Arab Spring, Islamist Summer — What Next?

Three years after revolution first hit the Middle East, it remains unclear whether countries in the region will yet forge pluralistic democracies

Faith Features Islam Middle East

There was really no Arab Spring. There was certainly the bursting forth of a pent-up desire amongst the poor for a place at the table. There were protests, even self-immolation, against police brutality attempting to keep the poor out of any productive economic activity. Then there was the jeans-clad and laptop-toting brigade of westernised youngsters who created an electronic revolution which the world’s media mistook for a real one. 

If there was a real “revolution”, the revolutionaries were the well-organised, thoroughly trained and sometimes armed cadres of Islamist movements raging from the “moderates” of the Ikhwan Al-Muslimun (or Muslim Brotherhood), the Salafis and overt or covert affiliates of al-Qaeda. Surveying the scene, I was irresistibly and repeatedly reminded of Tehran in 1979. At that time also, republicans, secular groups, even Communists, as well as moderate Islamists teamed up with those who wished Iran to be a theocracy. The single thing they had in common was a desire to oust the Shah. In this aim, they were, of course, wholly successful; but as soon as the Shah had been removed, the radicals got rid of their erstwhile allies. 

This raises one of the crucial and recurring questions about Islamism and democracy: is it sufficient to win power at the ballot box if this is only a means of replacing the totalitarianism of nationalist despots with that of Islamist radicalism? How can a plural democracy be introduced in such circumstances? What safeguards and checks and balances need to be put in place to ensure the emergence and flourishing of such a democracy?

The dictators had provided a limited amount of personal and religious freedom in return for strict restrictions on political freedom. That was the bargain. You could have stability and an economy that functioned, more or less, in place of political participation and the prospect of change. These arrangements have broken down irretrievably and the question is what is to take their place. 

There may not have been an Arab Spring but this has certainly been a long hot summer: whether with the increasing influence of Salafis in Tunisia, the continuing atrocities on every side in the Syrian civil war or in the dramatic events in Egypt. 

Just as the West sees only the dictatorial character of the Syrian regime without paying much attention to the barbarism of the rebels and the true agenda of some of them, it has also misunderstood events in Egypt. The dominant narrative has been that of a coup which has removed a popularly elected president and replaced him with military puppets. The military is then seen to have moved violently against the peaceful demonstrations of the Brotherhood. 

Such an understanding of the situation is not borne out by expatriates living in Egypt, by diplomatic commentators or by church leaders whose people and buildings have suffered grievously because of the Muslim Brotherhood’s “peaceful” demonstrations. There seems little awareness that the Egyptian elections that followed Hosni Mubarak’s removal took place in a power vacuum, when the Muslim Brotherhood was just about the only organised political force in the country. In spite of this, President Morsi’s victory was only by the narrowest of margins and, partly because of the system, he was elected by a minority of the electorate. 

Against this, the movement to have him removed managed to obtain 22 million signatures and brought millions of people out into the streets of Cairo, Alexandria and other cities. Morsi’s promise to be inclusive never translated into action: there was continuous forced Islamisation, government was paralysed and the economy was a shambles. The Brotherhood’s slogan — Islam is the answer (Islam al-hal) — was proving to be pretty hollow. In the absence of a parliament, how was the situation to be remedied and an unpopular president removed? 

Egyptians are not proud of what happened after Morsi’s removal. The new administration offered the Brotherhood seats in the cabinet but these were turned down. The protesters who had set up camps refused to disperse peacefully and, when repeated attempts at such dispersal had failed, the police, with military backing, began to remove the camps forcibly. There was resistance to this, and armed resistance. Large numbers of both protesters and police were killed or injured. Eyewitness accounts tell us that, in some cases, there was indiscriminate firing on residential areas by elements in the protest movement. It is absolutely right to condemn any disproportionate use of force by the security services but, equally, we cannot condone the cold-blooded killing of policemen as in Sinai. 

The Egyptian church leaders I know are generally patriotic and hopeful (we might say in spite of their experiences). I have never, however, come across such foreboding and fear amongst them as I have since the events that followed the dispersal of the protest camps. Their fears were perfectly justified. Around 50 churches were firebombed, the homes of priests and pastors were attacked, those to be targeted later were marked with a black cross, and even children were killed. Christians were told they had no place in Egyptian society, even though their presence there predates the arrival of Islam by several centuries. 

It has been put to me by those who live in the region that, in geopolitical terms, the West (and particularly the US) is now concentrating its energies on the BRICS and the Pacific Rim, leaving the Middle East to “moderate” Islamism. If this is so, events in Egypt have shown that “moderate” Islamism can very quickly reveal another side and, secondly, that freedom-loving sections of society will not always take such a “handing-over” lying down. 

This is also an appropriate moment to ask Islamists what they really believe about the place of women in society, about marriage and divorce law, female education and employment and a host of other matters having to do with the welfare of half the population of a country. Again, how do they see national integration, especially where non-Muslim religious communities are concerned? What is their view of common citizenship? Without such clarification, we could find ourselves back in a situation of virtual dhimma for non-Muslims. 

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, the freedom to manifest, in public or privately, one’s beliefs in teaching, practice, worship and observance and the right to change one’s religion or belief. Such rights have been reaffirmed in the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights of 1966 and by the UN’s Human Rights Committee. It is interesting, in this connection, to note that the prominence of Article 18 in discussions about fundamental freedoms has repeatedly been challenged by Islamic countries and that an Article 18-like provision is entirely absent in equivalent Islamic declarations of human rights. Why is this and can we expect something different in the future? Such a question is important not only in the context of religious belief but also to guarantee freedom for artists, authors and journalists. Without such freedom, creativity will suffer, imagination will be dimmed and public discussion will ossify. If Article 18 is upheld, naturally, this will mean an end to treating apostasy from Islam as a crime. Punishments for blasphemy would have to cease and only those speeches or acts which incite violence or discrimination against an individual or a group would, as the ICCPR provides, be open to criminal prosecution. Even then, the penalty would have to be commensurate with the crime and not draconian as is the case now.

If by democracy we mean simply the untrammelled rule of numerical majorities, this will not be enough to conserve the precious values and freedoms, mentioned above, which have been agreed internationally. Constitutions being written now or in the future should, if possible, refer to a state’s international obligations. This has, in fact, happened with the new Afghan constitution but it has been honoured more in the breach than in the observance. What role, if any, that sharia will play in the developing jurisprudence of a nation’s life should also be set out, along with some broad principles about how it is to relate to the demands of freedom, plural societies and equality. Some hopeful work has been done in this area by Islamic scholars. We should hear more of it. 

Democracy also needs checks and balances. One of the features of states in the Middle East, for example, has been the tyranny of the few, whether nationalist or Islamist. We have to get beyond this to systems where power is shared and where there are proper checks and balances: between president and parliament; in the work of the judiciary; in the encouragement of a free press; and in the development of a strong civil society to which government is continually responsive. In some situations, as in Egypt, there may have to be a bill of rights or a declaration of citizenship which reiterates the necessity of a common system of law for all and the equality of all before such law. It would, especially, have to note the equality of women and of non-Muslims in the eyes of the state. It should have particular regard for conscience and for the accommodation of belief in the public square and the workplace. 

Instead of feeling that they are constantly being watched, citizens should feel free in their homes, at their places of worship and on the street. They should be free to display their religious symbols (such as a cross) on their persons or their buildings. Women should be free of harassment if they choose not to wear Islamic dress and children should be able to study without that teaching of hate which has so set communities against one another. Above all, citizens should feel at home in their own country rather than outsiders who are tolerated today but tomorrow may face a loss or diminution of their freedom. 

Will the hot summer give way to cooler weather when the future can be reassessed dispassionately? Will the region be ruled indefinitely by sectarian conflict or by a vision of inclusiveness, mutual tolerance and justice? It is incumbent upon the friends of countries in the Middle East not to encourage or sustain sectarianism and extremism in any form but to support progress towards just, participatory and free societies. Neither the Arab Spring nor, as yet, the hot summer have produced any such societies. Let us hope and pray that the coming months will lead to a victory for moderation over fanaticism, for belonging over alienation and for freedom over bondage.