Arab Spring and Future Scenarios

by Samir Yousif (January 2012)

The Arab Spring

It may be correct to assume that the masses in the Middle East have a very short memory, or they are not willing to learn from non-Arab experiences. At this point I am referring to the Iranian Islamic Revolution of the 1970’s. Any re-evaluation of the Iranian Revolution, after over three decades, indicates clearly that it failed to fulfill its basic promise of a better life to the Iranian people, and that Islam has turned out not to be the promised solution, as the Revolution once claimed. These days, the Iranian economy suffers greatly from stagnation, unemployment, poverty, and widespread corruption. And although there are “elections” in Iran, all commentators agree that Iran is not a democratic country. Add to that the fact that it suffers from the absence of political and personal freedoms. The revolt against the present Iranian regime comes not only from without, but actually it originates from within. It is the very supporters of the present theocratic regime that represent today’s main opposition. This development is a significant proof that the regime has passed the limits of its legitimacy.[1]

While the entire Muslim world is in a path of increasing Islamization, the Iranian Revolution put the Iranian people ahead of the Arab masses by at least three decades. This is why it has been mentioned at the start of this paper. The Iranian people understand the consequences of regime-change. The Arabs have yet to learn.

This paper holds the belief that the consequences of the Arab Spring cannot be accurately predicted, yet regional involvement will be fully active in determining the future course of the Middle East. The Centers of Power that are active in this political process are located in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran and Iraq.[2] Each Center of Power has a different political agenda, possesses different means of influence and is motivated by Islamic sectarian allegiances, The most notable of all is the Qatar-Turkey axis.

Turkey, Qatar and Iran

The continuation of the so-called Arab Spring revived Turkey’s traditional ambitions. Today Turkey, which is Sunni-Muslim, has the opportunity to re-control its old Arab colonies. This Turkish re-control can take any form of political alliance between thee Muslim Middle East countries with Istanbul being the center of this new alliance.

This Turkish ambition may be realized through strengthening the Muslim Brotherhood Movements (MBM) in the different Arab countries. The present Turkish ruling party, the so-called Justice & Development Islamic Party is nothing but another name for the MBM. The ruling party in Turkey did not realize, at the very start, that the Arab Spring will produce so much political change in the region. Its understanding came as a direct response to the developments taking place near its southern borders after the collapse of the Gadhafi regime in Libya. Although the Turks had no influence in the Tunisian First General Elections, the success of the Qatar-backed Nahda Islamic Movement in October 2011 enhanced the Turkish hopes.[3]

In Libya the fundamentalists managed to play a significant role in the civil war. Their military strength will determine their actual share in the formation of the new Libyan government and their influence on the constitution. Recent developments in Libya strongly indicate the influence of the Qatar-backed Islamists. The Head of the Libyan Transitional Council made his first public declaration after the collapse of the Gadhafi regime where he claimed that the future Libyan constitution will be based upon Islamic Sharia and nothing in the constitution will be allowed to contradict Sharia. This represents a significant setback to the Libyan legal system and Libyan Women's Movements have already declared their opposition to such trends.[4] The fundamentalists are not in line with Turkey but rather with Qatar.

In Syria, the competition is fierce between Turkey and Qatar as the main opposition to the regime is represented by the Sunni Muslims, although recent developments in Tunisia and Egypt showed that Qatar is providing significant financial support to the Islamists. Both Turkey and Qatar are attempting to have a stronger influence within this opposition. The fundamentalists in Syria are as strong and recent developments indicate that Syria is moving towards a bloody civil confrontation. The Syrian society is composed of a number of competing ethnic minorities such as the ruling Alawaya, the Darouz, the Christians, Shiite Muslims (Imamyia and Ismailia), the Sunni Muslims and the Kurds. The Sunni Muslims represents the largest of all, and it is the source of the Muslim Brotherhood Movement and other Islamic Fundamentalists. The collapse of the Syrian regime will ignite a fierce civil war that will polarize the entire Middle East. It will not be incorrect to assume that the consequences of the collapse of the present Syrian regime will create two main axes. The first axis will represent the alliance of the Shiite Muslims that includes the Alawaya, Darouz and the Christians strongly supported by Iran, Iraq, and the Shia in Lebanon. While the other axis will include the Sunni Muslims supported mainly by Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Sunni of Lebanon, Al-Qaeda organization, and other Sunni countries. Neighboring countries like Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq have already started fearing the consequences of such a scenario.

The Growth of Islamism

The dangers that the Islamists represent stems from the fact that they are well-organized. As the State collapses and a power vacuum appears, the Islamists are the first to reap the benefits of such a vacuum. They increase in numbers under such fertile circumstances. Young people get attracted by Islamic political propaganda. On the other hand, the Islamists show no mercy to secular organizations. Women without the hijab are under continuous attack[,5] men without beards are discriminated against. To put it in a nutshell, the action required by a committed Muslim before Munker occurs (that which is undesirable under Islam)[6] is some form of violence. Let take few real examples from recent events in Tunisia:

  • The Islamists require that the Constitution be based on Islamic Sharia, and not on modern secular principles. This is a very serious step backwards and produces far reaching consequences on the rights and duties of the citizens. Under Sharia the citizens have no equal rights. Men have more rights than women. Muslims have more rights than non-Muslims. People are not equal before the law. But there is a more serious consequence of such a constitution: political parties that are secular or those parties that challenge the religious nature of the constitution are not allowed to participate in future general elections. As was the case in Iran, this will ensure that the political system will never develop into a non-Islamic one, and will illegitimate the secular political parties.
  • The whole education system is re-written by Islamists with the purpose of brain-washing new generations.
  • People holding social gatherings and parties are continuously attacked by Islamists on the grounds that singing and music are forbidden in Islam and they are considered to be some form of Munker. This happens in a country like Tunisia (and Egypt, and other countries) where tourism represents one of its main sources of foreign reserves.
  • Satellite TV Stations are attacked and burnt for showing films that are not approved by the Islamists (as happened to Nasma TV in Tunisia recently).
  • Women will not be able to wear normal bathing suits in swimming pools and on the beaches. Generally, women are required to wear Islamist costume, and not only the hijab.
  • Women are not allowed to attend interviews, go to work, travel, and generally go outdoors without a Male Mahram[7] (MM).
  • The Islamists require the establishment of strict censorship on all authorship to ensure that the ideas published do not contradict Sharia.
  • The establishment of Guidance Committees to control the behavior of people in the streets.

All of that put together will represents an end to personal freedoms and freedom of expression in the 21st century.

The Islamists Dilemma

But what is more pressing is actually the state of the economy. The Arab Spring was first ignited by economic needs of the poor, and not by the need to apply Sharia. The Islamists have won the elections in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco. In these three Muslim countries the people are waiting for the solution to their state of poverty. They have relied on the promises that Islam is the Solution and voted. The people are not interested in Sharia, or in wearing the hijab, but rather in improving their living standards. Poverty, unemployment, economic growth and inequalities in wealth distribution are what concern the people, while the Islamic Political Parties are interested in applying the Sharia and introducing new controls on society like the Religious Police.[8] Introducing Religious Police has already been proposed in Tunisia. The imposition of the Religious Police will lead to the end of tourism in countries like Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco. The agenda of political Islam will not satisfy the aspirations of the people, who are waiting for solutions to their pressing problems. The most striking demand of the revolting masses is income redistribution. This issue is not an item on the Islamists Agenda.[9] It will take at least a full term of Islamic government rule before the people in the Muslim countries understand that Islam has no magical power to provide immediate answers to their urgent economic needs.

Polarization of Religion and Options facing Israel

The Arab Spring is moving events in such a way as to create to main poles (Sunni and Shia).  In their turn these two main poles will be subdivided into two secondary blocks. Intentionally, or unintentionally, the creation of this polarization is already taken place. Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco (and HAMAS in Gaza Strip) backed by the ruling Turkish Justice & Development Party will eventually form one main regional bloc.[10] Fundamentalist in Egypt (Nour Party), Libya, Yemen, and Syria with the support of Qatar will be part of another bloc. These two blocs will form the Sunni Pole in the Middle East. While Muslim Shiite in Lebanon will form a block with Iran, and Muslim Shiite in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia will follow Shiite leadership in Iraq. These two blocks will form the Shiite Pole.

Faced with such surrounding realities Israel can play a decisive role in bridging between two of the subgroups. The moderate Iraq-backed Shiite Muslims can break away from their natural pole (Iran) and ally themselves with the moderate Turkish-backed Muslim Brotherhood bloc. The USA has the capability and influence to facilitate an Israeli positive role in bridging the two aforementioned moderate blocs.[11] The futuristic picture or scenario of the Middle East under such developments requires fresh thinking and different methods of analysis. The conclusions reach by traditional political analysis should open the door for new possibilities, but such possibilities require proactive roles from countries like Israel if the events are to take a specific course out of a number of possible alternatives.

[1] The availability of oil revenues strengthened the position of the regime in Iran, while the same scenario is not available to other countries like Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia.

[2] It is a grave mistake to put Iraq and Iran in one block although Iran has an important influence in Iraq. After the withdraw of the American troops, Iraq will start to exercise a specific and unique foreign policy as proof of its independent decisions. This foreign policy will be clearly different from the Iranian agenda.

[3] The success of the Islamists in the elections in different Arab countries stems from the fact that these Islamists have invested heavily in providing services and help to the poor classes. This is very similar to the Iraqi experience during its General Elections. Significant Iranian financial support enabled specific political parties like the Sadrist in winning large numbers of seats. The Secular parties were absent from the picture and employed no programmes to help the poor – who represent the majority. The poor classes have seen what the Secular parties can do as the country was run by Secular parties for the last century. The first general elections that took place in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco were unfair as the financial status of the competing parties were significantly different. The financial strength of Islamists took all other parties by surprise.

[4] This is very similar to what happened in Iraq after 2003, when the new Constitution gave men the right to marry more than one wife which came as a shock to Iraqi women.

[5] Just to site examples from Iraq, more than 150 girls were killed in Basra by Islamists, and around 100 were reported killed in North of Iraq for not wearing the hijab - according to reports that were published by the media in 2006. The real numbers of women killed by Islamists are unpublished.

[6] See Sharia and the Origins of Violence, in Theoretical Foundations of Terrorism, January 2011.

[7] Male Mahram is a man who cannot engage in sexual intercourse with the woman under consideration, like her brother or father.

[8] See Theoretical Foundations of Terrorism, New English Review, January 2010.

[9] See The Downfall of Political Islam, New English Review, December 2009.

[10] The Palestinian HAMAS naturally will follow Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, but cannot break away from its main supporter Iran.

[11] This scenario assumes also an improved Israel-Palestinian relationship.

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