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Middle East and Africa

The Arab revolutions, a democratic turn

Two years after the beginning of the uprisings that are still going on in the Arab world it is quite difficult to give an opinion on their outcome and direction. What will happen? Where are they going? These are questions that can only be answered with conjectures. The totally unexpected revolutions in Tunisia first of all and then in Egypt, from which issued those in Libya, Bahrain and Yemen, the unrest in Jordan, the reforms in Morocco and, last of all, the overwhelmingly complex conflict in Syria, with its ramifications in the whole neighbourhood and in the region itself, have been summarised in the name of ‘Arab spring’ in the west. The occidentals have seen a continuation of the third wave of democratisation in the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, which began after the Cold War with the fall of Communism in western Europe and Russia and continued with the various ‘coloured’ revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia and elsewhere. Everyone was in fact impressed by the fact that the citizens were not questioning either religion, or Israel, or the United States, but were aiming directly at their freedom.

 

Then it was seen that the revolutionaries were an urban vanguard of a movement aimed at aggregating the Islam inspired forces, which were much bigger and organised than the vanguard, and were being dominated by these forces. Thus, the Arab spring, as an essentially democratic and secular revolution, remained rather pathetically in the background. Consequently the opposing definitions prevailed of Arab revolts and Islamic awakening, according to the viewpoints and political and ideological preferences.

 

Therefore, a change that at the beginning seemed essentially democratic turned out to be a great deal more complex and, above all, diversified. Nonetheless, one thing is certain: the historical Arab passiveness with respect to existing regimes has been overcome. Even the Salafis, who take the legitimacy of their rulers for granted (unless a fatwa of their religious leaders) and are politically quietist, have founded political parties. Particularly in Egypt – somewhat less in Tunisia – they actively take part in political life and take standpoints. It is difficult for this development to turn out to be reversible. Therefore – besides the nature of the movement and its definition – there is undoubtedly a democratic factor in it, or that is, the awareness by the citizens and the masses of their own identity and rights. This means that, should by some misfortune the transition go towards a new authoritarianism, which is what many think, the latter will not have an easy time and will have to deal with a strong opposition. In this sense the 2011 revolutions are anyway a democratic U-turn in Arab history, which even the most closed regimes, like those in the Arab peninsula, must tackle sooner or later.

 

In the immediate future, as we have just said, while the movement affects the whole region, the developments are very different from country to country. The two laboratories that are actually open are the two precursors, Tunisia and Egypt. Elsewhere the movement has taken different directions, as in Morocco and Jordan, where the actual legitimisation of the respective monarchies restricts the reformist surge, in Libya and Yemen, where the internal conflicts, religious and tribal, seriously limit the sphere of politics, and in Syria and Lebanon, where the change is prevented by powerful regional factors (Iran) and transnational ones (the jihadists and Al-Qa’ida). Therefore, how are the transitions proceeding in Egypt and Tunisia? In two very different directions.

 

While in Egypt as every day goes by, a confused and ambiguous dynamic seems moreover to indicate the transition from a secular authoritarian regime to a religious but equally authoritarian one – a ‘pharaonic’ regime, as many Egyptian commentators stress – in Tunisia a no less complex and painful transition seems instead directed towards an authentically democratic regime, supported by an open and tolerant Islamism.

 

In short the two dynamics could be summarised in this way: in Egypt, the ousting of Mubarak was made possible by the fact that the military put an end to the regime, taking advantage of the popular revolt. In fact, there was a coup by the military who then took over the leadership of a proclaimed transition to democracy. But when the general elections were widely won by the Muslim Brotherhood, the military began a trial of strength with the winners in alliance with the oppositions, above all the old regime. When the presidential elections came, the military desisted and left the way free to the election of the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohammed Morsi.

 

Immediately afterwards the ambiguous old military guard was put in a minority by younger military, who came to an agreement with Morsi, withdrawing from the political scene. At the end of 2012, with a fragmented but increasingly militant opposition, Morsi made a series of objectively authoritarian steps, among which giving himself legislative power, steps that ended up dividing the country. Since then, while the authoritarian aspects grow, the socio-economic situation continues to deteriorate without the government showing the necessary competence to do anything about it.

 

In Tunisia, the representatives of political Islam won the elections, but they formed a coalition government with two secular parties. Owing to the dissent within the majority party an-Nahda between an inclusive and secularising policy and an ideologically more orthodox one, and to the hardened opposition of laical representatives of the old regime, this government had a difficult life until the political crisis triggered by the assassination of a laical leader, Belaïd. This was however overcome thanks to the prevailing of the moderate wing of Rachid Ghannouchi within an-Nahda. A competent government corresponds to this greater political stability, which is beginning to be quite evidently on its way up again, even though Tunisia is still in a serious socio-economic situation.

 

At a political level both in Tunisia and in Egypt the main question is the polarisation between Islamists and non-Islamists. The non-Islamists, the secular or religious and cultural minorities, do not consider the Islamists capable of leading the government with a democratic spirit, that is to say, inclusive and respectful of the rights of the minorities. The Islamists seem more influenced by their fundamentalist currents and somewhat less so by those aware of the need to build inclusive, equalitarian and differentiated societies. On this basis an increasingly die-hard clash has arisen.

 

While in Tunisia the road to democracy seems to be bristling with risks, but totally credible, the same cannot be said of Egypt. If one looks at the same countries from the point of view of ideas and plans, it is also clear that in the Tunisian ruling elite an ideological vision prevails that is coherent with its political openness, while in Egypt there is great animation in the oppositions and the various Islamist representatives far from power (like at the Al-Azhar university), but nothing comes from the sphere of power – in particular – from the Muslim Brotherhood and their party. In Tunisia therefore there is a hope for internal dialogue that is lacking or is weaker in Egypt.

 

This is well documented in the ‘Oasis’ number dedicated to transition, with numerous articles by Tunisians, all of which are of great interest. Professor Zeghal’s article explains the Tunisian intellectual pathway very well, as reflected in the thought of Rachid Ghannouchi. On the one hand, this philosophy links the development of Islamic society to the degree of development of the conscience of the faithful and their level of education; there is therefore a long transition, which had already appeared in the Hamas vision, when this movement spoke of ‘hudna’ with regard to Israel. On the other hand, the development of Islamic society is presented in its history and national characteristics, like the personal statute introduced at Bourghiba’s time, which cannot but take it into account.

 

On this intellectual basis, the destiny of the Tunisian political transition obviously appears more linear and defined than the Egyptian one. Nevertheless, any forecast at all is hard to make. The Tunisian transition is a chance for dialogue for those of the west interested in a clearer dialogue than the Egyptian one. What must the Occidentals do that interestedly observe today’s on going transitions in the Arab world? To try to influence is useless and risky. To increase the opportunities for dialogue and to maintain maximum openness is useful and that is what must be done, according to the all evident spirit of the ‘Oasis’ number.

 

 

 

Roberto Aliboni, Scientific adviser at the Istituto Affari Internazionali-IAI, Rome

 

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