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Middle East and Africa

Middle East. An Across-the-board Challenge with Unpredictable Results

‘A new ’89’: thus the movement leading to the flight of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak’s resignation in Egypt, and now powerfully shaking Libya, was defined by a number of observers, above all among the journalists who witnessed the protests in Tahrir Square. What is happening in the Middle East? Does the comparison with ’89 have any sense or is it an exaggeration on the part of the journalists? Where will the long wave of protest lead to? And why had nobody or almost nobody foreseen it? These are some of the questions that are being asked more and more insistently. In Avvenire, Luigi Geninazzi and Riccardo Redaelli have already highlighted unprecedented aspects (which advise against comparisons), uncertainties (which lead to caution) and promises (which give grounds for those questions). It is natural that most of them have still not been answered: historical processes involve individual freedoms and are therefore non-deductible a priori. Some elements for reflection can however be highlighted.

 

 

The first is the revival of the word ‘revolution’. The Tunisian and Egyptian newspapers do not speak only of intifâda (‘revolt’), but also openly of thawra (‘revolution’). In order to understand the extent of this lexical choice, it must be remembered that in Egypt or Tunisia the revolution par excellence was until now the one that ended in the 50s with the expulsion of the direct (French) or indirect (King Farouk and the English) colonial powers. Instead, the new revolution has been directed against internal adversaries with the aim of making the regime fall. As Malika Zeghal wrote in his first impressions of the events in Tunisia in the Oasis newsletter, ‘We now find ourselves well beyond a nationalism that was defined in relation to the other (the coloniser and the West) or by means of certain ideologies’. The colonial past seems to have been shelved at last, even as imaginary. Neither is it the question of an Islamic revolution tout court which Iran experienced in 1979. Even if the Islamic component is well represented, for the moment a reference to universal values prevails like the ‘work-freedom-national dignity’ triad in Tunisia. In Egypt the main issue is the fight against corruption, with numerous arrests of ministers, businessmen and well-known figures. Is this the meaning of ‘revolution’ after the fall of the ideologies?

 

 

In reality, an ideology exists, above all in Egypt and to a lesser extent in Tunisia. This ideology is political Islam. The question on which the attention of a number of analysts has concentrated is to what extent the Islamist movements, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, in fact maintain the theoretical vision according to which Islam delivers an immediately applicable political model, capable of resolving all problems and, instead, to what extent have they turned towards positions which, limiting the hegemonic temptations, recognise a certain degree of mediacy to political action with respect to the main religious instigators. Islam is the solution is and remains the famous slogan of the Muslim Brotherhood, but what does this actually mean today?

 

 

This is a very important question, but perhaps – and this is the third observation – not the most important, which is rather whether the priority is really the foundation of an Islamic state for the young protesters. A few days ago the Sheikh of al-Azhar had to intervene to warn the constituent assembly about the hypothesis of modifying article 2, which lays down that Islam is the state religion and states that sharî’a is the principal source of the legislation. The sheikh’s stance speaks volumes. But the most interesting thing is the 322 comments to the news that could be read a few days ago on the website of the newspaper Ahrâm. There are people who fully support the sheikh and declare that the revolution is all a plot by the Christians (in their opinion the perpetrators of the Alexandria massacre), and there are those who more calmly invite the Egyptians to not be ‘more realistic than the king’, observing that many European countries recognise a state religion in their constitution; others still consider that to keep article 2 is in the interest first of all of the Copts, ‘because the Islamic legislation protects them’.

 

 

Roughly half the opinions, however, are negative. They are Christians who write (you can tell from their names), but also ‘Egyptians’ (without any further denominational definition) and many Muslims. They declare ‘religion to God and Egypt for everyone’ or dismiss the standpoint of the religious authorities with a sententious ‘the time of interference is over’. Others ask for a civic state (dawla madaniyya), a word that in the Arab world indicates a laical state that is not hostile to religion. Many warn: the authorities ‘are trying to play the old game’, dividing Christians and Muslims. There are also those who ask: if Egypt is to remain an Islamic state, why protest so strongly against the neighbouring Jewish state? Also taking the fact with a grain of salt that the huge number of poor living in Egypt is not represented in the comments on forums since they have no access to internet, the impression is that the debate is open and its outcome anything but taken for granted.

 

 

Finally, the Libyan question. Despite some analogies (the role of the youth in the protest, the demand for more freedom, the messaging through the new media) the situation is very different from those in Egypt and Tunisia, even if only because of the relative prosperity which Libya, thanks to its oil and despite the Gaddafi clan’s embezzlements, can boast against its neighbours.

 

 

As it is now clear, a civil war is taking place based on the direction taken by the tribes, which form the one real intermediate body in the Country, since civil society as well as any form of opposition have been brutally repressed for years through Gaddafi’s personality cult and his raving political “intuitions”. Not long ago, Libya had asked the UN to dismember Switzerland between Italy, France and Germany. Similar episodes show the extent of the distance separating Libya from its North African neighbours, and invite great caution in applying to this Country the same parameters as those used for Egypt and Tunisia.

 

 

* A shorter version of this article was published on Avvenire, 19 February, p. 2.

 

 

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