Uprisings morph into wider struggles
Predicting the outcomes of major political transitions is hazardous. Dominant trends are in tension with existing political forces. Power relations distort political ideals, ideology and interests, creating surprising contingent alliances, including with external actors. Opportunities are missed and people forget fundamental change takes time.
Such thoughts are prompted by current events in the Middle East and North Africa. What began as apparently homogenous popular revolutions for democracy and liberty in Tunisia and Egypt morph into struggles over the proper role of religion in the political order. Revolts in Yemen and Bahrain and top- down reforms in Morocco and Jordan underline the diversity of change. Libya and Syria bring vicious regional and global geopolitics into play.
Commentators reframe Arab spring as Islamic winter, losing sight of the need to explain why religion should have such an appeal in the first place and then to observe how positions change during political participation and the exercise of power.
Economic underpinnings of the events are also neglected. These societies are among the weakest in the middling ranks of world development for youth unemployment, migratory drainage of talent and dependence on imported foodstuffs. The uprisings were provoked in good part by the 50-80 per cent price explosion in basic foods of late 2010, exposing how the 30-40 per cent of the Tunisian and Egyptian populations living in primary poverty on $2 a day depend on food subsidies.
Neoliberal reforms from the 1980s shook up closed economies but unreformed political regimes ensured the fruits of reform passed to existing elites in much more unequal societies.
These conditions persist and have even been made more severe, since revolutions are costly. Societies going through them need support in encouraging investment flows, but get it belatedly as external actors such as the EU wait to see who takes power before fully committing resources.
This point was made by Walid Mahmoud Abdelnasser, director general for policy planning and crisis management in the Egyptian foreign ministry, at a seminar for diplomats from the EuroMed region in the University of Malta last week.
Such hesitation in providing substantial economic support could, he said, “prove to be a self-defeating strategy, as social and economic failures could potentially abort democratic transformation”.
Nor will these transitions be helped by unsympathetic western attitudes to the boundaries these emerging societies set between freedom of expression and defaming others’ religions and beliefs. There is an opportunity, he said, to develop a “genuine, sincere and effective socio-cultural and interfaith dialogue” dealing with this question.
His good advice is necessary to avoid a clash of ignorances when interpreting the record of Islamic movements and parties in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere. The transition from opposition to power has altered them as they bargain, compromise and become pragmatic agents of government. The Muslim Brotherhood parties prioritised politics over religion in winning the Egyptian, Tunisian and Moroccan elections.
Religion is more foregrounded during the current constitution writing in the first two states, where they face competition from puritanical Salafis with 25 per cent electoral support who insist on applying Sharia law, inspired by the Gulf states’ bid for regional domination. But many Islamists see the need for compromise with secularist, women’s and nationalist forces whose agreement is necessary if the constitutions are to endure. The Islamists are not an undifferentiated bloc.
The same pragmatism applies in foreign policy. The Islamists have not insisted on a jihad against Israel, even if they have certainly shifted Arab opinion more towards Hamas and against the Jewish state. But they are willing to deflect or postpone that for political and economic support from Europe and the United States. Israel’s current escalation of the Gaza conflict could alter that, of course, illustrating well the volatility of this political transition.
It seems too soon to say its real outcome is an empowered Islam, as two influential commentators, Hussein Agha and Robert Malley, tentatively conclude in the New York Review of Books. Their vivid portrayal of a scramble for power bereft of political vision in which the only consistency is a religiosity inspired by the Ottoman past makes the current confusion too definitive.
They allow that power could dilute and undermine the Islamists’ traditional appeal. They also admit the nonIslamist, nationalist and anti-colonial “progressivist” forces could then stage a comeback. But these too would probably be changed utterly by the great forces at play.