Spring, revolution, or restoration in the Arab world?

Exactly one year ago, anger drove the young Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi to set himself alight. The flames engulfed many Arab countries. Bouazizi died, but the Arab Spring was born. One year on, is there something to celebrate? MO* put the question to Egyptian writer Alaa Al-Aswani, Syrian human rights activist Haytham Manaa, and Algerian top diplomat Lahkdar Brahimi — all three famous throughout the Arab world.

  • Gie Goris Lakhdar Brahimi: 'The future of the Islamists now depends mostly on themselves, but also on the non-Islamic political powers. How mature will their reaction be? How appealing will they be?' Gie Goris

Egyptian activists congratulated the Lybians when Qaddafi’s capture and, later, his death were announced. The brutal way in which the Lybian leader was killed caused almost no comments. No one mourns for Qaddafi, but many experience the Lybian uprising as a ‘stolen’ revolution and the future as not very rosy.

Tunisia, where it all began, also received felicitations. For the high turn-out for the late October and their good proceeding for starters. Tunisians keep setting the example, even though the results gave rise to mixed reactions. The political players, both the Islamists as the secularists, showed a high degree of political maturity. And many Tunisians had announced to respect the results, whatever that result would be.

The sour reactions in the Western media to the big victory for the Islamic party Ennahda failed therefore to gain any applause. “Apparently, many in the West still have to learn what democracy is,” a young Tunisian woman twittered in reaction to an article in the French paper L’Express entitled Après le printemps arabe, l’hivers islamiste (‘After the Arab spring, the Islamist winter’). To be clear, the woman in question did not vote for Ennahda.

In her Twitter messages, the Egyptian journalist and activist Naware Negm gives voice to the widespread feeling that the Islamic parties in Egypt stand rather at the side of the contra-revolution than of the revolution. At the end of October another Twitter user remarked sarcastically that if Hosni Mubarak had remained president, there would have been elections already in September.

Naware Negm is still being teased about her emotional statement immediately after the fall of Mubarak, when she said to Al Jazeera Arabic: “From today on, there is no more fear, no more injustice.” The truth is that the changes all were expecting did not materialise. Sometimes, the opposite seems to be true. Protest actions, demonstrations, and strikes keep occurring. The transition period seems to last forever, and many observers fear that the old regime is resurfacing. Can one speak, in those circumstances, of a revolution?

EGYPTIAN AUTHOR ALAA AL-ASWANY: ‘I am not afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood’

Alaa Al-Aswany, the Egyptian writer who had his international breakthrough with his novel The Yacoubian Building and who was critical of the Mubarak regime for years, keeps turning his critical eye to the post-Mubarak period. And that did not dent his belief in the Arab spring.

Alaa Al-Aswany: “The revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia have realised the unthinkable. Ben-Ali of Tunisia was a dictator. He was the state. He has fled. Mubarak too was the state. He is being held to trial. No one thought that this was possible. And the fantastic part of it is that this has been realised by a peaceful mass uprising. A page has been turned; a new era has begun. It is only natural that this is accompanied by many problems.”

Apart from the persecution of Mubarak, this new era is not yet very noticeable.

Alaa Al-Aswany: Revolutions do not only eliminate a political system but a social and intellectual system as well, with the goal of building a new one. Revolutions are not a walk in the park. The French revolution took fourteen years. In Egypt, we now are at the heart of the struggle for change. The Military Council that governs the country was never against Mubarak. They put a halt to the real change in Egypt and merely want reform. But the revolution is stubborn; it does not accept compromises. We want revolutionary changes.

Why are those changes so slow in the making?

Alaa Al-Aswany: Many people, also within the security services, remain in their post. It is normal that they do everything they can to maintain the old regime. Real changes may not only mean the end of their careers, it can also see them end up in jail. And thus problems are artificially created, such as the lack of gasoline, or the security problems. The media that are in the hands of the government play the same game as in the Mubarak-era: they placate the Military Council and spread lies.

Is this the result of a long-time dictatorship conditioning people?

Alaa Al-Aswany: No, because the millions that rose up against Mubarak lived for thirty years under a dictatorship as well. It is rather a question of interests. In 1952 Gamal Abdel-Nasser seized power in a coup that later on transformed in a revolution. In the first year of his rule, the old regime received some heavy blows. He limited private property and redistributed farmland to safeguard the revolution. The Military Council has done the opposite. The same people remain in the same key positions everywhere, in the media as well. No revolutionary measures have been taken after the fall of Mubarak.

Will elections change that?

Alaa Al-Aswany: Elections are the solution on the condition that a few measures are taken. First, the military tribunals have to disappear. In the seven months after the revolution, twelve thousand people have been put to trial by such military tribunals. Second, the state of emergency has to be ended, just as the constitutional declaration prescribes this. And third, the “treason law” has to come in force. That law had been introduced by Gamal Abded-Nasser to fight corruption in the broad sense of the word. It would make it possible to eliminate corrupt Mubarak-supporters from their posts. In that way, you can stem the influence of the people that want to breathe a new life in the old regime and to smear the new political life.

The Muslim Brotherhood is more and more seen as a movement that helps the old regime to remain in power. Is this a valid concern?

Alaa Al-Aswany: The problem of the Muslim Brotherhood is that they keep making the same mistakes over and over again, which already started when they were founded in 1928. They assume that what is in their interest, is also in the interest of Egypt. That has led them to support the regime, and that is what they have done throughout their whole history, with no exceptions. The Muslim Brotherhood has convinced the Military Council that the revolution can only be canalised through them. But in the meantime the Council has found out that the influence of the Brotherhood is overrated. That appeared very clearly in the past months. Protests the Muslim Brotherhood took its distance from turned out to be a huge success; they still attracted lots of people.

The Muslim Brotherhood is opportunistic?

Alaa Al-Aswany: Even if they wouldn’t want so, they lapse into political opportunism. The Muslim Brotherhood only subscribed to the revolution four days after it started, and they have accepted quasi-solutions. At the start they wanted a new constitution, just as everybody else. But when the Military Council proposed a constitutional declaration, they have defended this initiative.

Turkey and Iran position themselves as important players in the region, for example in their response to the Arab spring. What do the Egyptians think of that?

Alaa Al-Aswany: I think it is funny that some Western politicians attack Turkey because it wants to play a regional role. It is as if they are used to prototypes like Hosni Mubarak, a president at the service of Western countries, a president that committed a crime against humanity by participating in the blockade of Gaza. Simply because Western countries wanted that. Erdogan is a democratically elected president. He defends the interests of his country. That is not only his right; it is his duty. Iran too is a country that wants to defend itself. It has that right, just as for instance France has the right to defend itself. Or is the intention that Islamic and Arab countries do the homework of Western countries?


SYRIAN HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVIST HAYTHAM MANNA: ‘The blood of the uprising does not have a price’

“Elections have seldom represented the people. To vote is an experience; it has to be practised. In the Arab countries were the head of the regime is toppled but the old structures remain, we have to await several rounds of elections before we can evaluate. The fear is that in the last round, we discover that we haven’t succeeded to build a firm base for true democracy.” Speaking is Haytham Manna. The Syrian opponent and human rights activist lives in Paris for years now, and is the spokesperson for the Arab Human Rights Commission.

Manna is from Deraa, the province where the Syrian uprising began, and she belongs to a family of opponents of the regime. His father has been in prison for years. His brother was killed in the beginning of August. Still, Manna dreads any foreign involvement in Syria. And that explains his criticisms of the Syrian National Council, an organ founded in Istanbul at the beginning of October.

Is the first anniversary of the Arab spring something to celebrate?

Haytham Manna: We are now in the phase where the revolution and the contra-revolution have taken on a clear form. The contra-revolution is not only the work of supporters of the old regime and foreign powers, but also of some that have been repressed earlier on, like the Muslim Brotherhood.

How do you explain that?

Haytham Manna: Some parties in Tunisia had access to lots of money very early on after they were founded. They were supported by the media, and they found it easy to form coalitions. Others did not. The media of the Gulf States intervene in elections in all countries. In Saudi-Arabia there is no right to vote, but the satellite broadcaster Al-Arabiyya ‘votes’ in Syria for the National Council. Al-Qarawadi, the Islam scholar who often appears on Al-Jazeera, votes for the Syrian National Council, as does the French minister of Foreign Affairs Alain Juppé, even though none of them has the Syrian nationality. They appeal to the right of intervention to support the people. But that is not to support the people. For he who wants to support the people, says he is with the people — not with a particular party. What we see right now is negative intervention that destroys but does not create. Such intervention comes at the cost of the most enlightened powers of the people.

You are against the creation of the Syrian National Council. Why?

Haytham Manna: We don’t need that Council. I don’t know where it will take us, especially not with a Turkey in the background that has a big appetite to play a big regional role. I hope it does not lead to a military intervention. In Syria, we want the change to come about from within. We want the revolution to be an authentic realisation of the people. The uprising in Syria is paid in blood. That blood does not have a price. We do not want it to be traded or sold — not in Washington, and not in any Arab capital whatsoever.

But every day sees more victims. Can the Syrians keep this up for much longer?

Haytham Manna: What has happened the last seven months ensures the answer to be yes. During that period, Deraa was blockaded for forty days. During those forty days thirty-two demonstrations have been organised, by women. On 31 July there was a military attack on three cities, and still the people keep taking to the streets and protest. Demonstrations are being organised in Homs, Rasten, and the villages of Damascus. The people persevere, and they can persevere for a long time still.

It seems that no one wins in that confrontation.

Haytham Manna: That is correct if you assume that only the fall of the head of the regime can be a victory. But I see that the people have already achieved victories. There is change in the hearts and minds. There is change in the life of the people. There is great solidarity. These are realisations of the last months that were unthinkable in the past forty years. The question is why we do not succeed in attracting the majority that is watching at the sidelines. The big cities Damascus and Aleppo do not participate.

Why not?

Haytham Manna: This is about the Syria of tomorrow. What you hear is: the regime has to fall. But what comes after that? There are religious and ethnic minorities in Syria, and they are afraid. If Bachar Al-Assad is toppled tomorrow, then who will succeed him? Satan? People want to know what the Syria of tomorrow will be. That is why we want a clear definition of citizenship from today on. We want a clear definition of the democratic and civil state. We want to know what we are heading for.


ALGERIAN TOP DIPLOMAT LAKHDAR BRAHIMI (78): ‘The enthusiasm of the West is not credible’

He is truly happy that the Arab region is set in motion, that the lethargy has been broken. These words are not gratuitous for Lakhdar Brahimi, because for him this is at the same time a confession that his generation and the secular politics it stood for have failed. Brahimi is one of the most influential Arab diplomats in the world. He was ambassador in Egypt and Great-Britain, minister of Foreign Affairs in Algeria, undersecretary-general of the Arab League and of the United Nations.

For the Arab League, Lakhdar Brahimi negotiated an end to the Lebanese civil war in 1991. For the United Nations, he coordinated the first democratic elections in South-Africa in 1994, he negotiated between North- and South-Yemen, and he was the special envoy to countries such as Sudan, Burundi, Congo, Liberia, and Afghanistan. He was also chairman of the Bonn Conference on Afghanistan in December 2001, and he was he UN-representative in Iraq at the time of the formation of the first government after the fall of Saddam Hussain.

What is the real meaning of the Arab spring of 2011?

Lakhdar Brahimi: Different springs took place at the same time. The problems of the people are the same, but the way the change is formed is vastly different in Tunisia and Egypt, let alone in Syria. It is too early to know whether all these local uprisings will converge into one Arab revolution.

What do the Arab governments have to do to satisfy their citizens?

Lakhdar Brahimi: Firstly, fight corruption. Many people have the feeling that a lot of the collective means are wasted or stolen by the governing elite. Even in cases where this is overstated, all too often it remains true. Secondly, respect for the rule of law. Citizens have the right to know what their inalienable rights and responsibilities are. If you add these together, this results in justice and democracy: a society where the government does not consist of thieves and where the citizens have rights.

In Europe, many are convinced that the people in the Arab world are driven less by democratic convictions than by religious ones.

Lakhdar Brahimi: The one does not exclude the other. Lots of people are convinced that the fight against corruption and for good governance and justice is best represented by political Islam. Even if this says more about the failure of the secular elite than about the success of the Islamists. In the last elections in Tunisia, there were more than a hundred secular parties against one Islamic Ennahda. No wonder that the name recognition of the latter was so much larger.

What do you make of the fact that this last turbulent year seems to favour mainly the political Islamists?

Lakhdar Brahimi: After the independence movements of the fifties and sixties people have put their trust in us, in the secular intellectuals that would take care of progress, justice, and dignity. Even back then the political Islam existed in its moderate, conservative, and radical forms, but no one listened to their appeal to reject the republic in favour of their Islamic state. We failed to realise the trust that was put in us. So we cannot but blame ourselves of the fact that many people today assemble behind the flag of political Islam. Although it has to be said that the international environment has really not helped to realise our promises.

Throughout the whole Arab world, it has become clear by now that these parties can no longer be neglected in the governance of the region. The future of the Islamists now depends mostly on themselves, but also on the non-Islamic political powers. How mature will their reaction be? How appealing will they be?

For the moment, the world — and especially the West — reacts enthusiastically to the Arab Spring.

Lakhdar Brahimi: I do not think that those reactions are credible. In Israel and in the West they are happy because no American or Israeli flags have been burned, but Palestine remains by far the biggest problem of the Middle East. Most of the Arab governments had dumped the Palestinians, but the same does not hold for the Arab people. The difficulty is that American policy in the region is not determined by the American Congress, but by the Israeli government.

The New York Times even writes that Hillary Clinton went to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to enlist his help in influencing the American Congress. You will see as well that the support for Israel will survive all budget cuts in the US. Three billion dollars for Israel in military support alone, but no one dares to touch it. The reason? Israel has to remain stronger than any Arab nation or combination of nations.

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