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The War Within Islam ( 30 Aug 2013, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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The Arab Spring...Gone Too Soon?



By Dr Haider Shah

August 31, 2013

Forge a tactical alliance with Jihadis recruited through Saudi Arabia, bring down the enemy regime and then later on when those Jihadis become a pain, send troops to clean the country of the mess they create

After the spectacular uprisings in many Arab speaking countries in 2011 it seemed then that the mighty dynasties were collapsing under their own weight and the marginalised common man in the street had finally started calling the shots. No wonder many analysts started believing that the second decade of the 21st century would turn out to be the era of democracy for the Arab world.

Not everyone was so optimistic. In a piece on Arab Spring I had stated that demolishing an old order is an easy part while establishing a new order proves the more arduous and demanding stage of a revolution. Just as the South African leader Nelson Mandela had demonstrated, the test of success for a revolutionary change is the ability of change mangers to take everyone along. I had contended in my analysis of the Arab Spring that if the new political order guaranteed gender equality and rights of minorities in accordance with the UN charter of human rights, we would all call 2011 the year of democratic revolution in the Arab world.

I was not alone in raising a sceptical voice though, as many analysts in international media were also raising similar concerns. In fact, within a few months the phrase “wither the Arab Spring” became commonplace in commentaries on the Arab world. For instance, on July 18, 2011, a video discussion appeared on The Economist’s website titled “Wither the Arab Spring” wherein various determinants of possible failure were identified. After the debacle in Egypt and the Syrian imbroglio one can now pronounce the sad demise of the Arab revolution. Who is to be blamed for this early death of a promising new era in the Arab world? Those who are hostile to the West will naturally lay all blame upon the villainous Western countries that conspire relentlessly against Muslim countries. Our liberal analysts will be tempted to find all faults within the Muslim community.

 If we take a more impassionate view we can realise that it is not a case of simple black and white as interplay of many factors can be spotted. The first fault line in the Arab world is its inability to make a break with its history.

The Shia-Sunni divide that cut through the social fabric of early Muslim history still keeps the Muslim society precariously fractured along sectarian identities. Religion based cultures find burying hatchets of the past difficult as we see that even in the 21st century residents of Ireland experience violence due to its religious past. Iran and Saudi Arabia are involved in a cold war as both aim to claim leadership of the 1.6 billion strong Muslim community of the world. Just like the US and Soviet Union of Warsaw Pact days, Iran and Saudi Arabia use proxies against each other in conflicts all over the world. In the Syrian civil war we see Iran and Saudi Arabia fighting out the sectarian war as well. This is a dimension of the crisis that may not augur well for Pakistan, given the already tense sectarian situation over here.

There are conflicting territorial ambitions of various Muslim countries that add another fault line to the landscape. Saudi Arabia had in the past been aiding Sunni movements like Muslim Brotherhood (MB) but of late became apprehensive of MB’s populist appeal and began to see it like a Frankenstein’s monster. Turkey supported Morsi government as it could see its economic interests best served by a moderate Muslim democratic government in Egypt. While the US expressed its concerns over the military takeover in Egypt, Saudi government opened its coffers to help the military regime address economic difficulties in Egypt. Both Saudi and Israeli government are happy to deal with a military government in Egypt as a democratic and popular government is more difficult to deal with and both countries feel threatened by an elected government on their borders.

The third fault line of the Arab world is the divide between traditionalists and modernists. While the intelligentsia, students, minorities and urban dwellers press for human rights and liberal interpretation of doctrinal laws the traditionalists draw their support from rural and tribal sections of the Arab world. The secular forces, unfortunately, when in government, have often governed miserably and hence the popular discontent went in favour of traditionalists. In Palestine, Egypt, Turkey, and now in Pakistan as well, secular political groups lost support of a common voter because of their poor track record in governance.

The spectacle of tanks rolling over the bodies of supporters of a party that had clinched power through ballot was repugnantly obscene. The relative quiet in the case of Egypt and vociferous activism in the case of Syria exposes the hypocritical side of international players. It seems that in Syria another Afghanistan is being re-enacted. Forge a tactical alliance with Jihadis recruited through Saudi Arabia, bring down the enemy regime and then later on when those Jihadis become a pain, send troops to clean the country of the mess they create. One thought the Western powers must have become wiser by now. But maybe history repeats itself despite the lessons it gives out to its clever readers.

Adding a note of caution, I had concluded in my writing in 2011 that we had to remain sceptic as many masked robbers could be seen accompanying the caravan of Arab revolutionaries. It seems that the robbers have struck. The short-lived Arab Spring is no more.

Dr Haider Shah teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of the Rationalist Society of Pakistan.