Two years ago the humiliation of a street vendor in Tunisia sparked a global popular uprising, which swept across the Arab countries forcing the departure of the most vicious despots. The Arab Spring electrified the world and captured its attention for months. Egypt’s revolution of 25 of January inspired the world with the spontaneous spirit of unity and a common vision of freedom, democracy, and hope. Commentaries of media observers and world political leaders praising that spirit and its people abound.
“Today belongs to the people of Egypt, and the American people are moved by these scenes in Cairo and across Egypt because of who we are as a people and the kind of world that we want our children to grow up in.” ~ Barack Obama
“What’s happening is absolutely spectacular. The courage and determination and commitment of the demonstrators is remarkable, and whatever happens these are moments that won’t be forgotten and are sure to have long-term consequences.” ~ Noam Chomsky
“We saw people of faith praying together and chanting – Muslims, Christians, We are one.” ~ Barack Obama
When I recall these commentaries and others of the first months of the Arab revolutions, and watch what is going on today in Egypt, I find myself amazed by the disparities between the discourses and the attitudes of people then and now. So, did people change their mind about the Arab Spring or is it just the euphoria dying out? What has changed that made the same people who prayed together yesterday in spite of their differences of faith and opinions, stand apart today and hold their ground against each other? What happened that made Morsi opponents prefer the rule of the Military and call upon General Sisi to intervene and stop a democratic experience in its infancy?
The Pandora’s Box
Well, being from Algeria with 21 years or so of post-Algerian Spring experience, I can certainly venture a guess. A revolution is not something small and innocuous. When you spark it, you’re opening a pandora’s box. Except that for the Arabs, it is the same pandora’s box. All sort of issues that have been buried for years resurface. Political Islam is such a recurring issue that takes a prominent place in all political debates in the Arab world today. Islam vs. this, Islam vs. that, all these are issues that seem to feed and heat the current debate, are put on the table again. However some other unexpected issues are raised, but enlarged beyond their true essentiality. Femen is one of them, and whether a non muslim lesbian women can be a president of the republic. I myself suspect that, since Morsi could hardly be a one, the answer is pretty much No. But that is the privilege of freedom. I was amazed to watch debaters on the Egyptian media discussing the Arabness of Egypt, and whether it should be part of the Arab countries. A discourse that is all too familiar to me but in another context. Not that the idea is not interesting for discussion from a historical point of view, but I don’t see the point discussing it now, especially when it comes with anti-Arab and anti-Islam sentiments. But as divisions and dissent gain the ranks of Yesterday’s opposition, the debates are extremely biased, superficial and stereotypical.
Historically, at every turning point of the revolution, heros and culprits must be re-defined. For instance, as much as Al Jazeera was instrumental in marketing the Arab Spring, it found itself today fingered for incitement for chaos and disarray. A clear change of heart. We’ve all seen Youcef Al Qaradawi, who led the prayer in Tahrir Square the night Mubarak resigned; he is portrayed today as Imam of Fitna — of discord. He has been accused by his critics as the principal instigator behind the murder of pro-Assad Syrian scholar Mohamed Said Ramadan Al Buti.
I can understand that people are on the their edges, and things will subside, but not without a trace. Egyptian media are good at presenting extremely populist views of the current events, and therefore contributing to an extremely charged atmosphere that does not really favor any positive dialogue. A TV commentator was claiming that, historically, the Muslim Brotherhood were the main reason Muslims have lost Andalusia in Spain. Who cares whether this is true or even make sense as long as it serves the purpose. The similarities in covering the current events and those of the Algeria-Egypt football episode in 2010, are simply striking. Sometimes I wonder whether these media and FoxNews are broadcasting on the same frequency! I do.
General Sisi could not find better than the prevailing atmosphere to reinforce his legitimacy and call upon the opponents of Morsi to descend in numbers in the streets of Cairo, a signal for him to crack down on what he conveniently portrays as terrorists.
I can understand that Morsi may have been mediocre and stubborn, projecting an extremely disliked personality. After all, the former US president G. W. Bush was also mediocre and unlikable. In his controversial first election, he had beaten democrat Al Gore with a very thin margin of few thousands votes. Yet, Al Gore, in a perfect fair play, conceded his defeat. But, beyond the narrow politics, how do liberals and secular opponents plan to do once the Military secure definitely the power in Egypt; that is, knowing what has happened in Algeria. More importantly, how do they plan to contain the Islamists if not through a democratic exercise. The Arab Spring may have taken different forms in different countries, but there is something common. It has inevitably helped the Islamist movements to access to power. In Tunisia, the Islamist Nahdha Party holds the majority in the Constituent Assembly of Tunisia and heads a coalition government. Morocco in a smart move, prevented any uncontrolled and violent changes by precipitating constitutional reforms, which led the Justice and Development Party to win the majority of the parliament and to lead the government. Algeria, 20 years ago, set the pattern when the FIS, Islamic Front for Salvation, won both the municipal elections and the first round of the legislative elections before the democratic process was interrupted. As of the rest of the Arab countries, all indicators suggest that the Islamist parties will inevitably win the elections if a free and democratic process is ever put in place.
Are Secularists a Threat to Democracy?
Obviously, the arab secularist are showing resistance to any process that allows Islamists to gain power. The US and Europe have basically the same position, although they claim that they support the people’s will. The military coup against president Morsi, posed a real dilemma to the US and Europe. Barak Obama’s response is still weak and unclear. The funny part is that the West is still debating whether General Sisi’s operation is to be called a military coup or not. Some went on to suggest that this may be called coup but not a military coup. While the West’s heart is dangling between the Islamists new legitimacy and the prospects of their interests in the region, political Islam vs. Democracy remains a difficult equation that Islamists and secularists have to solve first, for their own sake and the sake of the people they aspire to lead.
But looking at the trend taken by the attitude of the liberal and secular forces towards post-revolution Islamist governments, first in Algeria, in Egypt and maybe now in Tunisia, calls for wonderment. Should new Arab democracies fear the secularists in the opposition, as mush as the Islamists when they are in power?