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Edition 14 Volume 10 - April 19, 2012

The Arab revolutions: strategic assessment I

A prospective opinion on the Tunisian revolution  - Amor Boubakri
Tunisia was the first Arab and first Muslim country to adopt a bill of rights in 1857 and a constitution in 1861.

Supporting revolution or counter-revolution?  - an interview with Oraib Al-Rantawi
We don't want another Anbar on our border.

Egypt's history unfolding in strange ways  - Abdel Monem Said Aly
Egypt has become a classic case of the tyranny of the majority.

The morning after  - Patrick Seale
The post-revolutionary awakening has been rude.

A prospective opinion on the Tunisian revolution
 Amor Boubakri

The grassroots revolution in Tunisia has raised several questions among observers about the prospects for democracy and whether Tunisia will be able to achieve a genuine transition into a real and sustainable democratic regime. There is no need here to go back to the nineteenth century and recall the rooted origins of political reformism in Tunisia inspired by constitutionalism. It is worthy mentioning, in this respect, that Tunisia was the first Arab and first Muslim country to adopt a bill of rights in 1857 and a constitution in 1861. Since 1956 Tunisia has been--and remains until now--the sole Arab country to abolish polygamy and ban traditional marriage and divorce.

To focus exclusively on the recent events in Tunisia, we can say that serious challenges to the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had begun at least in 1998. Indeed, during his entire rule, Ben Ali only benefited from a short respite from these challenges, mainly from 1992 to 1996. During this period, the dictatorship reached critical levels and rare were those who had the courage to defy the dangerous regime's authoritarian drift. Civil society and the political opposition were mercilessly oppressed. A huge number of militants from all sensibilities were jailed after unfair trials and widespread use of torture and other abuses. All these violations were regularly reported by Amnesty International and other human rights organizations. The year 1998 was the beginning of the first break in the silence when some militants decided to create the National Council for Liberties, a national organization that was never recognized by the regime. Some interesting reports issued by the NCL on human rights in Tunisia had a great impact among activists and opened the way to more challenging actions against the dictatorship.

The brutal oppression wielded by Ben Ali's regime forced Islamists and secular militants to cooperate and unify means in the struggle against dictatorship. Consequently, the various political sensibilities and trends have learned to work together with mutual respect and tolerance. It is rare indeed to see in the Arab region secular political parties accept Islamist movements or to see Islamists and communists fighting together against dictatorship. The seeds of a genuine democratic and peaceful coexistence between the actors of a future democracy were already (albeit unconsciously) planted by Ben Ali himself. In other words, the ingredients for a constructive political life exist in Tunisian society. Ben Ali aimed to create a total void in society to avoid any alternative rule except his own one. This plan has, obviously, failed thanks to great sacrifices made by the Tunisian elite and militants.

Moreover, the important role of professional organisations in Tunisia should be taken into account. In the first line of resistance, we find mainly the General Tunisian Union of Labor that is a unique workers' union in Tunisia that includes all professional categories except the liberal professions. The UGTT has been in existence since 1945 and has always played an important role in modern Tunisia. It fought for social justice and defended the material and moral interests of all categories of workers without exception. The most important role assumed by the UGTT was obviously the promotion and protection of the middle class, the real motor of political change and reform in modern Tunisia.

In addition to the UGTT, professionals such as journalists and judges have played a notable role in recent years. Lawyers in particular had a decisive role in the resistance against dictatorship. The Tunisian Bar Association has always been an open challenger of Ben Ali and in the last few days of the dictatorship, lawyers wearing suits were in the streets, demonstrating with ordinary people.

The Tunisian revolution against dictatorship is thus the result of an interesting dynamism within Tunisian society over the last few years. Political parties, non-governmental organizations and other actors have all played a decisive role in making the end of Ben Ali's dictatorship possible.

And as a result, the basis for a genuine and sustainable democracy already exists in Tunisia. The first phase of the transition, from January 14 to October 23, 2011, showed that a peaceful rotation of power is possible in the Arab region despite the absence of democratic traditions. However, the most important challenges of the Tunisian revolution have yet to be tackled by the Tunisian government. These problems, if they remain without efficient solutions, could undermine the future of democracy in Tunisia. Indeed, the young and jobless cannot wait longer to see change in their lives. Marginalized people need a concrete and positive transformation to believe that democracy will be useful for them.-Published 19/4/2012 © bitterlemons.org

Amor Boubakri teaches at the University of Sousse in Tunisia.

Supporting revolution or counter-revolution?
an interview with  Oraib Al-Rantawi

BI: You have described the "Arab spring" as increasingly a Sunni-Shiite conflict. Can you elaborate?

Al-Rantawi: This is not a new conflict among Arabs and Muslims. It began in the 1970s with the Iranian Islamic revolution and the rise of the [Sunni] Salafists that was fueled by huge oil revenues. For the Salafists, Shia Islam is a challenge, a threat, sometimes the enemy. Since then we have witnessed a conflict between two camps. For the Saudis and Qataris in particular, the only way to confront Iran and the Shiites is to empower the Salafist movement. They seek to counterbalance the influence of Iran in many countries: Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Libya and especially the Gulf.

This conflict peaked after the July 2006 war in Lebanon, when Hizballah gained support and Iran was perceived to have gained more ground by playing the Shiite card against the Sunnis. That war was the benchmark; after it, [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak and the Saudis sought to redirect the Salafist movement so as to confront the new threat from Iran, Shiism, the Shiite crescent, etc. This is the same coalition as in the Cold War, when Arab moderate regimes counterbalanced the Soviets in Afghanistan and elsewhere by means of the Salafists. Now they are redirecting the Salafist movement to confront Iran and its allies in the Middle East.

BI: And moving from 2006 to the past year of Arab revolution . . .

Al-Rantawi: Most of the conservative Arab kingdoms believe the Arab spring presents a serious challenge or threat to their future. Hence they need a new strategy. This has sparked Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, for example, to spend $93 billion in a day on domestic benefits to put his internal front in order, to seek to enlarge the Gulf Cooperation Council by adding Jordan and Morocco, to resolve internal GCC conflicts, and to support Arab regimes that confront the Arab resistance camp. In Egypt, the Qataris and Saudis support the Salafists in an effort to contain the revolution by means of a Salafi counter-revolution. The same holds in additional Arab countries.

BI: Isn't Syria now the main arena?

Al-Rantawi: Yes. The revolution in Syria is a very alarming point. There, Qatar is supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia the Salafist movement in a Sunni coalition against the Shiites, an Arab coalition against Persians.

BI: How does this affect the broader Arab world?

Al-Rantawi: At the end of the day, the Sunni-Shiite conflict hurts the structure of our society. New identities are threatening Arab state and national identities. Their future is under threat. Supporting revolution in Syria by actually supporting counter-revolution endangers us.

BI: And in Jordan, your country?

Al-Rantawi: Jordan is part of this equation. We have strong Islamist and Salafist movements and a weak democracy and liberal camp. If the Islamists and Salafists triumph in Syria, they will profit in Jordan. Saudi Arabia is openly pressuring Jordan in recent days to intervene in Syria and to accept problematic alternatives there. I'm quite sure Jordan is not happy with the Syrian regime, but it needs to be satisfied with the alternative; it doesn't want the Islamists and Salafists. We don't want another [Iraqi Sunni province of] Anbar on our border. This would lead to the question, who will rule Jordan. Therefore Jordan's approach to the Syria crisis is very conservative and cautious.-Published 19/4/2012 bitterlemons-international.org

Oraib Al-Rantawi is director of Al-Quds Center for Political Studies, Amman.

Egypt's history unfolding in strange ways
 Abdel Monem Said Aly

Omar Suleiman, the former Egyptian vice president and head of General Intelligence, is back. This time, after 14 months of silence, he has returned as a candidate for presidential elections. Within 24 hours of his bowing to the "will of the people" to run, he obtained 60,000 legally-certified nomination signatures from the general public. His name jumped to the top, with over 30 percent support, in Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies' weekly poll of support for the presidential candidates.

The response was the return of the Muslim Brothers and a pack of their allies to Tahrir square on Friday, April 13. Other revolutionary forces made plans to come to the square the following Friday. The Islamist-dominated parliament amended the election law to prevent the top leadership of the former regime from participating in national elections. Faced with the unconstitutionality of this new ruling, the Islamist response was that "revolutionary legitimacy is supreme over legalistic legitimacy."

The Egyptian revolution has now come full circle, after it was thought that the Egyptian spring had reached its zenith and was moving toward institutionalization. The revolutionary forces of youth, Islamists, opposition parties, and lesser angry groups once more confront the regime of Hosni Mubarak--even if the ex-president is in medical custody awaiting his verdict while his close associates are in prison in the company of his sons.

This new round of confrontation was totally unexpected. Revolutionary fever had gradually been leaving Egypt, yielding to the slow but steady return and build-up of its lost institutions, the legislative branch and security system. After 28 distinct million-person demonstrations in the streets and squares of big cities and urban areas, all with their clashes with army and police, the general public was no longer prepared to tolerate this pace. The millions were soon to dwindle into hundreds or a few thousands protesting low wages or asking for sectoral demands. The revolution was technically over when the revolutionaries failed to commemorate the key anniversary of Mubarak's resignation on February 11 of this year.

In many ways, the country has been changing. For one, during the revolutionary year Egyptians produced two million more babies that took the country's population to the frontiers of 90 million. Demographic change has proved resilient in posing a challenge to whoever is going to rule the country. In terms of economic statistics, the country is going to ruin: according to all indicators, Egypt should have declared bankruptcy in 2011. In terms of poverty indicators, the country is returning to where it was in 1990.

Yet, despite apparent economic decline, Egypt has proven capable of holding itself together, partly because of the reserves left from the Mubarak regime, partly because of its large-size informal economic sector--about 35 percent, and foremost due to the legendary Egyptian capacity for patience and waiting for better days to come.
Politically, Egypt has known a number of changes unthinkable during the former regime. The constitutional amendments of March 19, 2011 curtailed the president's powers and limited him to two four-year terms. For the first time since the July 23, 1952 revolution Egypt witnessed free elections for the lower and upper chambers of parliament. What seemingly remains in order for Egypt to become a democratic country is to put a democratic constitution in place and hold similarly free and democratic elections for the presidency. As many as 23 candidates for the presidency filed with the High Election Commission, a legal body that was established to run the process.

But history unfolds in strange ways, and dreams usually do not come true. The sum-total of the changes in Egypt is the dominance of Islam led by the Muslim Brothers. The Islamists control more than two-thirds of parliament and are better organized and financed than any of the other political forces on the right or the left. Egypt has become a classic case of the tyranny of the majority, as quickly reflected in elections to the Constitutional Assembly and the presidency.

On the first count, the constitution, the Islamists were prepared to dominate its creation. Secular members of the Assembly withdrew, refusing to participate in the drafting of an Islamic constitution. The Administrative Court then ruled that the formation of the Assembly was unconstitutional. On the second count, the presidency, the Islamists changed their mind and submitted a candidate, Kheirat Ashatter. The Salafists did the same with their candidate, Hazem Abo Ismail. Both candidacies seriously violate constitutional presidential requirements. They and others, including Suleiman, were disallowed, pending appeal, by the High Election Commission.

The fielding of a strong candidate from the former regime, the relative change in the Egyptian general mood, the failure of the Constitutional Assembly, and fears for the failure of two Islamist candidates--all brought the Islamists back into the streets to get what they had failed to obtain through legal means. The revolutionaries were waking up to a new situation. History is still unfolding.-Published 19/4/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org

Abdel Monem Said Aly is a writer and political analyst at Al Ahram newspaper in Cairo.

The morning after
 Patrick Seale

Much of the hope and fervor aroused in the Arab world by the revolutions of 2011 had, by the spring of 2012, been dispelled. Instead, disillusion and anxiety are now widespread, together with growing economic hardship.

On the surface, the revolutions have radically transformed the political landscape by ousting leaders who had dominated their respective countries for decades--Muammar Gaddafi in Libya since 1969; Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen since 1978; Hosni Mubarak in Egypt since 1981 and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia since 1987. Although battered and destabilized, Syria's Bashar Assad has so far managed to survive the uprising in his country. Yet much the same forces that toppled the others have challenged him. The Assads, father and son, have been in power since 1970, and the Baath Party they head since 1963. These long tenures of power have inevitably led to widespread abuses and political fossilization. A radical reform of the Syrian political system, whether led by Assad or someone else, seems unavoidable.

The revolutions are the result of the coming of age of a new Arab generation for whom the old leaders--with their autocratic habits, one-party systems and corrupt entourage--had become an intolerable anachronism. Activists of this new generation were the rebellious leaders of the so-called "youth bulge", which has afflicted every Arab country almost without exception. Arab fertility rates in the last half century have been too high. When Gamal Abdel Nasser took power in Egypt in 1952 there were 18 million Egyptians; today there are 85 million--a demographic explosion that country after country across the region can match.

Economic growth has been unable to keep pace with the needs of rapidly expanding populations. Overburdened government services are unable to cope, especially in the fields of health and education. Most important of all, jobs have become very scarce. The main motor driving the "Arab spring" has been the frustrations of semi-educated youth for whom there are no jobs, together with the glaring grievances of urban and rural poor, who see no prospects of a better life for themselves and their families.

The post-revolutionary awakening has been rude. In several countries, especially in Egypt and Yemen, powerful vestiges of the old regimes are still in place, while the economic situation in all of them is today a good deal worse than it was under the old dictators. Egypt and Tunisia have lost their vital tourist income, together with inward investment. Indeed, capital has fled. Yemen, the poorest of Arab countries, afflicted by armed uprisings in both north and south, is a "failed state", dependent on charity from its Gulf neighbors. Libya has substantial oil resources but has yet to tame warring warlords or produce a coherent government whose writ covers the whole country. Syria's economy has suffered severe damage from a 13-month uprising and from international sanctions. Trade is virtually at a standstill and unemployment very high. Those with little or no savings have suffered the most. Even if the current ceasefire holds and a measure of calm is restored, it will take years for tourists and investors to feel confident enough to return.

The Islamic wave sweeping the region as a result of post-revolutionary elections has attracted much foreign concern. What sort of rule is to be expected from the Muslim Brothers who, in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia--and of course in Syria as well--have been repressed for decades, their leaders imprisoned or driven into exile? Will they seek to impose Islamic sharia? Will cultural life and the status of women be affected? Will they be hostile to western interests?

In fact, the Islamists are unlikely to have an easy ride in power. They will have to wrestle with severe economic problems. Their electorate is bound to be disappointed when they fail to show speedy results. In addition, they will also have to reckon with forces in society who will not welcome their advent. In Tunisia, western-educated middle classes will act as a counterweight to the Islamists; in Egypt, the army is likely to keep the Muslim Brothers on a fairly tight rein; in Syria, hard-core Islamists face strong opposition from minorities such as Alawites, Christians and Druze, as well as from the professional and merchant classes in the big cities.

Nevertheless, the electoral triumph of the Muslim Brothers in country after country does point to a rejection by the Arab masses of a western model of society. In states like Egypt and across North Africa, there is a palpable yearning for the revival of an Arab-Muslim identity, with its own social norms, family values and cultural traditions.

To that extent, is it far-fetched to see the Arab spring as only the latest phase of the long-aborted Arab struggle for independence?-Published 19/4/2012 © bitterlemons.org

Patrick Seale has written numerous books on the Middle East. His latest is "The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East" (Cambridge University Press).

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