By Vikram Sood
So much has been written and spoken glowingly about the Arab Spring and so many hopes have centred on this these past two years that it is perhaps necessary to revisit this to see how and where these hopes dwindled and why. Let us first get a few things clear in our minds when we speak of the Arab Spring. The description ‘Arab’ is a loose description. The relaxed Islam and liberal attitudes of the Arab of Tunisia have little in common with the dry severe Wahabism of the Arab of Saudi Arabia.
Tunisia, Egypt and Libya were championed as the leaders of the Arab Spring. Yet Tunisians scorned at the Libyans considering them to be filthy rich Bedouins and were always cool towards the Egyptians and neither could understand why Libyans were embroiled in a tribal civil war. Very soon after Gaddafi was brutalised and killed, the new leader declared that all laws that contravened the Sharia were null and void. Egyptians and Tunisians are willing to face off at soccer matches and kill each other.
Apart from this, even the religious practices of the Islam that is observed in the Middle East is not uniform, and the Shia-Sunni schism translates into Iran versus the rest and a struggle for domination and political power. None of the movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, and Yemen were for Islamic ideology, yet today Al Qaeda or the Salafists are present in all these countries, with Mali as the latest entrant into the list.
But when the Shia majority in Bahrain protested against the minority Sunni rulers, a nervous Saudi monarchy sent its tanks across to suppress them and the Arab Spring of this tiny kingdom ended abruptly and no one mourned the end of this movement and its aspirations. The Saudi monarchy was worried about growing Iranian influence in Bahrain and the Americans were naturally concerned with their Centcom bases on the island. Bahrain thus did not qualify for an Arab Spring.
Tunisia is the place where it all started and it is therefore useful to see why it happened there first and where the movement stands in Tunisia and in the rest of the Middle East. Tunisia had been ruled by an authoritarian but secular and much revered ruler Habib Bourgiba for over 30 years till he was overthrown by Ben Ali.
Bourgiba allowed unheard of social freedoms to his people, he gave Tunisia a world class education system, kept the army under control, detested Islamic ideology and championed women’s rights in the Muslim world. Yet this is where the spark was lit by the self-immolation by Mohammed Bouazizi, a street vendor.
The spontaneous uprising had no moorings except that the people were fed up with the untrammelled corruption of Ben Ali and his extended family. The revolt was against the narrow political economic elite. Ironically, after his ouster Ben Ali fled to Wahabi Saudi Arabia, as no other country was willing to grant him shelter.
The Islamists exiled for long by Bourgiba, were not there in the initial phases of the uprising, but were back in business soon enough. Today, the Salafist group Ennahda led by the Islamist Rachid Ghannouchi is the majority party in the Consultative Assembly having relegated all other secular groupings.
The famous Tahrir Square movement of January 2011 in Cairo that had promised so much ended up as feared. There were early indications of the hand of the Ikhwan playing their role carefully. Commenting on this two years ago, I had said “It makes better sense to use the momentum of the present movement to position itself for later negotiations.
Even as it is, there is an attempt to change the discourse by describing the Ikhwan as a moderate force rather like dealing with moderate/good Taliban in Afghanistan”. The anti-Mubarak Twitter and Facebook revolution demanding release from poverty, illiteracy and corruption had soon became anti- US and anti-Israel as the Muslim Brotherhood began to take control. The slogans at Tahrir Square had changed to “Freedom Freedom, Salafiya Salafiya”.
What was hoped to be the flowering of democracies and freedoms in the Middle East in the 21st century has unfortunately morphed into the inevitable rise of religious fundamentalists whose dogma is to violently push their people back at least to the 11th century, if not the 7th century. Tackling this all over the Middle East is going to be much harder. The Arab Spring has really become an Arab Winter and the Global War on Terror is about to resume in different parts in more vicious forms.
Vikram Sood is a former chief of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW)