Saturday, February 4, 2012

Ron Smith: Of Springs and False Dawns

The so-called ‘Arab Spring’ has been in progress for about a year and it may be appropriate now to take stock of what was anticipated, or hoped for, and what we seem to have got. Of course, as Zhou Enlai famously once said of the effect of the French Revolution on western civilisation, it may be ‘too soon to tell’, but as far as the ‘Arab Spring’ is concerned, some things may already be evident.

Most obvious amongst these is that the analogy with the ‘Prague Spring’ is not appropriate and that western media interpretation of unfolding events in the Arab world, as similar to those that took place in Eastern Europe in 1989, may have been nothing more than wistful thinking. The Prague Spring, itself, was a 1968 attempt to throw-off the worst excesses of communism in Czechoslovakia, but it did presage a wider struggle for liberty that was dramatically and surprisingly successful, twenty-one years later.

What is clear from recent events in Egypt, is that the Mubarak military dictatorship is not about to be replaced by a social order that is both tolerant and democratic. Indeed, it may be that continuing violent unrest in that country, results in the re-imposition of authoritarian rule, via the promulgation of a state of emergency (which is how Mubarak came to power, in the first place). Some commentators even think that that was the objective of the military hierarchy from the outset, which is why the military authorities took a relatively soft line with protestors in the early stages of the uprising. They wished to avoid a Mubarak succession but they wanted to retain power. This also gives substance to accusations by some protest groups, that the recent ‘football riots’ were actually contrived by military interests.

Even if the military leadership, now in power in Egypt, is sincere in their desire to transfer their authority to a popularly-elected civilian government, the prospects are not good. What is very clear now from the composition of the recently-elected assembly (and the views of the people that elected them), is that the sort of tolerance and respect for individual freedom, that is at the heart of a democratic society, may be some years off in Egypt, if it arrives at all. The new assembly will be dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, who, themselves, are politically outflanked by the more extremist Salafists. Representatives of secular parties are very much in the minority. Earlier opinion polls, and recent interviews with sample-voters, suggest widespread support for Sharia law, with its concomitant draconian punishment for wrong-doers (amputation, execution for blasphemy, stoning for adultery). It is also noteworthy that the situation of the Coptic Christians has deteriorated significantly since the beginning of the ‘Arab Spring’.

To switch metaphors, it may be that there is something of the ‘frying-pan-and-fire’ about the present situation, as regards both the people of Egypt and the rest of the world. One of the other noticeable features of the new Egypt is the rise of overt anti-semetism. On the day of the election, activists in Cairo are said to have attended the principle city mosque, where they were sent on their way with a fiery sermon on the need to exterminate the Jews. As we have seen, in other cases, militant Islam can be a threat more generally to the developed world (the world of ‘infidels’). The establishment of an Islamic state in Egypt, even if it comes about via the ballot-box, could be neither in the interests of Egyptians, nor the region or wider world. We shall see, although as Zhou Enlai (probably) said, it may be too soon to tell.

The situation is equally uncertain in other parts of the Arab world. Little news is coming out of Libya these days but there is some suggestion that the authority of the interim council, that guided the overthrow of the Gadafi regime, is much reduced, and that the country may turn into a kind of ‘Somalia-with-oil’. Apart for the implications for world oil-supply, this would also present a security threat for the region. Again, perhaps the country will hold together and evolve into a successful modern state on the back of the revenues from this same black gold. Time will tell.

It is hard to say anything positive about the Syrian version of the Arab Spring. Astonishingly, the Syrian people continue with their deadly struggle against a determined dictatorship and a, so far, loyal army. What is clear is that they will get no help from the United Nations, or the Arab League. Both are conflicted on the matter of human rights and democracy; just look at events over the period in Bahrein, where the majority uprising was brutally put down by superior military force. Perhaps this is what will ultimately happen in Syria, too. It will then be genuinely analogous to the ‘Prague Spring’. It will be followed by a winter of dashed hopes. On the other hand, the army may split and the country descend into civil war. Whether this will be followed by the evolution of democratic forms of government, is another question.

Historically, the establishment of democracy has taken a lot of time and on-going commitment, and involved a great deal of failure and disappointment. Perhaps we should not expect anything like the western ideal to emerge in the Arab world anytime soon. I’d like to think I was wrong!

1 comment:

Ron Blair said...

Unless NZ people get behind these referendums this is what will happen.!!!