the-curtain support was given to traditional movements and Sunni zawiyas, as a consequence, an organization such as “Al adl wal ihssane”, inspired by Sufism, is now one of the strongest ones in the country, and is ironically the main opposition force to the monarchy
  • In Egypt, after Nasser’s repression of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 50s and 60s, things changed radically after the 1967 defeat to Israel and his subsequent death. President Anwar Sadat freed most imprisoned militants and relied on them to strengthen his power at the expense of the Nasserites. Since then Egyptian presidents have worked hand in hand with Al-Azhar (and the Coptic popes) to provide religious legitimacy to their position, while repressing any form of opposition
  • Recently, Qatar was one of the primary funders of the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the Arab world, and used the Al-Jazeera network to help promote their ideas

The problems raised previously have caused the Arab people to search for alternatives, such as nationalism or socialism, but the strongest one in recent years has been “political Islam,” which in some cases, opened the way for violent fundamentalist movements such as: “Al Jamaa el-Islamiya” in Egypt, the “Groupement Islamiste Armé” (GIA) or “Groupement Salafiste pour la Predication et le Combat” (GPSC) in Algeria,” or Al Qaeda’s different branches. Most western commentators tend to focus on these movements and depict political Islam as a uniquely fundamentalist and violent movement, whereas the reality is that it is a complex and heterogeneous grouping of movements, most of whom are non-violent, eager to be involved in the political game, and present in the society through charitable programs.

The tendency in the last 10 years has been a decline of local violent movements partly due to repression (while Al Qaeda’s activity did increase in countries at war or with limited government presence such as Mali, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, or even Lebanon), and also due to the massive rejection of violence by Arab societies that were the main victims of fundamentalist terrorism. That decline was balanced by a rise of political parties such as Ennahda in Tunisia, PJD in Morocco, Al-Wasat or the Party of Freedom and Justice in Egypt (both linked to the Muslim Brotherhood), or other examples like the political branch of Hezbollah in Lebanon. All these parties are significantly different in their doctrine, strategy or forms of alliances, but they share a general trend, they are:

  • Conservative on the social side, with differences in views depending on the country over issues like the role of women (in countries where they had to interact with Salafist organizations, or in countries on the other hand that had strong civil society and feminist movements), education content, freedom of conscience (which was debated in Tunisia and Morocco, but less in Egypt for instance), and justice
  • Right-wing and pro-market in terms of economics (excepting Hezbollah), promoting entrepreneurship and endorsing mainly neo-liberal economics, balanced with some charity funding
  • “Moderate” in terms of foreign policy, especially since the 2001 events, most of these parties seek appeasement with foreign and mostly Western countries, for instance Mohamed Morsi worked hard to keep the security arrangements of the peace treaty with Israel working. Recently, most of these parties pro-actively met western ambassadors and business organizations before their election, and kept referring to the example of the AKP in Turkey, as an example they planned to follow

Most of these organizations did not see the Arab uprisings coming and were as surprised as other parties. They were mostly preaching a less polarizing Islam, some were not yet part of the political game in 2011 (as in Tunisia), some were debating their level of involvement (as in Egypt), but in the end all of them benefited from the Arab spring and managed to increase their electoral presence, to the point of becoming the governing party in countries where elections were held. They did so by leveraging their internal organization and capacity to mobilize, which is much stronger than other parties, and politically benefited from the fact that they were often the main victims of dictatorships during the 1980s and 1990s.

While winning elections in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt, these organizations’ exercise of power was a struggle, even before winning, they were not massively popular and quickly lost much of their popularity. They were able to reach 20 to 30% votes (except in Egypt where the combined Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist votes went above 60% in the 2011 parliament elections, before going down to 25% in the first round of the 2012 presidential election and then winning slightly above 50% in the second round of voting, where the decisive factor was the Egyptian people’s will not to go back to the Mubarak era), this forced them to ally and cooperate with other parties and organizations, thus experiencing and learning the art of compromise.

On the economic side, they did not have an easy legacy to cope with, especially as the economy still remained in the same few hands, essentially coming to power in countries destabilized by the recent changes and the combined effects of the 2008 global economic crisis. While they could not be blamed for what they inherited, their pro-market bias did not help their overall popularity, nor did it help their relationship with labor unions, still capable of mobilizing their militant base, and organizing strikes. The Political Islamic parties also underestimated the differences between their context and the Turkish model that they often referred to, while they never really had the same economy or entrepreneurial network behind them to back their policies.

On the social and political sides, while they started governing countries which were conservative, they still had to cope with the compromises they made with other organizations, for instance Ennahda accepted the principle of man-woman equality and freedom of conscience in the Tunisian constitutions, and the PJD in Morocco reluctantly passed a law prohibiting a rapist from marrying his victim. These compromises caused tensions with their base or with Salafist rival organizations, sometimes leading to tension and violence (as in Tunisia after the assassination of union leaders). Confronted with the difficulties of power and conflicting demands, Muslim conservative parties are learning to work in pluralist environments (as do all political parties) and have to address the complexity of Arab societies, conservative and at the same time growingly secularized and in deep transition.

In Egypt, while facing all these aspects, the MB government and president Morsi faced a coup organized by the military, and supported by business organizations and external powers, including the KSA and Western countries. This ended an experience that was unsuccessful, where the ruling party was increasingly unpopular. But despite their many mistakes and general lack of vision, the MB and President Morsi cannot be blamed for all events, it is quite clear that much of the economic problems were inherited, that sabotage was deliberately conducted during their time in power (many shortages ended quickly after the coup as if nothing had happened), and the economy has not improved since.

One thing is for sure, Islam will always be part of the equation and thus the solution, the question that remains is the shape of Muslim conservative organizations in the future, and how they will manage their relationship with other actors in Arab countries, including civil society, non-Muslim communities, labor unions and business organizations. Addressing these challenges is critical as the Arab spring brought the region and these relationships into turmoil.

An unprecedented chain of events

Reading through the events and day-to-day change of dynamics is no easy task, even for the most experienced historians and “Middle East experts.” The first phase caught everyone by surprise and stunned the rulers, seeing countries entering into massive protests one by one was an unprecedented sight. The role of the emerging Arab media and social media was highlighted and had a deep impact. On the field, Al-Jazeera or Al Arabiya’s broadcasts had a catalyst effect, protesters also relied on these tools and the capacity of mobilization from structured organizations like labor unions (especially in Tunisia but also in Egypt), networks like the Al-Adl-Wal-Ihssane in Morocco, or tribes in Libya who felt they were neglected by Gadhafi.

But beyond all these factors, an important observation is that a new generation of previously de-politicized young Arabs are now active and determined to let their voice be heard, using unprecedented means and at an unprecedented scale, outside the control of the mainstream political parties who seem disconnected and unable to understand this new generation.

Another striking observation was that these movements were non-violent in the beginning, even the countries that later went to a civil war (Syria and Libya) early on resounded with non-violent protests, even in Yemen, which has the third highest weapon per capita rates in the world.

The Arab rulers were all surprised and at first tried to apply the usual “carrot and stick” measures to address the protests, with different approaches and results:

  • Presidents Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt were completely caught by surprise and their initial repressive response by police and anti-demonstrator groups completely failed, only making the protests bigger, they then tried to make improvised concessions (from massive hiring to promises of anticipated elections). In both cases, they were pushed out by the army (with the US administration’s blessing) after asking its leaders to restore order at any cost, opening the way for long transition periods
  • Tunisia then entered a long transition period where tensions often led to violence, but where the main political parties and its strong civil society gradually decided to cooperate, before reaching a historic agreement on the country’s constitution. The main challenge for the country now is to fix the economic situation that caused the revolution to begin with
  • Egypt’s transition was initially promising, consecutive parliamentary and presidential elections gave power to the MB candidate Mohamed Morsi, who worked hand in hand with the military. But the growing conflict between both parties, the MB’s poor handling of the economic situation, the meddling of external powers (including mostly the KSA and the US administration) and alienation of revolutionaries, saw the situation gradually deteriorate. While president Morsi was now deeply unpopular, the army was able to manipulate the Tamarrud protest movement and organized a coup, brutally repressing the MB protests, and put an end to all the democratic advances made since 2011
  • Protests in majority Shia Bahrain, were first met with offers of negotiation by the ruling family, before the GCC, under the leadership of the KSA, sent an armed expedition that completely repressed the protest movement, despite its non-violent nature. The ruling family has now fully embraced the narrative of a Sunni-Shia conflict and closed the door to any political compromise or advance
  • Libya was quickly in the eye of the hurricane, as demonstrations in the usually rebellious East were met with the brutal and repressive nature of Gadhafi’s regime. The situation spiraled out of control as a coalition of tribes entered the rebellion, and received the support of a Western-Qatari intervention, mostly led by France. President Nicolas Sarkozy was very active pushing for this military intervention, and the combination of air strikes and support for the rebel coalition ended up with Gadhafi’s regime collapsing and the leader himself brutally murdered in terribly violent conditions, in line with his ruling method
  • Massive protests started Syria and were met with brutal repression, turning the initially non-violent movement to an armed rebellion, soon supported by the KSA, Qatar, Turkey and Western powers (although the extent of support is still unclear), while Iran and Russia tried to prevent the regime from collapsing. Syria is now a horrendous civil/sectarian war that is out of control with no end in sight
  • Yemen faced a wave of mostly non-violent protests that were met by a mix of repression and offline discussions between President Ali Abdallah Saleh, opposition groups, and key members of the security system in place. The discussions and unclear events (such as a coup attempt) led the way to president Saleh leaving power, the details behind that agreement are still unclear. Yemen is still in transition, and remains unstable, with many Al Qaeda related groups present on the ground, and a rebellion still simmering the north
  • The 20th of February protest movement organized non-violent street demonstrations in Morocco, faced some repressive measures, but the main outcome was the king’s decision to draft a new concession, which brought some progress and new rights, while maintaining power within his hands; in some ways changing everything in order for nothing to change. The new constitution was voted in a referendum at 98% approval (suspicious to say the least), while the 20th February movement decided to boycott the vote. New elections were held and led the Muslim conservative PJD party to power. The 20th February movement is divided and weakened, and has not been able to receive support from the country’s growing middle class, but it still manages to mobilize occasional street demonstrations
  • Some street protests took place Algeria, but the movement never really took off, first due to the government’s anticipation and capacity to raise funds and subsidies from its oil revenues, and also due to the fact that most Algerians are still haunted by the “black decade”, where more than 100,000 people died during the civil war, the status quo was still seen by the majority as a better option
  • Most gulf states (apart from Bahrain) did not face important movements or were not reported as such, in general, the authorities were able to apply preventive measures such as subsidies, or discrete security measures, to anticipate any potential protests
  • Other countries such as Jordan faced protests, but they were mostly limited, and governments managed to contain them through the usual carrot and stick measures

Beside these countries, it is unclear whether Palestine and Iraq are part of the Arab spring, as these countries were either at war or under occupation. Lebanon is also in a state between war and peace. The context of Arab spring is therefore even more complex for these countries; demonstrations and protests did take place, and these countries were impacted by the regional turmoil, especially the war in Syria and the redistribution of alliances.

External interventions and the dynamics of sectarian war

The regional powers were all surprised and reactionary, despite some silly conspiracy theorists who assumed this was all planned, including the recycled racist theory that assumes Arabs are incapable of revolting or taking matters into their own hands. When looking at things specifically:

  • The US administration was silent and embarrassed to see Tunisia and especially Egypt, two of its allies, in a revolutionary phase, and worked behind-the-curtains with the military to transition and remove the countries’ presidents from power, while maintaining the key security arrangements in place, especially the peace treaty being Egypt and Israel
  • France was embarrassed about the events in Tunisia, one of its closest allies in the region, especially as the minister of interior at the time was on holiday there at the invitation of the regime, and had suggested helping the Tunisian police when repression was at its peak. The French president at the time, Nicolas Sarkozy then went silent regarding Egypt, and took a hawkish stand regarding Libya in order to erase that pathetic memory from people’s minds.
  • Other European countries were generally silent
  • KSA immediately saw the chain of events as a threat, especially when demonstrations started in Bahrain, and initiated a very aggressive counter-revolutionary strategy that had an anti-Shia focus, involving political coordination via the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), financial support to allies (mostly in Egypt after the coup against Morsi), and weapon supply to radical Sunni groups and Militias in Syria and Lebanon
  • Qatar took their support for the MB to another level and got involved strongly, mostly in Syria and Tunisia, in coordination but also competition with KSA, and used the Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the events to promote its soft power
  • Iran took a defensive but yet aggressive approach, mostly focused on not letting the regime collapse in Syria (with Russia’s support), and on defending the positions of Hezbollah in Lebanon
  • Turkey’s prime minister Erdogan tried to present his party’s experience in power as a model for the Muslim conservative countries, but 2013 has been a difficult year for him, he made some tactical mistakes in Syria, overestimated his power in his country when facing internal protests, and lost some of important allies, making his future uncertain

The consequence of these events and strategies were a confusing mix of reactive measures from all parties involved, and the emergence of a sectarian Sunni-Shia proxy war, orchestrated by the KSA and Qatar on one side, and Iran on the other side, this clash of strategies was well summarized by Robert Malley and Hussein Agha in 2012 already:

Alliances are topsy-turvy, defy logic, are unfamiliar and shifting. Theocratic regimes back secularists; tyrannies promote democracy; the US forms partnerships with Islamists; Islamists support Western military intervention. Arab nationalists side with regimes they have long combated; liberals side with Islamists with whom they then come to blows. Saudi Arabia backs secularists against the Muslim Brothers and Salafis against secularists. The US is allied with Iraq, which is allied with Iran, which supports the Syrian regime, which the US hopes to help topple. The US is also allied with Qatar, which subsidizes Hamas, and with Saudi Arabia, which funds the Salafis who inspire jihadists who kill Americans wherever they can.

While no party involved has shown a concrete consistent strategy towards these events, consequences are tangible and visible. Retrospectively, two turning points had a major effect, first the unfolding of events in Syria and Bahrain in April 2011, which initiated the first glimpses of sectarian armed war. The second turning point was the 2013 coup in Egypt, which put an end to the MB experience which will likely have significant consequences regarding the future of democracy in the region and the strategy of the political Muslim parties.

Stay tuned for the final part in the series, looking toward the future…

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  • Mehdi

    Thanks again Sodium, I am really flattered by your praise. And thanks for these two excellent points that I totally agree with, some additional thoughts now:

    ————- Point one ————-

    The United Arab Republic was a very interesting experience but I think we should first understand it was part of a fascinating period, where different forms of nationalist and socialist experiences were flourishing all over the region, along with different countries either becoming independent in North Africa or struggling to: Iran had just had the Mossadegh experience destroyed by the CIA and the British, the Nasser regime was on the rise and was at war with the Israel-UK-France alliance, losing militarily and winning politically after the USSR-USA said “Enough”, Syria and Iraq were now under the rule of nationalist/socialist regimes, Yemen would follow, a mini civil war took place in Lebanon in 1958… So the whole region was boiling.

    Now I think that the creators of the United Arab Republic had eyes bigger than the stomach, the idea of Arab unity and of setting military and economic alliances was a great idea, but the two countries were not mature enough handling their own issues in the first place, uniting Syria and Egypt was just too much, and the authoritarian practices of Nasser and the Syrian generals adverted it.

    That being said, that wave of changes back then was a great opportunity that adverted, due to some of the mistakes of its leaders (from authoritarianism, to underestimation of people’s aspirations and the role of religion, bad economic choices, etc.), but also due to the counter-revolution initiated by imperialist powers with the support of the KSA, which we would see for instance with the Yemen war in the 1960s.

    One of the lessons is that room had to be given to religion, but somehow we went too far the other way around maybe, we talk about religion, but forgot about Arab pride, identity and mostly about building independent modern economies, and forgot about building a consistent project.

    ————- Point two ————-
    Your point is true regarding Libya but it just shows how clueless the Western powers are. They were caught with their pants down indeed, but in the end, bringing down the Gadhafi regime was easy (he was one of the weakest regimes militarily if you look at it and didn’t really have a solid structure behind him). The fact that these powers all backed down regarding Syria and are not ready to intervene shows how they are not as strong as they would like us to think, or as we may think sometimes when we think they are everywhere.
    So yes they won militarily and managed to topple Gadhafi, but that was easy after all, the current mess in Libya shows there is a long way to go still. I will come back to that in next part of the series, but in this context, I don’t think that any side can win entirely, people are just reacting.

    Thanks again for these great thoughts :-)

  • Sodium

    Again, your knowledge of what is being wrongly called “Arab Spring” shines so splendidly from beginning till end of the essay. Much appreciated reading it. Thank you for the privilege. Wish to call your attention to two points:
    Point One:
    You have briefly mentioned Nasserism and Ba’athism of the late 1950’s and 1960’s. Allow me to make the following comment about both of them since I had done some research about both, a few years ago, and wish to share them with you as general information:
    ~ In 1958, Both Syrian Ba’athists and Egyptian Nasserites had succeeded in forming the United Arab Republic.
    ~ The United Arab Republic was dissolved two years later, because a coup took over the seats of powers in Syria. The irony was in the fact that the people who were behind the coup were a mixture of Capitalists, Communists, Syrian Nationalists and those who believed in political Islam, Topsy-Turvy that defies logic ? You certainly have one, here.
    ~ Perhaps and just perhaps, the whole course of events in the Middle East would have been totally different, if the United Arab Republic was not dissolved by the Syrian military coup.
    Point Two:
    The Arab rulers and their Western Masters were not just surprised by the “Arab Spring” but were caught while their pants were way down at their ankles and they appeared so confused, not knowing exactly what exactly they could do. Reasons
    ~ The Arab tyrants tried to suppress the Uprising by every means available at their disposal, but at the end they had failed.
    ~ The Western powers specifically, United States, France and Britain, had stood behind their puppets, in the beginning of the uprisings, but had changed their positions as they finally realized that the People of Tunisia and people of Egypt meant business and only then they started calling for democracy in Tunisia and Egypt.
    ~ Since the loss to the three major Western powers, mentioned above, were so serious and possibly huge, they started looking for ways to cut down the magnitude of their losses. And finally, they had found their target to cut down their losses in the Libyan uprising that had started in February of 2011, from the Libyan city of Ben Ghazi, in Eastern Libya.
    Will appreciate reading your views on all of the above, or, at least, on some of it.

  • Mehdi

    Thanks Ilisha, there are guesses and some more concrete facts.

    First of all, Syria was a strong ally of the USSR during cold war, especially after Sadat made Egypt a US ally after the Camp David agreements with Israel, Syria was the USSR’s only ally in the region (along with Algeria in North Africa), which included weapon sales (not the only country purchasing but probably one of the only ones purchasing almost entirely from them), intelligence cooperation, and it was one of their only chances to contain US power.
    After cold war, Syria still maintained a distance relationship with the Western powers, so the relationship with Russia remained, and it includes for instance a navy basis, so Syria is the only country that Russia can rely on in the region (although they improved their relationships with Iran too).
    This is one part of the equation.
    The second factor is Putin’s fear (paranoia or not) from fundamentalism, he sees a risk of Syria becoming another Aghanistan or Iraq, attracting fundamentalists who would then return to their countries to make trouble, he seems to be concerned of having such trouble happening in Russian Caucasus regions which are unstable. Difficult to quantify this fear but I think that every single intelligence service around the world has concerns about what come out of the Syrian civil/sectarian war.
    The third factor comes from the fact that the Russians and the Chinese think they were fooled by France, the UK and the US over Libya. They ha agreed to a UN resolution for air strikes to protect civilian population, and then it turned into a regime change (and chaos too), they just don’t want to see that happening again.
    There may be a last thing, which is about Putin not being fond of seeing popular uprisings everywhere as it could set an example for Russians to aspire too.
    These are thoughts, somewhat speculations, but I believe it’s the rationale.

  • Ilisha

    Great article, Mehdi.

    On the matter of Syria, do you have theories on why Russia is supporting the Assad regime? I’ve heard various idea, ranging from weapons sales to opposition to R2P, to some link to the Ukraine.

    Nothing has struck me as a smoking gun. Thoughts?

  • Mehdi

    Thanks Garibaldi, appreciated, and yes, you have a strong point regarding the inspiration of the Palestinian movements, definitely, most protests especially in the beginning always brought up solidarity with Palestine, maybe a bit less now.
    And unfortunately, Palestinians are suffering from the chaos, mostly in Gaza, Lebanon, and Syria…

  • GaribaldiOfLoonwatch

    Very nice follow up Mehdi and an important read for anyone who wants to understand what’s happening especially in relation to Islam and Muslim identity. Palestine’s struggle has long been an inspiration to the various movements of liberation. This was acknowledged by some key Tunisian protest leaders.

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  • Cengiz_K

    very thorough artilce.. interesting read..

  • Nassir H.

    Not making any judgment on the merits of using the term but, to be fair, Muslims during Ottoman times began referring to the movement as “Wahhabiyya” during the lifetimes of Ibn Saud and Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab himself. It was their Muslim enemies, rather than Westerners, who came up with the term.

  • Mehdi

    Good question, I don’t think it’s ignorant to use the term as this term is used by many Muslims, I do remember watching a good documentary on the KSA’s history where it was used by Saudis. That being said there always is the danger of dismissing the whole thing and using it to divide and conquer.
    Regarding Islamist and Islamism indeed there is a point there, this term raises lots of debates, I’m not comfortable with using it for the simple reason that there are many realities between political Islam, after all the MB, Hezbollah and different Salafi organizations have little in common, this is why the term is too broad in my opinion. That being said, Garibaldi correctly raises the point that many organizations or people refer to themselves as “islamiyoun”, but it’s better to be sharp.

  • Tanveer Khan

    “Alliances are topsy-turvy, defy logic, are unfamiliar and shifting.
    Theocratic regimes back secularists; tyrannies promote democracy; the US
    forms partnerships with Islamists; Islamists support Western military
    intervention. Arab nationalists side with regimes they have long
    combated; liberals side with Islamists with whom they then come to
    blows. Saudi Arabia backs secularists against the Muslim Brothers and
    Salafis against secularists. The US is allied with Iraq, which is allied
    with Iran, which supports the Syrian regime, which the US hopes to help
    topple. The US is also allied with Qatar, which subsidizes Hamas, and
    with Saudi Arabia, which funds the Salafis who inspire jihadists who
    kill Americans wherever they can.”

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