By Jahanzeb Hussain
On the 10th anniversary of the magazine Alternatives Internationales, le Centre d’Études de Relations Internationales (CERI) and l’École des Affaires Internationales- Sciences Po, along with the magazine, held a conference in Paris which was titled “What perspectives for democracy after the Arab Spring?” The conference was hosted byle Centre de recherches politiques de Sciences Po (CEVIPOF). Three speakers were invited to give talks: Jean Pierre Filiu, Salam Kawibiki of the Arab Reform Initiative, and Stephane Lacroix. The speakers talked about Tunisia, Syria and Egypt, respectively. The purpose of the conference was to give an overview of the uprisings that started in the beginning of 2011, to explain how far each of these countries has come in achieving the goals of the uprisings, to explain what is at stake in these three countries and what are the challenges that are faced by those who initiated the uprisings.
Lessons from the Arab Spring
Tunisia was the first country to be discussed. Jean Pierre Filiu began by saying that, in Tunisia, we don’t have an Islamic uprising but a democratic uprising. This is the first lesson to be learned from the events in Tunisia over the past year. The second lesson is that we have to be modest in our views on the Middle East and North Africa – we always think that we are knowledgeable about this region, but in reality we are not. The third lesson is that we have to wait and see how the situation develops in Tunisia and in the rest of the countries of the Arab Spring.
In the words of M. Filiu, the Tunisian revolution is a revolution of dignity, which has seen the rise of the real Tunisia. This was symbolized by Mohamed Bouazizi, the young steet vendor who set himself alight in what was an act of supreme sacrifice. The speaker classified the Tunisian uprising into three stages: Kasbah 1, Kasbah 2, and Kasbah 3. Kasbah 1, which is the earlier stages of the uprising, has brought the people from the countryside- the hidden people- to the center of power. Kasbah 2, which is still in the process in many ways, means the transition from Ben Ali’s rule to a democratically elected parliament and rule of the majority. Kasbah 3 hasn’t taken place since there has been no violence or acts of vengeance by the people.
Elections and their significance
After the fall of Ben Ali, a commission was set up to implement the goals of the uprising. M. Filiu said that the person who heads the commission is a man of virtue and principles. However, the commission has been facing several obstacles, with one of the main ones being the dispute over how political parties should be financed. Notwithstanding the challenges that the Tunisians face, the day when they voted – 23 October 2011 – was a moment that everyone in the country had been dreaming of. For the first time men and women took part in free elections since Tunisia’s independence in 1956. The voter turnout was over 4 million and the elections saw a tripartite government of Ennahda (89 seats), Congress for the Republic (29 seats) and Ettakatol (20 seats).
One of the outcomes of these elections is that Ennahda has been institutionalized. Ennahda also has the highest number of female members compared to the rest of the political parties. M. Filiu stated that Ennahda’s electoral success is due to the exceptional character of its members, many of whom have spent years in Ben Ali’s jails. The perseverance of the party is a result of its members’ capacity to endure. The question that follows Ennahda’s victory is whether they will be able to implant and establish themselves on a local level with a similar or better achievement in the municipal elections. If so then this would be the party’s État de grâce.
At present, according to the speaker, the Ennahda-led coalition faces three main challenges: Defining a social program, answering the Salafist question, and establishing institutional discipline.
Tunisians have high hopes and demands; therefore, the government has to work hard in order to satisfy the needs of the population and fulfill their expectations. As far as the Salafists are concerned, Ennahda can’t afford to be ambiguous on this front. Women’s rights, human rights in general, violence, and the question of the Sharia are issues that Ennahda needs to have a clear position on. By institutional discipline, the speaker meant the constitution and the necessity for one to be written with strong foundations. Jean Pierre Filiu concluded his talk by saying that nationalism is on the side of the Tunisian people, which increases the possibility of bottom-up changes.
The second country to be discussed was Syria. Salam Kawibiki made it clear from the beginning that as a Syrian it’s very difficult for him to present an objective and a scientific view of the situation in his country. Mr. Kawibiki is a member of the Syrian National Council; however, the talk that he gave was based on his personal convictions and it didn’t reflect the official position of the Council.
Baathist, secular and Alawite? Breaking the myths about the regime
He sought to break down three main myths regarding the current Syrian regime: 1) The myth that the regime is Baathist; 2) that it’s secular, and 3) that it’s exclusively Alawite. The speaker stated that it’s an insult to talk about a Baathist – an Arab nationalist and socialist government – in Syria, since the regime had lost all of such ideals long time ago. The term Baathist is only used as a cover for the security and police state that exists in the country. As far as secularism is concerned, Mr. Kawibiki said – with considerable exaggeration surely – that more mosques have been built under the Assad regime than during the entire history of Islam in Syria. Religion has been instrumentalized by the security forces in order to defend the regime and to counter the country’s progressive movements. For example, there used to be numerous cultural centers that discussed enlightened and democratic ideals; but as counter-influence, the state not only destroyed these centers but also sponsored religious schools which taught a very obscure form of Islam (which included teachings such as how the Quran talked about atoms before Einstein). Therefore, contrary to what most people believe, there is no secularism in Syria under the present regime. The final myth about the regime is that it privileges the Alawi sect and is, therefore, reserved for this sect. According to the speaker, this is a misconception and one should stop repeating this amalgam. The only religion the regime has is that of power. All Syrians are a victim of this regime, regardless of one’s religion or sect. For the past three decades, many political prisoners have been Alawis.
Challenges for the opposition
Mr. Kawibiki then proceeded to highlight some of the challenges that the Syrian opposition faces today. For the past five decades, there has been virtually no opposition in the country. Despite the fact that the civil society has been absent in Syria, Syrians are being asked to create a political culture overnight. The world is demanding them to give certain guarantees. The speaker contents that this is too much. These unfair demands impede any sort of progress and create more and more divisions among the current Syrian opposition. The world is concerned with managing the opposition rather than letting it create a future system and society. Never has been an opposition asked to prove its credentials, but the Syrian opposition is being made to run after the Americans, the Europeans and the Turks. As a consequence, the opposition has lost time and effort because it hasn’t been able to concentrate on its own political program.
What is the stance of foreign countries that are said to support Bashar Al Assad? Salam Kawibiki said that, in his opinion, Israel, instead of being afraid of the unknown, would like the current conflict in Syria to drag on. This is because Israel would like to see Syria to be destroyed as much as possible, so when the country finally comes out of the present crisis, it will be weak and won’t pose a threat to the Jewish state.
Russia, for its part, only supports the Assad regime because it came knocking on the Kremlin’s door. We hear in the media that Russia has economic and strategic interests in Syria that it wants to hold on to; however, this is immensely exaggerated. Russian trade with Syria is negligible and the belief that a Syrian port is being used by Russia as its military base in the Middle East is false because there are no Russian battle ships or submarines docked at this port. The reason why Russia vetoed the resolution at the UN is because the West sidelined and tricked Russia and China when it came to imposing the no-fly zone over Libya. The actions that were undertaken by France, Britain and the US following the resolution against Libya were nothing like the ones mentioned in the actual resolution. Therefore, the Russians don’t want to be fooled again. Another reason why Russia refused to back the Arab League regarding Syria is because the League refused to consult the Russians prior. If the Russians are sidelined in the decision making process, then they will have such an attitude. The price of this is now being paid by the Syrian people.
The most revealing position, however, is that of Iran. For many, this would be surprising, especially for those who read mainstream Western press, but the Iranians were ready to end their alliance with Bashar Al Assad. Iran started to establish links with the Syrian opposition in October last year; but as soon as it did so, the US pushed the United Nations to re-open Iran’s nuclear dossier and the following month the International Atomic Energy Agency published a harsh report on Iran’s uranium enrichment program. In face of renewed American pressure, Iran had no choice but to back off and, as self-defense, maintain its alliance with Assad. This shows that there is no Shia marriage between Iran and the Assads, but if the US plays the nuclear card then Iran is left with little option.
Another interesting revelation by Mr. Kawibiki was the ambivalent posture of Qatar vis-à-vis Bashar Al Assad. According to him, when the Syrian regime tried to offer some economic reforms and increase salaries by 30%, it was Qatar that agreed to provide the required money. But the speaker didn’t mention anything about the current Qatari policy towards the regime. There are reports that Qatar is providing arms to the opposition; however, Mr. Kawibiki didn’t talk about what could be a change in Qatari policy. Jordan, which is another country with a stake in the Syrian outcome, is in a complicated position since its economy depends a lot on Syria. As a result, Jordan is against sanctions on Syria.
No religious divide
At the end of his talk, Salam Kawibiki said that there’s no division between Christians and Muslims in Syria. Even though the regime tried to manipulate and create religious rivalry by attacking Christians and destroying churches, the regime’s game was quickly understood by the people. The Free Syrian Army, according to the speaker, protects Christians. Divisions along religious lines are inventions by international political commentary. The Syrians are rising as one.
The changing image of the army
The last country that was talked about was Egypt. Stephane Lacroix said that Egypt is not Tunisia and it’s not Syria – it’s in the middle of the two. The council that was established following the ousting of Hosni Mubarak – council that is supposed to oversee the transition from Mubarak to a democratically elected parliament – is in fact in complete control of the Egyptian army. The council is the regime. At the beginning of the uprising, the army managed to have a positive image among the population as it didn’t suppress or use violence against the protestors. However, this image has now changed. In Tahrir Square, we now hear the calls for the end of the army’s hold on power. Tahrir Square has moved beyond the simple demand of “Arhal ya Hosni Mubarak”, or leave Hosni Mubarak. There are bitter hostilities against the army and it has not hesitated in using repression against those who are challenging its hold on power.
Mr. Lacroix stated that in fact the army was also opposed to Mubarak, especially his son Gamal Mubarak. This was not because of revolutionary reasons, but because Gamal, along with his young CEO friends, wanted to alter the structure of the economy and introduce changes which would undermine the army’s hold on the Egyptian economy. The military feared the Gamal Boys and, when the opportunity came – thanks to the Arab Spring – they used it as a cover to carry out an internal coup d’état. This is the reason why the army didn’t open fire against the protestors at Tahrir Square. But the army’s support for the uprisings doesn’t go further than that.
What are the problems in writing a constitution?
The army, under pressure, has fixed a date for elections. In theory, the current parliament is supposed to create a constitution before elections can be held, but the army maintains control over the aforementioned council. The parliament wants to get rid of the Council but the army sees it as a tool through which the deep state (army and its economic interests, and the old order) can come back to power. The constitution has yet to be written because the Muslim Brotherhood wants the parliament to draw up the constitution, which will give the Brotherhood control over its content, but the army wants extra-parliamentarians to write the constitution, or at least have a considerable say in it, so that the army can keep its influence. The Copts support the army since they fear the Islamists.
Three centers of power. Where do they converge and diverge?
So we have three poles of power, according to Mr. Lacroix: The army, the parliament, and Tahrir. They can’t be reconciled.
The parliament wants control over the army’s budget, but this is a red line for the military. As far as the Salafists are concerned, they want the Sharia to be codified and every law to be interpreted strictly based on their understating of the Islamic Law. The Brotherhood, on the other hand, only wants the Sharia to be an overall, guiding principle and not a strict codification.
Among the activists in Tahrir, there’s a fear that, instead of a Turkish model, Egypt is going to have a Pakistani model, which will see an alliance between the government and the army, instead of a government which will curb the army’s power. The military will maintain its control over the system and the Islamists will get their Islam.
Another important enjeux is the election itself. Tahrir square has its own two candidates. One is an ex member of the Muslim Brotherhood who is now very popular among young activists in the Egyptian streets. The other is a former Salafist.
However, the Muslim Brotherhood and the army are in the same camp when it comes to picking a candidate. They both support Amr Musa, the former finance minister under Mubarak. He is not only close to the system but if he is named candidate, this could see a tactical alliance between the Brotherhood and the military. Will this be durable alliance or just a short-term calculation? The Muslim Brotherhood is not naïve when it comes to its relations with the military establishment, because they remember their experience under General Nasser – the Brotherhood supported Nasser but when he came to power, he turned his back on them and jailed the Muslim Brotherhood.
The durability of the Muslim Brotherhood
According to Stephane Lacroix, the Brotherhood faced generational challenges in the 80s, and during the uprising there was a conflict between the younger and the older generation as well. However, the younger members who left the organization and created their own parties only received 2% of the votes. The Muslim Brotherhood is a highly organized political party and it has complete control over its cadres. It also has a clear leadership and there are no ambiguities on its political positions. Therefore, the Brotherhood is strong and it can face the challenges from within and without the party.
Role of the Christian Copts
Mr. Lacroix said that the Copts are an integral part of the uprisings and they are not excluded from the decision making process. When the protests began, the young Copts led the way and the Coptic Church followed the path of its young. The first martyrs of the uprisings were Christians and the protest really took force after the Coptic Church was attacked by the state.
During Hosni Mubarak, the regime didn’t try to divide and rule the society by privileging and suppressing the Copts more than others. They Church suffered the same injustices as the rest of the population.
There is a regional tug of war when it comes to influencing the future of Egypt. Saudi Arabia, contrary to what most people think, doesn’t support the Salafists since the Salafists are in opposition in Saudi Arabia as well. The Saudis can’t support them in one country and oppose them in their own kingdom. The Saudis support the army just as they supported Hosni Mubarak. Qatar supports the Brotherhood and Qadawi, the spiritual leader of the Brotherhood, has been based in Doha for a long time. One regrets, however, that the speaker didn’t mention the all-important role of the United States – the chief back of the Mubarak regime. There was no mention of Israel either.
Jahanzeb Hussain is the editor of Collateral Damage Magazine. He is a 22-year old student based in Vancouver, where he goes to Simon Fraser University. He also represents the Vancouver chapter of Afghans For Peace. His blog can be viewed here.