Arab Winter of Despair
By S P Seth
February 20, 2013
The Arab Spring is turning into a long winter of despair. Tunisia — the country where it all started, and was making some headway — is in trouble with the murder of a prominent opposition leader who was a strong and vocal critic of the country’s Islamist government. Chokri Belaid, head of the leftwing Democratic Party, was recently shot outside his home. He was a human rights activist, and was reportedly receiving daily threats to his life for his criticism of the ruling party, al-Nahda, for its tolerance, if not encouragement, of violence by Islamists. Even though Tunisia’s prime minister has strongly condemned the murder, the protest rallies against the government are blaming the ruling party for the violence in the country of which Belaid is the most prominent political victim. The night before he was killed, Belaid told Tunisian television, “There are groups inside al-Nahda inciting violence...all those who oppose al-Nahda become the targets of violence.” He was obviously not expecting it to happen to him the very next day.
Tunisia, the first Arab country to overthrow its despotic ruler and that too without much bloodshed, was a trigger as well as a role model of sorts for other Arab countries. It looks like that might not be the case any more as Tunisia struggles to make a peaceful transition to democracy.
Just as in Tunisia, Egypt is also undergoing a continuing political crisis. There too, the country’s Islamist government is pitted against liberal/secular forces and minority groups. Add to this the country’s activist women groups protesting against sexual assaults for participating in the protests and it would appear that nothing much has really changed in two years after the revolution that brought down Mubarak.
The protests against President Morsi of the Freedom and Justice Party, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, started with his assumption of emergency powers late last year to rush through the country’s new constitution with almost all the opposition members absenting themselves from the assembly in protest. It was not a smart move if the Muslim Brotherhood were keen to create national consensus over a document that would chart the way forward for a new Egypt emerging out of revolutionary catharsis. Even though the constitution was passed in a referendum, the voter turnout of about 30 percent was pitifully low to make it a credible exercise.
The point is that the concerted attempt by the Muslim Brotherhood to use the country’s nascent and emerging democratic process for a power grab to push its Islamist agenda and to silence the opposition will never work by turning almost half of the country into a perpetual mode of protest. The National Salvation Front of secular, liberal, minorities and women’s groups that indeed pioneered the revolution against the Mubarak dictatorship are refusing to be silenced by the Muslim Brotherhood.
The protest rallies in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in the country against what many regard as usurpation of their revolution by the Muslim Brotherhood are a testimony to this. At a time when the country is in all sorts of trouble, its prime minister has the luxury of making inane and stupid comments reportedly blaming young mothers for being responsible for the spread of diarrhea among infants because they do not take care of their personal hygiene and do not keep their bodies clean.
Why have things gone so wrong in Egypt? The simple answer is that the Muslim Brotherhood has been shifty about shared commitment to the revolution. They were late in rallying around and even then maintained a distance of sorts from other protesters against the Mubarak regime. And when they came around, they sought to assure the revolutionary movement that they were not in it for a power grab. For instance, the Brotherhood spokesmen first said that they would only contest 20 percent of parliament’s seats, gradually increasing their share to fighting for the majority of seats.
They had also said they would not put up a candidate for the presidential election. Because, as one of their spokesmen reportedly said, “We want to send a message to every party to make them realise that Islamists are not seeking to dominate power.” They will be, “Participating, not dominating.” But they did precisely that with Morsi winning the presidency in a tight contest between a former Mubarak-era prime minister, Shafik, who still garnered 48.3 percent against Morsi’s 51.7 percent. They had also let it be known that they would collaborate with Christians and secularists. But we know that they railroaded the assembly into approving their constitution against the opposition’s wishes.
Even as the secularists were being assured that the revamped Muslim Brotherhood was much more collaborative, Morsi had emphatically said, “I swear before God...regardless of what is written in the constitution, Sharia will be applied.” No wonder there is a large trust deficit about the Brotherhood as far as other parties are concerned. And unless the Brotherhood takes some cogent and concrete steps to bridge that deficit, they will continue to be a highly divisive political force, thus inviting popular protests, even turmoil, in the country. With the economy in free fall, and the country increasingly ungovernable, the romance of the revolution is degenerating into street brawls and worse.
While Tunisia and Egypt seem to be going backwards, Libya — another country in the orbit of the Arab Spring — does not appear to be making much headway. It is true that Gaddafi, who ruled the country for nearly 40 years with an iron hand, is now no more. It has held elections and now has a civilian government. But it is also true that the country’s new civilian government is not terribly effective, which sometimes make Libya look like a disparate collection of militias with their own agenda and writ. There is resistance to any kind of central control. At the same time, some of the militant Islamists and terrorists are keen to turn the country into an Islamic haven. The country’s borders with some of its African neighbours are highly porous with all sorts of Islamist militants, drug runners and gunrunners further complicating the picture.
The Arab Spring is proving disastrous for Syria, with a bloody stalemate between the Bashar al-Assad regime and an assorted collection of rebels, with one group, Jabhat al-Nusra, even branded terrorist by the US. The recently formed national alliance of the rebel groups is not proving any more effective than before. It is still anybody’s guess how the Syrian tragedy, which has already cost an estimated 70,000 lives, will be resolved because both sides, the Bashar regime and the rebels, appear determined to fight it out.
The Arab Spring that started with so much promise and hope is becoming more like a saga of utmost despair. One good thing, though, has come out of the sweeping Arab revolution, which is that people have lost the fear of their regimes and will not submit to arbitrary rule. And that is bound to be good in the future.
The writer is a senior journalist and academic based in Sydney, Australia.