The West expects too much, too soon of the Arab Spring

The London Evening Standard - 10 December 2012

Chaos was on the retreat when I travelled to Egypt to see a new president being elected earlier this year.

It was only six months ago, and Mohammed Morsi was still riding a huge wave of optimism caused by the greatest combined revolutions in the history of the Middle East and North Africa.

Yes, the Arab Spring had its fair share of horror — particularly in the bloody Libyan rebellion and murderous civil war still going on in Syria — but Egypt was a country where the march to democracy was progressing relatively peacefully.

Tahrir Square, the vast traffic intersection in the centre of Cairo, had become the worldwide symbol of change — a place where enlightened people gathered against the tyranny of Hosni Mubarak, the ruthless military commander who ran Egypt for 30 years.

Look at his country now, though: Tahrir Square is a battleground most nights, with armed protesters accusing Morsi, the smiling technocrat whom I met just half a year ago, of turning into a Pharaoh-style dictator himself.

At the weekend Morsi scrapped a decree giving him sweeping new powers but he has still exacerbated the conflict with his enemies by insisting on a referendum on a new constitution next Saturday. The rushed draft document has already been endorsed by a Constitutional Assembly dominated by Morsi’s Islamist allies.

It says “the principles of Islamic law” should guide the new Egypt forward — a wish which is abhorrent to liberals, who say Morsi’s well-organised Muslim Brotherhood movement will mobilise their supporters to vote it through.

Meanwhile, as in the days of Mubarak, Cairo’s presidential palace is surrounded by tanks and other military measures to protect the fledgling government.

Ahmed Said, a senior member of the liberal National Salvation Front, has even described the proposed referendum as an “act of war” — using the kind of language that is becoming depressingly familiar in post-Arab Spring countries.

While men like Morsi say they are “protecting” their revolution with hardline initiatives like the new constitution, opponents see oppression everywhere. Protesters were killed in Cairo at the weekend, while Muslim Brotherhood buildings have been burned down.

Meanwhile Libya, a country from where I reported for the Standard at the beginning of the Arab Spring, is certainly almost as dangerous now as it was under Colonel Gaddafi. Rival gangs patrol the streets, settling scores with machine guns and rocket launchers, while  democratically minded groups including feminists are forced out of the country.

Islamists have won elections in Tunisia — provoking further accusations that a corrupt, pro-West regime has merely been replaced by a religious dictatorship that does not reflect the views of ordinary people.

Moncef Marzouki, the Tunisian president, pointed to the difficulties he was having in persuading the world of Islam’s compatibility with democracy on Saturday saying: “Important efforts need to be made to convince our fellow citizens that the constitution, or even the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, does not contradict the values of Islam chosen as a state religion.”

These words touch at the very heart of the problem facing countries emerging from the Arab Spring revolts — one of perception. The simplistic view of so many people in the West is that “good” Arabs were fighting “bad” Arabs at the start of the revolutions in 2011, and that a victory for the forces of decency would instantly usher in peace, stability and economic success.

Remember how everybody got behind the British-backed rebels in Libya — ones who managed literally to blast Gaddafi’s regime out of existence using firepower provided by air forces including the RAF. Of course, it was imperative that Gaddafi’s 42-year rule came to an end. But the idea that those replacing him would instantly sort out all of Libya’s problems was absurd.

The same gung-ho narrative is being applied to Syria, where everybody wants a quick replacement for the despicable regime of Bashar al-Assad.

What this overlooks, however, is the complicated nexus of factions that make up societies like Syria — rivalries that “strongman” leaders like Assad believe they are best qualified to hold down.

Fears are currently growing that Assad will use stockpiles of chemical weapons against his own people, in a conflict which could escalate to neighbouring countries, including Israel.

Another doomsday scenario is that Syria descends into anarchy — a situation that could make the 40,000-plus figure of people who have died in the civil war spiral upwards.

Meanwhile Palestine — the flagship cause of the Arab world — remains similarly unresolved, with eight days of violence last month leading to 170 Palestinian deaths and six Israeli.

Yes, there are optimistic signs — a historic vote at the UN General Assembly has seen Palestine gaining non-member observer status, as it continues its struggle towards nationhood. But peace is still a long way off.

The point of all this is that no political problem is easily solved, and that newly democratised countries are as prone to things going horrendously wrong as are established ones.

In pure practical terms, countries such as Egypt and Tunisia are now Islamist states because millions of Muslim voters wanted them to be. This does not mean that they should be perceived as undemocratic, failed states before their leaders have had a chance to establish institutions, and indeed to govern.

The point of former revolutionaries like Mohammed Morsi — who spent time in prison under the Mubarak regime — is that they originally fought for an Egypt in which conflicting demands could be reconciled according to the law and the wishes of the people.

Morsi’s actions and rhetoric have at times been questionable (he infamously described opponents who took to the streets around Tahrir Square as “weevils”, for instance) but the problems he has to deal with are enormous.

The domestic challenges of the largest country by population in the Arab world are as entrenched as external ones like Palestine. Once outside commentators accept this stark reality, they will begin to understand the real reasons why the aftermath of the Arab Spring is proving so chaotic.

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