12/06/2012, 00.00
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Unfinished: the Arab Spring’s Islamic winter

by Samir Khalil Samir
Almost two years after the Arab uprising, the Middle East finds itself increasingly Islamist and increasingly violent. Yet the young people had fought for greater dignity and freedom. It is a job half done: freed of dictators, but still without full democracy. The great scholar of Islam Samir Khalil Samir offers his vision (Part One)

Beirut (AsiaNews) - Sadness prevails in the Middle East over the turn that the Arab Spring is taking. The most significant image is that of young people these days peacefully besieging Mohamed Morsi's presidential palace in Heliopolis.

After nearly two years we are still at the starting point, faced with a fresh attempt at dictatorship. It seems that the Arab Spring has been swept away. In addition, there is an increasingly clear bias towards Islam. This is evident in Cairo, but also in Tunisia, Libya and Syria.

The Arab Spring: bread, work and dignity!

The Arab Spring was the first rebellion against regimes that were born from a military revolution which gradually gave way to full scale dictatorships. The protest movements that have emerged in the past two years are a sign that there is a consciousness among the Arabs that says: We are fed up, and the force was such that it overthrew these dictatorships. It was an improvised protest against poverty and unemployment, and for more freedom and dignity.

But this is the destruens, destructive, successful part, backed by a willingness to change these countries. Now, however, it must be followed by the constructive part, based on the ability to build a better and democratic society.

Egypt, the "Muslim Brotherhood" and Sunni fundamentalism
But it seems almost impossible to build a democratic system: there are at least 3 generations that do not know what democracy is. In Egypt, until 1952 there was a weak monarchy that had delegated power to Britain. There was indeed a form of democracy, but for the rich and the wealthy, who failed to address social issues.

Abdel Nasser exploited this very failing: his was a social revolution. Soon, however, we slipped from an authoritarian system under Nasser, to an increasingly dictatorial under Mubarak; for more than 60 years people have only learned to obey, not to think of any changes. Sometimes the government has dared to carry out some more or less beneficial reforms, as was the case in Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq, Syria. So we do not know what a democratic regime means, and we can not learn this in only two years!

The long road to democracy

The problem now is to learn how to succeed in bringing democracy to laws and structures. But this can not be improvised.

In fact, who took power? The more organized. The young people who carried out the revolution had no experience in government. They wanted to change and have changed, but failed to propose a party or political entity.

Those who had experience, but belonged to the old regime were put aside. The only organizations left were that had been marginalized by the old regime, but active during the dictatorship, namely the Muslim Brotherhood.

So with false promises, clever tricks, manipulation, the Muslim Brotherhood managed to climb to power. In addition, the fact that as much as 40% of the Egyptian population is illiterate has encouraged the Islamists enough to claim that their party is based on the divine law, sharia, and not atheism or human laws, to convince them.

Therefore the fact that both that young and old have reacted by rejecting the absolute power of Morsi, is very important. People also realize that the problem is not only Morsi, but the entire Islamist movement.

The current drama in Egypt - and the Middle East - is that everyone wants democracy, but we do not know what it is.

We know what it is not democracy - such as the power structure of the Muslim Brotherhood - but we do not know how to define it.

It might take decades to finally outline some positive social project. But we can begin right now by helping prepare the ground work for full democracy. For example, until we have a higher illiteracy rate (more than 40%), there will be no democracy. Those who can not read, can not fully follow current affairs and depend on others for information, thus they do not have the ability to discern, to assess whether a proposal is constructive or not.

The ordinary man and religious authority

On the other hand, the illiterate - usually the ordinary man - depends on religion, because in good faith, he believes that the things of God are the best. He has been repeatedly taught that the imams know what God wants, that sharia is the best legislation possible, that the Koran is the total perfection ... And so he listens to the imam, who tell him that the Koranic model is the best model for society, even if it is only promoted by Islamic fundamentalists. But he does not reflect on the fact that while this model may be perfect for the seventh century, for Saudi Arabia, a Bedouin society, it may not be so for a modern, industrialized, globalized economy.

Unfortunately, the Egyptians slavishly follow the imams and their interpretation of God. If one dares to ask, "Why pray? Why pray five times a day?" They all respond," It is God who wants it". And so people are silent. Long years of education are needed to change this subjection to the imams.

The education system is based on memorization, not only of the Koran and some sayings of Muhammad, or of incomprehensible pre-Islamic poetry, but also history and even science and mathematics. Students in school today learn things by heart, but they do not learn to think in a personal way, to reflect. This will also take time.

The essential test: the social challenge

Another important element will be the encounter between the Islamist proposal and the social situation. Now that the Muslim Brotherhood began to govern it will have to demonstrate that it can govern well, that the unemployment rate will decrease, the economy will improve. If this does not happen, people will reconsider the veracity of their promises.

The Islamists have always said that Islam obliges us to justice, that the rich must help the poor. Their motto is "Islam is the solution" (Al-Islâm huwa l-hall). In response to every question: "Islam is the solution." The moment of confrontation has arrived: if in practice they do not change anything, then those claims will be proven to be no more than an empty ideology. And this will be a stage in the process that leads to democracy.

These days Morsi is carrying out a sort of coup d'état: he has given himself complete power: executive, legislative and judicial. On 21 November, Mohamed al-Baradei, Nobel Laureate, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and founder of the Egyptian al-Dostour new party, said: "Mohamed Morsi has now usurped all the powers of the state and is in fact a self-proclaimed new Pharaoh". Then he approved the Constituent Assembly (devoid of many social partners, including Christians and liberals) and launched a lame referendum on the constitution...

But it has provoked a huge reaction: this too is the beginning of democracy!

The function of the army

What is somewhat surprising about the Egyptian revolution is that the army - which was supposed to be the secularizing strength within society - has remained totally silent before this Islamic wave. One suspects that this shift towards radical Islam suits the army; the United States, which is the major contributor to the army budget;  Qatar and Imam Qaradawi, who was initially opposed to the Arab Spring, but now that all governments born of it are Islamists, supports them.

To understand, we must admit that in Egypt the army follows whoever holds power and supports the military. If the Muslim Brotherhood guarantees the privileges the military has acquired, then the army in return will agree to support the new power. The military is not ideological, but practical. Now it realizes that the government is Islamist and it accepts it. It is a little different from the Turkish army, which is true instrument of Ataturk's secularism. The Egyptians tend to be less schematic, quicker to easy deals, less staunch in its support.

It must also be said that the Egyptian Islamism is not terroristic. Whenever there is a terrorist act, Morsi condemns it. Moreover, he made a great impression mediating between Hamas and Israel in Gaza. And for that the army and the people are somewhat calmer in their approach.

My impression is that the Arab world - and perhaps throughout the Muslim world - will have to move from a military dictatorship, to a strongly Islamic dictatorship because people are religious, Muslim and still respects this ideal of society.
The new stage will be the practical reality that will let people be the judges. For now, the jury is out and largely in favor of Islam. But if in time Islam fails to improve people's lot, then the ideals that underlie the Islamists agenda will appear as a pure falsehood. This could give way to a popular reaction that could lead to a healthy secularism in Arab society. In the end, those who guarantee food and work will win.

(End of Part One)


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