The Post-Revolution Struggle for the Arab Soul

Marial Law declared in EgyptThe rise of political Islam following the Arab Spring has many worried that the democratic achievements of the revolution could be lost. In Egypt and Tunisia alike, citizens are once again taking to the streets. But this time they are opposing Islamism.

There are no signs that tensions will ease in Egypt, and it is difficult to predict the outcome of the current power struggle.

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi
Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi

Egypt’s Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, who gave himself dictatorial special powers, seems unimpressed by the storm he has unleashed among secular Egyptians. In rushed proceedings, he also held a vote on a new constitution, in which the Constituent Assembly, dominated by Islamists, clearly voted in favor of Sharia law.  Morsi has given the army temporary power to arrest civilians to help secure the constitutional referendum seen by the Muslim Brotherhood as a triumph for democracy.  Its liberal foes view the proposed constitution as a religious straitjacket and will not accept this, because they are determined to stop the Muslim Brotherhood’s Morsi.

EgyptPresident Morsi, bruised by the political uproar in which protesters have besieged his graffiti-besmirched palace to demand his downfall, has rescinded a November 22nd decree giving him wide powers, but has not budged on the referendum date.

A decree issued by Morsi late on Sunday means the armed forces can arrest civilians and refer them to prosecutors until the results of the referendum are announced.

Despite its limited nature, the edict will revive memories of Hosni Mubarak’s emergency law, also introduced as a temporary expedient, under which military or state security courts tried thousands of political dissidents and Islamist militants.

Muslim Brotherhood logoThis says a lot about the most important country in the Arab world, which is only at the beginning of its democratization. It also says a lot about the emotional state of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, which came to power as a result of a revolution that it had only halfheartedly supported. The Islamist movement has decades of experience in dealing with authoritarian rulers, but it knows nothing about freedom.

It wants to demonstrate strength, especially in Egypt, the country where it was founded, because it knows that a fierce struggle is underway over the role of political Islam, especially in the Arab countries that drove out their dictators only recently: Tunisia, Libya and Yemen. In Syria, where the war is still raging, the question remains as to whether the secular state will be jeopardized if more radical forces within the opposition prevail.

Two years after the beginning of unrest in North Africa and the Middle East, the Islamists seem to have emerged as the clear winners. Many are now claiming that the Arab Spring has been followed by an Islamist winter.

In 2011, the world was euphoric over the fight for freedom being waged by protestors in Tahrir Square. But a shadow fell over the revolution when Libyan militias put the bloodied corpse of former dictator Moammar Gadhafi on display. And the daily bloodshed in Syria comes as a terrible climax to a development that has spun out of control.

The Arab world has once again become a greater source of worry than hope to the Western world. Islamists are winning elections and putting together governments, and even ultraconservative Salafists, shady characters who promise to eliminate democracy as soon as they can, are suddenly playing a role. They also want to take away the freedoms Arab women have achieved, ban bikinis on tourist beaches and turn the administration of justice over to Islamic scholars. Is the revolution over? Not quite.

The struggle for the Arab soul hasn’t been decided yet. Wherever movements backed by political Islam begin to gain strength, they encounter broad resistance.

Shortly after the collapse of the Gadhafi regime, in the summer of 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt felt that the moment had come to export radical imams to neighboring Libya. They established a branch of the Brotherhood in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, as well as a book publishing company and a television station. They prepared for the first free parliamentary elections in the country, ran a morally charged campaign, but then lost handily to the liberal “National Forces Alliance.”

Libya“The Libyans are already good Muslims. They don’t understand what more Islam is supposed to be good for,” says Abdurrahman Sewehli, a member of the Libyan parliament, commenting on the defeat of the Muslim Brotherhood. “They are interested in rebuilding the country, and in development, schools and infrastructure.”

Libya has a religiously homogeneous society, with Sunni Muslims making up almost 100 percent of the population. The dividing lines in Libya run primarily between clans. The disputes in the desert nation are not about the true practice of Islam, but about tribal interests and the distribution of oil revenues.

And it isn’t the only country that is bristling against the deliberate immigration of radical groups.

YemenEven before the beginning of the year, the two most important tribal federations in Yemen, the Bakil and the Hashid, had severed all contact with jihadist cells in the country. Yemeni tribal warriors and extremists occasionally cooperated, but it was hardly for ideological reasons. Instead, their interests coincided over money, smuggling and the arms trade. But then the jihadists offended the tribes when they violated their traditions. The American drone war against the al-Qaida cells in the country also made it more difficult for the tribal groups to cooperate with the extremists.

Yemeni society is clannish and deeply traditional. Both Islam and Islamism are firmly established in the country. To secure his power, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in office from 1990 until he stepped down this February, made a pact with the Islamist Islah Party, and for years he promoted the radical imam and friend of al-Qaida Abdul Majeed al-Zindani. Today liberal ideas are much more widespread in the poorest country in the Arabian Peninsula than in Saleh’s time. Nevertheless, and this is one of the contradictions in archaic Yemen, no politician would even think of questioning Sharia law, which is in effect in the country.

TunisiaThe political diametric opposite of Yemen is Tunisia, the most secular country in the Arab world. This didn’t change after Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali took office in late 2011. His Ennahda Party, a branch of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, had repeatedly assured Tunisians that it did not intend to introduce Islamic law or curtail the rights of women. Tunisia’s Islamists have distanced themselves from that position since summer, and yet they are still behaving more reasonably than their counterparts in other countries in the region, as they observe from a safe distance the game President Morsi is currently playing in Egypt.

SyriaAnd what happens to Syria if the regime falls? The demise of the government in Damascus seemed yet another step closer last week, when rebels, allegedly for the first time, shot down two army helicopters with surface-to-air missiles. The incident suggests that the regime of President Bashar Assad, whose air force had long given him military superiority, is now seriously threatened. Until now, the United States and other Western countries had vehemently refused to provide the opposition with weapons of the kind used to down the helicopters.

No one knows exactly how many foreign jihadists currently support the rebellion in Syria, but they do exist.

When the governor of Homs Province and fighters with rebel militias tied to the Free Syrian Army sought to reach an agreement last week, foreign fighters frustrated the effort at rapprochement, reports a military observer.

“The extremists, who are loosely associated with al-Qaida, have their own agenda,” says an intelligence agent. “They don’t want a ceasefire; they want to exterminate the Baath regime and establish an Islamist state.”

If Syria sees a transition process similar to what took place in Tunisia and Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood will likely be among the first groups to position themselves in Damascus.