Tag Archives: Arab Spring
Arab Spring, Persian Summer? Economic Conditions in Febrile Iran Nosedive; Rich-Poor Gap ‘Revolutionary’
As we have noted before on this blog, the Financial Times appears to have comprehensively displaced The Times as the United Kingdom’s newspaper of record, with its unrivalled quality of precise reporting and stimulating comment proving that there is still space in today’s market for news in paper format. Yet a recent editorial – Morsi’s Mistake, from November 24th-25th’s FT Weekend – illustrated the broader problem of cultural presumptions that even the very best struggle to transcend. The editorial – correctly and rather uncontroversially – noted the disproportionate nature of the measures taken by the current President of Egypt, a bespectacled former assistant professor at California State University, to exempt his actions from judicial review via a decree issued on 22nd November 2012, a roundly-condemned legal stratagem that appears to have backfired spectacularly.
However, the FT then posited a bizarre corollary, namely that Mohamed Morsi’s government constitues ‘the test for whether democratic Islam has a future’. After some serious consideration of this ultimately broad claim, we would postulate the following:
1. The FJP ≠ Democratic Islam. Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party (‘FJP’) is but one of a great many political parties in OIC member states which claim or are claimed to represent a synthesis between Islam and democracy; moreover, it is a very new organisation, having only been legalised since 6th June 2011, and it is unclear how it will be perceived in a year or two’s time. To equate the FJP to the entire experience of democracy in the Islamic world is fundamentally mistaken.
2. Egypt ≠ the Centre of the Universe. With the historic events in Tahrir Square during Q1 2011 still fresh in the memory, it has become fashionable to regard Egypt as a pivotal country in the region and even the world at large. However, despite its large size and population, proximity to geopolitically prominent countries such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, and close ties to the United States, Egypt is not a particularly important country in every context, not least that of Islam and democracy. States such as Indonesia, Turkey and Senegal have had far longer and qualitatively richer experiences in this domain and tell us much more about the interactions, overlaps and tensions between Islamic religious beliefs and democratic institutions than Egypt, although this may change in the future.
3. Democracy ≠ Institutions. Democracy cannot be reduced to formal institutions: the value people attribute to democracy is not always matched by their corresponding legislatures, judiciaries and executives. As we noted in our 1st February 2011 piece Reform in the Middle East: should we be surprised?, the gargantuan Gallup survey Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think found that the desire for democracy amongst lay populations in predominantly Muslim countries is high; within this context, the Arab Spring should not be viewed as a surprise.
As the 2011-2012 Syrian Uprising begins to get into full swing, we at Mediolana were perusing Al Jazeera English’s excellent Syria Live Blog earlier today to try and get handle of the latest developments on the streets of Damascus and Aleppo when something stopped our scrolling in its tracks: the grim news that the government of neighbouring Iraq has ‘urged all Iraqis living in Syria to escape being wounded or killed‘.
On one level, this may represent something of a nadir for the entire Arab Spring process: a minority which is significantly constituted of the human fallout from Operation Iraqi Freedom being advised to hot foot it back to their violence-defined homeland; amongst other things, it implies that the state of affairs in Syria is truly dire. But it also set us thinking: while the present wave of change in the Middle East and North Africa has claimed far too many victims – a sobering c.50,000 souls are estimated to have perished across the region since the beginning of the tumult – is this really surprising given the context of the transformation?
1. High Stakes. The immense efforts being invested by both the status quo and the various oppositional forces give a clue as to what is at stake: the destiny of arguably the most strategically significant region in the world. To take Syria as an example, for both world and regional powers alike there are huge real and symbolic consequences concomitant with the fate of the troubled al-Assad regime. There is more than a hint of self-reflection in the desire of Russia, China and Iran for maximal stability in Syria, while Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar’s wish to effect change also correlates with the variegated goals of these increasingly ambitious states.
2. Selective Memory. Eastern Europe’s democratisation process of the late 1980s and 1990s – a trajectory taken for granted today – was not without its bloodier moments. The wars in the former Yugoslavia – a one-party socialist state which has been supplanted by no less than seven much smaller republics – claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, with Bosnia and Herzegovina being scarred by concentration camps, mass rape and virulent ethnic cleansing from which that country has still not recovered. The Arab Spring begins to look benign by comparison.
Long before the phrase ‘Arab Spring’ had been coined, one of the principal justifications given in some Western countries for supporting the often violently authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa (‘MENA’) region during the post-1945 period was the purported danger of Islamic fundamentalist (or, in more recent times, Islamist) rule. Now-deposed presidents such as Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali were said to be bulwarks against a ‘Green Peril’ of radicalised zealots that would sweep all before it en route to transforming the Greater Middle East into a cauldron of ideological extremism.
The movement that cropped up time and again in this analysis was the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt (‘the MB’, ‘the Brotherhood’), a rather opaque organisation that was at once an integral part of the dictatorial system – particularly under Hosni Mubarak – and regularly terrorised by it. A 1928 establishment, the Brotherhood – with its considerable network of businesses, significant membership from the professional classes and organisational capacity built up over decades of operation – was, in the absence of a stern dictator such as Mubarak, destined to rule Egypt apparently ad infinitum, transforming it (one presumes) into some kind of emirate in the process.
Yet within eighteen months of Mubarak’s ousting, this narrative already seems to be highly questionable:
1. An Underwhelming Start. The first clear signs that the conventional wisdom might not be so wise occurred in the Q4 2011/Q1 2012 elections to the People’s Assembly of Egypt and the Shura or Consultation Council, the respective lower and upper houses of Egypt’s bicameral parliament: the MB’s newly-founded political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party (‘the FJP’), polled 37.5% in the People’s Assembly ballot and 45.0% in the Consultation Council counterpart – good figures, but hardly the stuff of full-spectrum domination. These numbers begin to look slightly disappointing when one bears in mind that many other entities that are sure to be powerful electoral forces in the future had not yet coalesced into anything like coherent platforms; in other words, in this sense the Brotherhood may already have peaked.
2. Electoral Slide. This impression of the Muslim Brotherhood’s distinct fallibility only grew with the recent first round of the 2012 presidential contest (23rd-24th May 2012). The MB’s eventual candidate – the bespectacled engineer Mohamed Morsi, put forward following the banning from running of furniture salesman Khairat El-Shater by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces – is estimated to have only just crept over the 25% mark, with none of the four candidates positioned closely behind Morsi in the polls holding political positions analogous to the Brotherhood.
3. Parliamentary Performance. An excellent recent report by Al Jazeera English icon Sherine Tadros illustrated why the Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral performance has slid so dramatically in a matter of a few months: even to their natural sympathisers, their performance in parliament has been anything but inspiring; they are acknowledged as ‘good people’, but not necessarily the solution to coax Egypt out of its economic malaise. And herein lies the crux of the matter: no party in Egypt – whether it be Islamist, liberal, liberal Islamist, socialist or radical – is likely to enjoy much support for long if it does not implement solid policies to remedy the country’s chronic youth unemployment, acute security deficit and hopelessly inadequate public services.
The first part of an (unofficially) extended weekend saw Mediolana’s CSO in a place that is about as close as anything comes to his natural habitat: chilling out at an über-modern pizzeria, replete with metallic furnishings and plasma television screen, in London’s infinitely trendy Charlotte Street. But between the alternate slices of succulent, stone-baked primavera and fungi, the pictures being proffered on that crystalline screen were enough to make anyone pause over their pizza: an alfresco press conference featuring none other than Formula 1 impresario Bernie Ecclestone and Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, the Crown Prince of Bahrain.
With the sound muted, the pizzeria’s patrons were forced to concentrate on the expressions of this unlikely pair, snapshots which were complemented by a ticker which dutifully transmogrified their defensive outpourings into palatable soundbites. Nonetheless, the lasting impression was that of two men uncomfortably exerting themselves in defending the indefensible: amidst the background of arguably the fiercest crackdown within a Gulf Cooperation Council (‘GCC’) state since the beginning of the Arab Spring, a Grand Prix was being staged with the express purpose of presenting a united – or, to use the official term, ‘UniF1ed‘ – nation.
It backfired spectacularly, with the presence of the Formula 1 circus in a country which in recent times has become most notable for flattening roundabouts only serving to remind the international community that tensions between the Al Khalifa-dominated government of Bahrain and large sections of their subject population (particularly, though not exclusively, the kingdom’s majority Shia community) are very much a live issue.
Why did this expensive PR manoeuvre – the construction cost alone of the German-designed Bahrain International Circuit, a 2004 establishment, was US$150m – fail so badly? Quite simply, it seems that the Bahraini elite – despite all the technological developments of the last thirty-five years, particularly the last fifteen – still believe in a mono-channel, top-down flow of information. They do not appear to have realised that information now flows horizontally from networked device to networked device; that while one global news channel may have an interest in underplaying developments, others may seek to be more objective or even exaggerate the grimness of the situation on the ground; and that events cannot necessarily be hermetically isolated from each other.
In such a context, there is no room for pretence: to escape censure, both governments and individuals have to be seen to be acting within the rule of law, proportionately, and flexibly. Torture and indiscriminate killing in an era when every mobile telephone subscriber is a potential mini news agency is a risky strategy which so-called ‘weapons of mass distraction’ may only serve to draw attention to rather than obfuscate.