Three Big Challenges Threatening the Arab Uprisings
With the fall of Muammar Qaddafi’s headquarters in Bab Al-Aziziyyah in Tripoli on August 23, Libya became the third country to oust its long-serving dictator after the fall of Tunisia’s Zein-al-bedin Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak earlier this year.
The failed assassination attempt on Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh on June 3, has kept him outside the country, recovering from his injuries in Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, the large daily peaceful protests of tens of thousands of Yemenis in many of the country’s cities and provinces have expanded, demanding the ouster of Saleh’s relatives and cronies from power.
In Syria, Bashar Al-Assad has been struggling for more than six months to contain his people’s daily discontent and maintain his grip on power to save his increasingly isolated and weakened regime.
However, the popular uprisings sweeping much of the Arab world this year are facing three crucial predicaments. How the different sides in each political theatre deal with these critical issues will determine the future of these societies, as they undergo their genuine popular revolutions, and a change in leadership, for the first time in decades.
Prevalent problems that usually accompany major shake-ups in society such as political chaos, relative lack of security, endemic corruption, and severe day-to-day economic hardships are symptoms of much greater issues. They cannot be dealt with effectively until the major challenges facing the nation are resolved.
Although each country has its own local conditions and special circumstances, there are many common factors facing the uprisings of the Arab spring. In particular, there are three main intricate challenges engulfing the Arab revolts since their inception.
1. The revolutionaries are not in charge
Popular revolutions are rare in history because they face the daunting task of establishing a new political and socio-economic order in society based on the people’s will.
The successful ones usually empower the revolutionaries to institute the new order, first by dismantling the old order and rooting out its adherents and supporters. The American, French, Soviet, Cuban, and Iranian revolutions are good examples of one system being fundamentally abandoned and cleansed of its remnants, then replaced by a new order.
But the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions were prematurely aborted. Shortly after successfully overthrowing the despised dictators, the levers of power in both countries were taken over by people who were either part of the old regime or have not effectively embraced the goals of the popular revolutions.
For example, in Tunisia people affiliated with Ben Ali or his predecessor Habib Bourgiba have maintained their political clout, and in some instances even risen to the height of power. They present themselves, despite their miserable records, as saviors of the popular revolution. Meanwhile, many of the officers associated with the much-despised interior ministry and secret police have also been retained and reorganized.
In Egypt, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has cast itself as the rescuer of the revolution. But as it took control of the country, many of the revolutionary and popular demands were either delayed or reluctantly instituted, usually after the people took to the streets.
As it seized power after the forced resignation of Mubarak, the military council promised a transitional period of no more than six months followed by free and fair elections. Since then, it has postponed the elections twice and has not announced a new date for the parliamentary or presidential elections.
But since March, it has tried over 12,000 civilians in summary military courts, a feat not even matched by Mubarak who, during his three-decade reign, sent one thousand people to military courts. The UN Human Rights Commissioner has strongly criticized the military trials, calling on SCAF to halt them and to retry the convicted persons in open civilian trials.
In a recent episode, thousands of Egyptian youth protested the lack of an adequate response by the SCAF to the unjustified Israeli killing of five Egyptian soldiers along the Gaza-Egypt border. They charged that by adhering to Israeli and American dictates and ignoring Egyptian public opinion, the military’s response was no different than Mubarak’s.
In anger, the youth protested in front of the Israeli embassy, knocked down the wall surrounding it, and stormed the building to take down the Israeli flag waving above. In the process, they seized thousands of documents that expose the degree of cooperation between both countries on such unpopular policies as maintaining the blockade on Gaza during the Mubarak regime. In response to this protest, SCAF announced the resumption of the dreaded emergency security laws, threatening a massive crackdown and long prison sentences.
Consequently, most political parties, social movements, and major presidential candidates have been so alarmed and outraged by SCAF’s action that they have threatened to go to the streets by the millions unless the emergency laws are rescinded and elections dates announced.
In short, revolutions are about fundamental transformations to the political structure and power relationships in the country as well as the redistribution of resources within society, not a change in personalities or modalities.
But so far much of the changes have been cosmetic and superficial. Unless those who led the revolutions, sacrificing their blood and livelihoods along the way, are elected and put in charge to lead the reforms and carry out the demands of the people, no genuine change can actually take place.
2. The role of Islam in society
In the midst of the struggle to oust each regime, the tension between the Islamic movements on the one hand, and the secular and liberal trends on the other, was kept under the surface as all political oppositions were united in their goal to defeat and overthrow their dictatorship. But once the regimes were toppled, old rivalries reemerged and ideological debates resurfaced, generating discord and mistrust.
For years, secularists and liberals feared that Islamic political movements secretly intended to impose a religious state and were just paying lip service to democratic principles. While many Islamists affirm their commitment to democracy, they charge their rivals with having an anti-religion and a liberal pro-Western hidden agenda.
This mistrust between the two camps in Egypt has become so rife that in many instances public accusations were rampant, as were calls to boycott each other’s events.
The liberal and secular camp believes that the Islamic groups are much more organized, better placed to win the elections and thus dictate a new pro-Islamic constitution. Consequently, they initiated a campaign to convince SCAF to issue a decree that would supersede any future constitution in order to guarantee certain principles.
Dubbed “above the constitution,” they would ensure that the constitution could never be amended. They also hint that the army should serve as the protector of the state against any encroachment of religion in state affairs, much like the role the Turkish army played in the second half of the last century.
The Islamic camp argues that having principles that are above the constitution is in itself an undemocratic practice. Many of its leaders insist that they seek a civil state that will have a modern and democratic constitution enshrining pluralism and basic civil rights.
While both camps agree that Shari‘a would be the basic source of legislation, they differ on how this principle would be applied in reality and how widely they will be allowed to interpret it. Similar pronouncements and disputes between both camps have also been raging in Tunisia, as the country prepares to elect a body to write the future constitution.
Furthermore, throughout the armed struggle between the National Transitional Council (NTC) and the Qaddafi regime, both the secular pro-Western and Islamic camps cooperated in their objective to depose the Libyan dictator. However, both sides distrusted and frustrated each other throughout months of struggles against the Qaddafi loyalists.
The Libyan Islamists accuse the pro-Western secularists within the NTC of making deals with NATO countries that are detrimental to the country. In addition, they charge them with conspiring against them. For instance, in late July the pro-secularist military commander of the Libyan opposition Gen. Abdelfattah Younis was gunned down by his own Islamically-oriented contingent of troops in retaliation for allegedly conspiring with NATO to attack them covertly.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior Libyan official recently appointed as the NTC representative in a major European country asserted that Younis used to give NATO the coordinates of the positions for aerial bombardment of members of his own troops that he considered “too Islamic.”
Thus, in many instances NATO was considered to have bombed the wrong targets, not because of technical errors, but because they were deliberately fed misleading information. The senior official further claims that over seventy percent of the Libyan insurgents who fought on the ground are Islamists who objected to the intervention of NATO and Western forces.
Shortly after the fall of Tripoli, this dispute came to the surface, as the acting Prime Minister, Mahmoud Jibril, admitted that the NTC was not in control of many of its armed groups. Meanwhile, Sheikh Ali Sallabi, a prominent religious leader, called for the resignation of Jibril and many of his colleagues, including the finance, communications and oil ministers. He accused them of being corrupt pro-Western stooges “stealing the revolution.”
Meanwhile, the military heads of the Tripoli brigade Abdel Hakim Belhaj, and Benghazi’s Ismail Sallabi, in charge of security and defense of these two major cities, have been accused by NATO officials of being anti-Western Islamists. Belhaj was in fact a former victim of the CIA rendition program, in which he was arrested by the United States, rendered to Libya, and tortured by the Qaddafi regime during the Bush administration.
In a recent interview, NATO’s secretary Anders Fogh Rasmussen predictably sided with the pro-Western liberals, expressing concerns that “Islamic extremists” would “try to exploit” the situation in the country. Similar sentiments and warnings have also been expressed against the popular uprisings in Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain.
But the role of Islam in society should not be a source of tension and discord among political groups. There is no denying that Islam, as a religion and culture, has played a major role in shaping the identity and history of the region for over a millennium. This heritage and legacy will undoubtedly play a significant role in shaping the future of the region within the democratic nature of the civil state.
Thus for the objectives of the revolutions to be realized, both ideological camps should commit themselves to the principles of democratic governance and respect the will of the people with no imposition of one’s vision over the other.
3. The role of foreign powers
Undoubtedly the Arab spring has taken Western countries by surprise. In the early days of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, the U.S. and Europe supported the deposed regimes before belatedly supporting their people who overthrew them.
In Libya, the West quickly turned against Qaddafi in an attempt to seize the momentum and steer the revolution towards a pro-Western regime in a country that’s awash in oil and natural gas. Meanwhile, Western powers, especially the United States, have been instrumental in playing a behind-the-scenes role -along with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries-in trying to save the Saleh regime in the face of the massive demonstrations across Yemen.
The major objectives that have guided Western policy toward the Middle East over the past six decades have not changed. They are, namely: 1) to control access to oil and natural resources, sea lanes, and the massive wealth hoarded by a few Gulf families; 2) to protect Israel militarily and politically, even as it is an occupier and a regional bully; and 3) to maintain regional stability and ensure market accessibility to its products, military arms and other multinational economic interests.
Hence, the attempt by the West to maintain the policies of the former regimes should not be in doubt. When the Egyptian government lifted the Gaza blockade at the end of May, it only took a few members of the U.S. Congress to warn that U.S. aid to Egypt and in fact the future of US-Egypt relations were at stake, for SCAF to reverse its decision and close the Rafah crossing three days later.
In its bill to fund US foreign assistance to Egypt, Congress, in a total disregard to the will of the Egyptian people, imposed the humiliating demand that “the Secretary of State certifies that Egypt is not controlled by a foreign terrorist organization,” and that Egypt is “taking steps to detect and destroy the smuggling network and tunnels between Egypt and the Gaza strip.” It further stipulated that the military aid should be used for “border security programs and activities in the Sinai, with the expectation that the Egyptian military will continue to adhere to and implement the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty.”
In essence, the major concern of U.S policymakers and other Western officials is how to keep these countries in their orbit, and to maintain control of their economies according to the dictates of the IMF, the World Bank, and the multinational corporations. Congress has also appropriated over $120M for “promoting democracy” in Egypt and Tunisia, a staggering amount to be spent in order to directly impact the outcome of the upcoming elections, a direct interference in the internal affairs of sovereign nations.
The continuation of foreign interference in the internal affairs of the Arab World, particularly in the countries where the people have asserted their will and taken to the streets to topple their dictators, will continue to sour Arab public opinion against the West. Because of its unabashed meddling, it is questionable whether the U.S. and other Western countries truly respect and honor the will of the Arab people and their aspirations for freedom and self-determination.
Esam Al-Amin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org