The pro-democracy upheavals that have rocked the Arab world may have been started by secular young Arabs, but it may well be Islamic movements that will finish them.
This notion runs counter to the idea that the Arab Spring of 2011 has little to do with Islam and that Western liberal values are back in vogue.
The Islam-is-down, secularism-is-up theme is one of three common notions about what the aftermath of the upheavals will bring. The second assumption is that greater democracy will emerge. The third is that, as far as the two non-Arab states that compete for influence in the region are concerned, the Iranian regime’s fortunes are looking brighter, and Israel’s much darker.
It’s too soon to tell what exactly will emerge from this remarkable revolutionary period, but it’s not too soon to question some of these popular notions.
Don’t count Islamists out
Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down as president of Egypt two weeks ago, yet the biggest protest rally of them all took place after he was gone. Last Friday’s massive demonstration in Cairo’s Tahrir Square showed that the people of Egypt are concerned their goals of greater empowerment might be hijacked by the armed forces now in command.
It also showed just how religious the people protesting really are. When it came time to pray, the vast majority did so, but the square and adjacent streets were so packed there wasn’t enough room for all of them to touch their foreheads to the ground as is the practice. Instead, many were obliged to touch their foreheads to the backs of the persons kneeling in front of them.
“I’ve never seen that before,” marvelled Karim Alrawi, an Egyptian playwright and human-rights activist, who watched the scene from the roof of an adjacent building.
During the early stages of Egypt’s popular uprising, the Muslim Brotherhood, the outlawed but best organized movement in the country, was nowhere to be seen. Gradually, however, its presence increased.
Small numbers took part in the protest’s “day of rage.” Then when the protesters set up camp in Tahrir Square, it was the Brotherhood that took over security, checking everyone who entered for weapons. They were instrumental in fighting off pro-Mubarak thugs who attacked people in the square, and in setting up first-aid stations for the injured. They even cleaned up in the square, methodically picking up litter, right down to cigarette butts.
This week, the movement announced it plans to establish not one but two new parties to run for office – one for older established supporters, another for the young. In fact, said Esam el-Erian, a member of the movement’s executive bureau, he expects there will four Brotherhood-linked parties by the time an election is held.
They want people to have the widest range of choices within the Islamist tent.
“It would be wrong to count out the Islamist movements, as many people are,” says Alastair Crooke, the Beirut-based director of Conflicts Forum. “This is not a post-Islamic era we are embarking on,” he said, “but a new chapter of Islamism.”
The divisions within Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood that are leading to several different parties are an example of a new kind of openness in the Islamist movements, said Mr. Crooke, author of Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution.
To be sure, in countries where there have been elections, Islamist parties increased in size – Algeria in 1991, Turkey in the 1990s and 2000s, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and the Palestinian territories in 2006.
With real freedoms, religious parties can expect to do reasonably well not only in Egypt, but also in Tunisia where Islamist parties had previously been illegal, as well as in Algeria, Libya and Bahrain.
This is a worrying fact, said Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs Centre in Herzliya, Israel. He points to the return to Egypt of the exiled Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi as the reason why so many packed Tahrir Square last week, and the reason for concern.
“It was Qaradawi who, in critiquing Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, argued that Islamists should always participate in elections because they would invariably win them,” Mr. Rubin said. “Hamas and Hezbollah have shown that he was right.”
It’s not just Islamists who turn to Islam, Mr. Crooke said. “A lot of Arabs look to Islam for their values.”
A recent survey, for example, showed that 95 per cent of Egyptians believe Islam should play a large role in politics, even though only about 20 per cent support the Muslim Brotherhood.
Only 14 per cent have a favourable opinion of the United States, Mr. Crooke pointed out.
“They aren’t likely to look to the West for their values,” he said. “That’s where a lot of their problems came from,” a reference to neo-liberalism that enriched a class of Arabs but left out many others.
The growth of Islamic movements doesn’t necessarily mean a growth in radicalism. In countries where Islamic movements have been allowed to run for office, the process tends to moderate them.
Of course, noted Mr. Alrawi, “if the current democratic revolution fails, and freedoms are not established ... we’ll then see a spike in radical Islam.”
Don’t count on too much democracy
Those protesters in Tahrir Square last week have reason to be worried: What’s happened so far in Egypt is more of a military coup than a popular revolution. It’s the army that has sweeping powers, including the power to determine the pace of democratic reform.
This is one of the harsh realities the Arab world faces: Overthrowing a dictator is one thing; institutionalizing democracy is a lot harder.
In the case of Egypt, “don’t expect the armed forces to yield their privileged position,” said Michael Bell, a former Canadian ambassador to Egypt, and to Jordan, and Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Egypt’s military is an economic conglomerate, with retired generals running companies that manufacture cars, appliances and several other products, all with enormous tax breaks.
Many in the armed forces also agree with their colleague, Vice-President Omar Suleiman, that Egyptians are not ready for democracy.
The most that can be hoped for, said Mr. Bell, is some degree of reform allowing for greater freedom of expression and freer elections, as well as policies to abate corruption.
It’s not going to be some Western-style democracy, neither in Egypt nor in any of the other fledgling Arab democracies.
“The Turkish model is the best that can be hoped for,” said Mr. Bell, referring to a system in which the armed forces are the guarantor of the constitution, staying in the background and coming forward only if the elected government violates it.
But “Egypt and Tunisia,” said Mr. Bell, “are the only Arab countries with a reasonable chance of success in advancing even these democratic norms.”
Democracy is most stable in countries with high income, low levels of injustice and plenty of democratic experience.
No Arab country has all of those conditions; only a few have two of the three.
Yemen and Libya have little or no chance of success in establishing democracy, Mr. Bell added. Both suffer from powerful tribal tensions. As well, the United States is concerned with security issues in Yemen, and Europe is concerned about refugees from Libya.
“They’d probably like a benign autocrat to run things if they could find one,” he said.
Going further down the list, “Bahrain and Syria are highly questionable” as candidates for democracy. In both cases, the people are governed by a minority – the Sunnis in Bahrain, the Alawites in Syria. “This means the rulers will never give up power willingly,” Mr. Bell said. “It would mean political suicide.”
In fact, a former Western diplomat said he would expect Saudi Arabia to take action in Bahrain rather than allow the Emirate to concede too much power to the majority Shiites.
Saudi Arabia has its own restive Shia population and worries it might be encouraged by Shia gains in Bahrain.
Iran and Israel
When Egypt’s popular uprising was under way, many Israelis expected it would collapse; in fact, most wanted the revolt to fail.
It wasn’t that they were so enamoured of Mr. Mubarak or what they called the “cold peace” that exists between the countries. It was that they were frightened about possible alternatives.
What happens if Egypt elects an Islamist parliament or president, or if Iran’s influence in the region is enhanced?
While Islamic influences in Egypt’s parliament are likely to increase, as they may well increase elsewhere, Egypt’s armed forces are not about to allow an anti-Israeli Islamist to rule.
But Israel needs to move quickly – and boldly – to ensure it isn't isolated by the fast-moving events in the region.
Israel should “rush to create a Palestinian state along sustainable and fair lines ... and thus avoid decades of future confrontation based on this profound Arab need,” John Bell, director of Middle East programs at the Toledo International Center for Peace in Madrid wrote in Haaretz this month. “The status quo,” Mr. Bell wrote, “guarantees conflict.”
Which is more or less the point made recently by Charles Bronfman, the Canadian businessman and philanthropist and one of Israel’s great supporters.
Writing in Yedioth Aharonoth last week, Mr. Bronfman noted the exciting opportunities for democracy in the Arab world and for Israel to work with such democracies. But he added that Israel “is seen as an occupier denying freedom to the Palestinians as surely as Hosni Mubarak denied freedom to the Egyptian people. As long as it fails to end the occupation, Israel will be seen to be on the wrong side of history.”
You knew that history was changed when two Iranian warships sailed north through the Suez Canal and into the Mediterranean last week. Until now, the only unusual passage through the canal was by Israeli warships heading in the opposite direction.
Not only did the new governing authority in Egypt give permission for the Iranian vessels to pass – something Mr. Mubarak wouldn’t countenance – but the ships also docked beforehand in the Saudi Arabian Red Sea port of Jeddah.
These are new developments, said Mr. Crooke, “A major shift has taken place.”
Egypt’s pro-Israel, anti-Iran disposition is breaking down, Mr. Crooke said. “And Saudi Arabia knows what that means.”
As the world knows from WikiLeaks, the House of Saud feels threatened by Iran and has allied itself with Egypt, the UAE and Jordan in a pro-U.S. camp that supports policies intended to buttress Israel and keep Iran in check.
Should that group weaken, Riyadh will have to take other steps to protect itself.
But isn’t it possible the popular uprising in the Arab countries will encourage pro-democracy elements in Iran to follow suit, and that in turn could lead to less aggressive Iranian policies?
Mr. Crooke is among the pessimists who doesn’t think so. “Iran and Syria,” he says, “are the least likely of all the countries in the region” to be affected by this Arab phenomenon.
Iran has been there, and tried that, he said, most recently in June of 2009 in the wake of allegations of election fraud. It failed to move a government prepared to use official and unofficial forces to fire on the people.
Michel de Salaberry, a former Canadian ambassador to Iran, as well to Egypt and Jordan, doesn’t agree.
“This pro-democracy movement in the Arab world actually started in Tehran a year and a half ago,” said Mr. de Salaberry, who was in Tehran at the time and has been in Cairo the past several weeks. “I think its success in Egypt and elsewhere may very well reignite the opposition in Iran.”
“I think this worries the [Iranian]regime a great deal.”