Monday, December 16, 2013

Year Four of the Arab Awakening. By Marwan Muasher.

Year Four of the Arab Awakening. By Marwan Muasher. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, December 12, 2013.


How will history judge the uprisings that started in many parts of the Arab world in 2011? The label “Arab Spring” proved too simplistic from the beginning. Transformational processes defy black-and-white expectations, but in the end, will the awakenings be more reminiscent of what happened in Europe in 1848, when several uprisings took place within a few weeks only to be followed by counterrevolutions and renewed authoritarian rule? Or will they more closely resemble the 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union, after which some countries swiftly democratized while others remained in thrall to dictatorship?
Whatever the case, it is clear that the process of Arab transformation will need decades to mature and that its success is by no means guaranteed. The movements driving it are more unanimous about what they are against than about what they are for. But the debate to define this awakening has begun.
Transforming the movements sweeping the Middle East into coherent and effective forces of change will take time. In all of history, no such process has taken only two or three years to mature, evolve, and stabilize. The question over the long term is whether the present changes, however uncertain and difficult, will lead to democratic societies. The coming year will offer signs that indicate whether countries of the Arab world are heading toward democracy and pluralism or away from them.
2014 will see the countries of the Middle East moving in different directions, with some making strides toward genuine democratic transitions while other governments perpetuate timeworn policies that allow them to avoid addressing the very real social, political, and economic challenges they face.

Dynamics at Play
There are three key dynamics shaping the evolution of the Arab Awakening. The first and perhaps most important consequence of the Arab uprisings is the transformation of Islamist movements—mostly offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood—from opposition groups into major political forces in most countries undergoing transitions. This shift is most evident in Tunisia, Morocco, and, to a lesser extent, Libya and Yemen. It was also true of Egypt until the military overthrew the elected Islamist government last summer.
And political Islam will continue to be a driving factor during the next year of the Arab Awakening, albeit in a different way. There has been a significant drop in public support for Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia. This development has seriously challenged the notion of the “Islamist threat”—the idea, widely held in some circles and often used by secular parties to discourage the election of Islamists, that political Islamist forces would never leave power once they acquired it. The same Egyptians who voted Islamists in demonstrated in unprecedented numbers against them in the short course of one year, confirming what many polls have already suggested: no matter how conservative or religious the Arab street is, it judges the forces in power by their performance, not their ideology.
In Egypt, the fact that then president Mohamed Morsi was removed by the military rather than by voters may well negate any lesson that might have been learned about the consequences for leaders who fail to deliver results. But in Tunisia, the ruling Islamist party, Ennahda, has been steadily losing support to a coalition of secular forces. And unlike in Egypt, the Tunisian army has not mitigated this process by intervening. Meanwhile, the largest Salafi political force in Egypt has aligned itself not with the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamist Freedom and Justice Party but with the military. These developments suggest that Islamists, even radical Islamists, are open to compromise once they become part of the political process.
Over the past few years, Islamists have lost their “holiness” in the Arab world. Their once-popular slogan, “Islam is the solution,” is no longer attractive to wide sectors of the population. Three years after the Arab uprisings, youthful and pragmatic populations are starting to embrace the triumph of performance over ideology in the region. Faced with such pressure, Islamists will have to reinvent themselves, offering practical solutions to economic challenges facing Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and other countries if they are to retain what once appeared to be their invincible popularity.
The second factor influencing the Arab transitions arises from the two internal battles political Islam appears to be fighting—one between the offshoot movements of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi groups and the other between Sunni and Shia Muslims. The first might determine to a great extent the future course of political Islam—whether it will be inclusionary or fundamentalist, peaceful or radical, reactionary or modern, or less clearly delineated.
The second fight is especially worrisome. The tension between Sunnis and Shia is rising to an alarming degree in countries like Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and most horrifically in Syria. And political demands in all these countries are turning sectarian. In many cases, particularly in the Gulf, this “sectarianization” of politics is being aggravated by government policies of exclusion and discrimination.
The Sunni-Shia divide underscores the region’s lack of respect for diversity in any form—religious, political, or cultural. This division is not only religious but also often political and cultural. It is true that the Sykes-Picot Agreement between the United Kingdom and France created artificial entities when it divided up the Ottoman Empire and drew the boundaries of the modern Middle Eastern nations in 1916. But it is also true that most Arab governments have not developed in their countries a sense of true citizenship in which national identity trumps any other allegiances to religious, ethnic, or tribal identities. This is particularly evident in the Mashreq region, where it is clearly manifested in countries such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. The grievances of the Shia in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait are more political than religious and largely stem from being treated as less than full citizens. The problem is less severe in the Maghreb, where Egyptians and Tunisians, for example, thought of themselves as such long before the modern states of Egypt and Tunisia were created.
The last factor shaping the Arab Awakening is the secular forces, which have not easily accepted the rise of political Islam. These forces have behaved in a way that seems to suggest that they are fine with democracy only as long as it brings them to power. In other words, secular forces are engaging in the very antidemocratic practices they accuse the Islamists of following, as demonstrated by their support for the Egyptian military’s removal of Morsi (granted, that action was a result of millions of Egyptians taking to the street to oppose the president).