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Unfinished revolutions

by D+C | E+Z

Opinion

Rebels in Gaddafi's palace

Rebels in Gaddafi's palace

When D+C/E+Z went to press, street fights were going on in Tripoli, with rebels searching for Muammar Gaddafi. In the meantime, Egypt and Tunisia are preparing for free elections. Revolutionaries in both countries are unhappy about the slow pace of change. By Ronald Meinardus

Initially, the Arab world responded with enthusiasm when, confronted with popular uprisings, dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt collapsed like the proverbial house of cards. When the revolutionary virus spread to other Arab countries, many observers hoped to see a wave of change sweep across the entire region.

Half a year later, spirits are low in Egypt. Anyone who expected fast results like a model democracy or even prosperity is disappointed. Salama Ahmed Salama, an Egyptian journalist, says it will take four or five years to tell whether the revolution was successful. Patience, however, is not a revolutionary virtue – and definitely not when the revolutionaries are young and unemployed, and finally want prospects for their lives.

In Egypt, there is a widespread sense that an unfinished revolution has all but stalled. The political arena has opened up, but there still are no new rules for politics yet – and that matters crucially. Forces of the ancien regime continue to play a big role in both government and society. At first, all Egyptians applauded the army for protecting the revolution. Now, many are appalled by its human rights abuses.

The good news, nonetheless, is that Egyptians and Tunisians are experiencing the birth of a new democratic order. They will soon cast their votes in elections to determine their nation’s future. In the Arab world, that is an extraordinary achievement. Other countries, where protests began later than in Egypt and Tunisia, are still a long way from such an event.

In August, the countries of the Arab world could roughly be divided into four groups:
– the post-revolutionary transition republics, Tunisia and Egypt, where elections will decide the course of future developments;
– dictatorships in the grip or on the brink of civil war, such as Libya and Syria;
– conservative and reactionary monarchies – notably Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States – seeking increasingly to close ranks with the cautiously reformist royal houses of Morocco and Jordan and
– countries that are becoming or already are failed states – namely Yemen and Somalia.

Countries that do not fit into these categories are no oases of stability either. Lebanon, Palestine, Sudan and Iraq have massive problems of their own.

In the post-revolutionary transition republics, the focus is now on the modalities of transferring power. In the run up to the elections, political forces are engaging in cultural battles, with secular forces on one side facing proponents of faith-based policymaking on the other. Islamist forces will certainly gain influence in both countries. It is high time that the West re-assessed its relationship with groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. Compared with Salafists and Jihadists, who espouse far more radical fundamentalist views and are also gaining strength, the Brothers are a moderate force.

The revolutionaries have not caused the rise of political Islam. That was done by the former rulers, who contributed to propelling social Islamisation while making heroes of Islamist forces through repression at the same time.

The successful popular uprisings have scared Arabia’s remaining autocrats. To avoid the fate of Ben Ali, Mubarak and now Gaddafi, some of the cliques in power are resorting to shocking brutality. For people in Syria, Libya, Bahrain or Yemen, the euphoria of the Arab Spring is a thing of the past. The longer the violence lasts, the heavier will be the baggage blighting their countries’ political future. At the same time, opposition forces know that there is no going back: if dictators manage to cling onto power, their revenge will be dreadful.

The recent news from Tripoli felt inspiring to revolutionaries in other Arab countries. Everyone understands, however, that the transition to democracy will be even more difficult than in Egypt and Tunisia. In the meantime, attention is focussing on Syria, where people are rising up against the regime without NATO support. A political solution is not in sight, so a blood-drenched end looks likely there too.