The Arab Autumn

26 November 2011

Progress Report: The Arab Autumn

By Gwynne Dyer

The “Arab Spring” was fast and dramatic: non-violent revolutions in the streets removed dictators in Tunisia and Egypt in a matter of weeks, and similar revolutions got underway in Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen. The “Arab Autumn” is a much slower and messier affair, but despite the carnage in Syria and the turbulent run-up to Egypt’s first democratic elections, the signs are still positive.

Demonstrators in Bahrain were driven from the streets by massive military force, and Libya’s revolution only triumphed after Western military intervention in support of the rebels. In both Syria and Yemen, originally non-violent protests risk tipping into civil wars. But there is still more good news than bad.

In October Tunisia held its first-ever free election, and produced a coalition government that is broadly acceptable to most Tunisians. Some worry that the leading role that the local Islamic party, Ennahda, gained in the new government bodes ill for one of the Arab world’s more secular societies, but Ennahda’s leaders promise to respect the rights of less religious Tunisians, and there is no reason not to believe them.

Last weekend, elections in Morocco produced a similar result, with the main Islamic party, the Justice and Development Party, gaining the largest share of the votes but not an absolute majority. It will doubtless play a leading role in the new government, but it will not seek to impose its views and values on everybody else.

This Moroccan party took its name from the ruling Justice and Development (AK) party in Turkey, an Islamic party that has won three elections in a row and presided over the fastest economic growth in Turkey’s history. Like the AK Party, the Moroccan version is socially conservative, pro-free market, and fully obedient to the secular constitution.

These parties are “Muslim Democrats”, as one AK Party member in Turkey put it, comparing them to the Christian Democratic parties of Western Europe. They have nothing to do with radical Islamist groups like al-Qaeda. They are simply the natural repository for the votes of conservative people in a Muslim society, just as the Republican Party automatically gets the votes of most Christian conservatives in the United States.

There was no revolution in Morocco: the new constitution that was approved by referendum last July was an attempt by King Mohamed VI to get ahead of the demands for more democracy that are sweeping the Arab world. It obliges the king to choose the prime minister from the party that wins the most seats in parliament, rather than just naming whomever he pleases, and restricts his freedom of action in several other ways.

Similar changes are underway in Jordan, where King Abdullah II is also trying to ward off more radical demands for reform. And even the deeply conservative monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula all supported the Arab League’s decision last weekend to impose sanctions against the brutal Assad regime in Syria, including an asset freeze and an embargo on investments.

Syria may yet drift into civil war, but its fellow Arab states are taking their responsibilities seriously: only two Arab countries voted against the sanctions. And Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, resigned on 23 November after months of prevarication and 33 years in power, giving that country at least a chance of making progress towards a democratic future.

Egypt, by far the biggest Arab country, this week sees the start of parliamentary elections that will roll across the country region by region until early January. Demonstrators have re-occupied Tahrir Square in Cairo, claiming that the army wants to hold on to power, but things are not quite what they seem.

The army has already conceded that the new president should be elected by next June rather than six months later, but the demos on the square were not really about that. They were an attempt to force the postponement of the parliamentary elections.

The newly formed liberal and secular parties tacitly back the demonstrators because they fear that the Muslim Brotherhood will win these elections. It may well do so, because it continued to operate in a semi-underground way during the Mubarak dictatorship while the old liberal parties just faded away. But the fact that some parties are not as ready as others for the elections is not an excuse to postpone them: Egypt urgently needs an elected government.

It will soon have one, and if the Muslim Brotherhood plays a major role in it, why not? It has long outgrown its original radicalism, and you can’t postpone democracy forever just because you don’t fully trust your fellow citizens.

That leaves Bahrain, the one Arab country where the “Arab Spring” was comprehensively crushed. But in Bahrain last week, the king received the report of an independent commission which concluded that there was no Iranian plot behind the demonstrations, and that many detainees had been “blindfolded, whipped, kicked, given electric shocks and threatened with rape to extract confessions.”

Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa expressed “dismay” at the findings and vowed that “those painful events won’t be repeated.” That may be a little disingenuous, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction. Bringing democracy and the rule of law to the Arab world was always going to be a difficult and tortuous process, but progress is being made on many fronts.


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