Arab Spring has spread fundamentalism, not secularism


Religious fervour has been strengthened by upheaval and may pose a bigger threat to Israel, writes MICHAEL JANSEN

THE ARAB Spring is sweeping away the pan-Arab secular nationalist order that has dominated the region since the 1950s, and replacing it with the rule of democratically elected parties rooted in religion. Secular liberals who mounted regime-changing uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and pressed the government of Morocco to carry out reforms are facing a bitter winter of discontent.

The liberal revolutionaries – who are distrusted by the urban and rural poor – are partly to blame for this state of affairs. Instead of uniting under one banner and producing a clear programme of reform, they have splintered into bickering factions, allowing well-established and well-organised Muslim fundamentalists to triumph in elections.

The main problem for the revolutionaries is that they are identified with the secular pan-Arab nationalists, represented by the Arab Nationalist Movement (Nasserites) and the Baath party, which embodied the hopes and dreams of Arabs for more than six decades. Although they won independence from western colonial regimes, the nationalists failed to unite the Arabs, bring economic advancement to a majority, fend off western intervention, and resolve the Palestine problem. In countries where these parties reigned, they behaved autocratically, appropriated resources, widened the gulf between rich and poor, squabbled with each other, and betrayed the Palestinians.

The failure of the secular nationalists was not entirely their fault. These parties have had to contend with Saudi-inspired and sponsored fundamentalists as well as intervention from the US and Israel which have sought to undermine, co-opt or oust Arab nationalist regimes.

Arab Spring revolutionaries express concern that secular dictators may be replaced by autocratic fundamentalists whom the Saudis, the West and Israel seem prepared to tolerate or even welcome.

In Tunisia, the first Arab country where a veteran leader was ousted, the moderate al-Nahda party took 40 per cent of the seats in the country’s new assembly. A new cabinet has been formed, a constitutional com- mission established, and the assembly is empowered to legislate until fresh elections are held.

While Moroccans are still ruled by a monarch, popular pressure compelled him to draft a new constitution and conduct a parliamentary poll. It was won by the moderately fundamentalist Justice and Development party.

The fundamentalists’ most dramatic electoral success so far has been in Egypt, where the mainstream Muslim Brotherhood, moderate Wasat and radical Salafis have taken nearly two-thirds of the vote in the first and second of three rounds in the election for the lower house of parliament. The surprising aspect of this development is the strong showing of the Salafis who made their debut in democratic politics in this election.

With the aim of assuaging the fears of secularists and Christians, the ruling military council has vowed to maintain its grip on power while the brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice party, has declared that it will not form a coalition with the Salafist Noor party.

Freedom and Justice could instead join with Wasat, the liberal Egyptian bloc, and the secular Wafd in a broad-based coalition.

Freedom and Justice declares it is committed to a “civil” or secular state and to respecting the freedoms of all Egyptians. However, as a political entity rooted in religion, the party may not be able to stand up to pressure from the ultra-orthodox Salafis and their supporters who seek to install Muslim sharia as the law of the land and, ultimately, transform Egypt into an “Islamic state”.

In Tunisia and Morocco, the Salafis are less strong than in Egypt and less able to exert leverage on the moderates to adopt a more radical line.

In Libya, where regime change was effected by war, the Salafi Islamic Fighting Group – which fielded a large proportion of the militiamen who defeated the forces of Muammar Gadafy – is now asserting its right to a prominent place in political life.

In Yemen, where conflict still rages, the largest and best-organised opposition party is the tribal and fundamentalist Islah. Once President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his family are absent from the scene and elections are held, Islah could secure a substantial bloc of seats in parliament.

In Syria, the secular Assad regime faces a revolt from liberal groups and the revived Muslim Brotherhood, crushed during a rebellion in 1982.

Instead of flowering into multiparty democracy, the Arab Spring may not only give birth to authoritarian Sunni fundamentalist rule but also promote Sunni unity from Morocco to the Gulf, Egypt being the trendsetter. If this happens the fundamentalists could confront Iran, the region’s Shia power, and its ally Iraq, and forge a solid front against Israel instead of making peace with it. Israel is seen by the overwhelming majority of fundamentalists as not only an illegal occupier of Palestine but as a usurper of sacred Muslim soil.