Islamist vs. Secularists The Post-Revolution Struggle for the Arab Soul

The rise of political Islam following the Arab Spring has many worried that the democratic achievements of the revolution could be lost. In Egypt and Tunisia alike, citizens are once again taking to the streets. But this time they are opposing Islamism. Does secularism still stand a chance?


Egypt's strongman was sitting in the first row of the mosque. "Anyone who criticizes the president is worse than the heretics who attacked the Prophet in Mecca," the imam preached in his sermon. Then he handed the microphone to Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, saying that he should address the faithful himself. But he never got a chance.

"Down with Morsi! Down with the Muslim Brotherhood!" chanted hundreds of men who were now pushing their way to the front. "Enough is enough!" they shouted. "No to tyranny!" For them, it was intolerable to hear the president being compared with the Prophet Muhammad. Morsi, surrounded by bodyguards, had to leave the mosque on Friday. It was both a scandal and a first for Egypt.

But it was only the beginning. Later, more than 100,000 people gathered on Tahrir Square again to protest the actions of their president.

There are no signs that tensions will ease in Egypt, and it is difficult to predict the outcome of the current power struggle. The president, who gave himself dictatorial special powers, seems unimpressed by the storm he has unleashed among secular Egyptians. In rushed proceedings, he also held a vote on a new constitution, in which the Constituent Assembly, dominated by Islamists, clearly voted in favor of Sharia law. The draft constitution will soon be put to a referendum. But the opposition will not accept this, because it is determined to stop the Muslim Brotherhood's Morsi.

This says a lot about the most important country in the Arab world, which is only at the beginning of its democratization. It also says a lot about the emotional state of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, which came to power as a result of a revolution that it had only halfheartedly supported. The Islamist movement has decades of experience in dealing with authoritarian rulers, but it knows nothing about freedom and pluralism.

Islamists Met with Resistance

It wants to demonstrate strength, especially in Egypt, the country where it was founded, because it knows that a fierce struggle is underway over the role of political Islam, especially in the Arab countries that drove out their dictators only recently: Tunisia, Libya and Yemen. In Syria, where the war is still raging, the question remains as to whether the secular state will be jeopardized if more radical forces within the opposition prevail.

Two years after the beginning of unrest in North Africa and the Middle East, the Islamists seem to have emerged as the clear winners. Many are now claiming that the Arab Spring has been followed by an Islamist winter.

In 2011, the world was euphoric over the fight for freedom being waged by protestors in Tahrir Square. But a shadow fell over the revolution when Libyan militias put the bloodied corpse of former dictator Moammar Gadhafi on display. And the daily bloodshed in Syria comes as a terrible climax to a development that has spun out of control.

The Arab world has once again become a greater source of worry than hope to the Western world. Islamists are winning elections and putting together governments, and even ultraconservative Salafists, shady characters who promise to eliminate democracy as soon as they can, are suddenly playing a role. They also want to take away the freedoms Arab women have achieved, ban bikinis on tourist beaches and turn the administration of justice over to Islamic scholars. Is the revolution over? Not quite.

The struggle for the Arab soul hasn't been decided yet. Wherever movements backed by political Islam begin to gain strength, they encounter broad resistance. It's worthwhile to take a closer look at the countries involved in the Arab Spring.

Exporting Islamism to Libya

In early November, an Egyptian imam who had gone to Libya to preach had an experience similar to Morsi's. He was forced to interrupt his sermon when the audience decided to stop listening to him and left the mosque.

Shortly after the collapse of the Gadhafi regime, in the summer of 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt felt that the moment had come to export radical imams to neighboring Libya. They established a branch of the Brotherhood in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, as well as a book publishing company and a television station. They prepared for the first free parliamentary elections in the country, ran a morally charged campaign, but then lost handily to the liberal "National Forces Alliance."

"The Libyans are already good Muslims. They don't understand what more Islam is supposed to be good for," says Abdurrahman Sewehli, a member of the Libyan parliament, commenting on the defeat of the Muslim Brotherhood. "They are interested in rebuilding the country, and in development, schools and infrastructure."

Libya has a religiously homogeneous society, with Sunni Muslims making up almost 100 percent of the population. The dividing lines in Libya run primarily between clans. The disputes in the desert nation are not about the true practice of Islam, but about tribal interests and the distribution of oil revenues.

And it isn't the only country that is bristling against the deliberate immigration of radical groups.

Contradictions in Yemen and Tunisia

Even before the beginning of the year, the two most important tribal federations in Yemen, the Bakil and the Hashid, had severed all contact with jihadist cells in the country. Yemeni tribal warriors and extremists occasionally cooperated, but it was hardly for ideological reasons. Instead, their interests coincided over money, smuggling and the arms trade. But then the jihadists offended the tribes when they violated their traditions. The American drone war against the al-Qaida cells in the country also made it more difficult for the tribal groups to cooperate with the extremists.

Yemeni society is clannish and deeply traditional. Both Islam and Islamism are firmly established in the country. To secure his power, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in office from 1990 until he stepped down this February, made a pact with the Islamist Islah Party, and for years he promoted the radical imam and friend of al-Qaida Abdul Majeed al-Zindani. Today liberal ideas are much more widespread in the poorest country in the Arabian Peninsula than in Saleh's time. Nevertheless, and this is one of the contradictions in archaic Yemen, no politician would even think of questioning Sharia law, which is in effect in the country.

The political antipode of Yemen is 4,000 kilometers (2,485 miles) to the northwest, in Tunisia, the most secular country in the Arab world. This didn't change after Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali took office in late 2011. His Ennahda Party, a branch of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, had repeatedly assured Tunisians that it did not intend to introduce Islamic law or curtail the rights of women. Tunisia's Islamists have distanced themselves from that position since summer, and yet they are still behaving more reasonably than their counterparts in other countries in the region, as they observe from a safe distance the game President Morsi is currently playing in Egypt.

The independent Cairo daily Al-Fagr wrote that the president had undertaken an "abortion in the fifth month," a reference to the five months Morsi had been in office before stifling democracy. What happens next? Although the Muslim Brotherhood is the best-organized political entity, says political scientist Paul Salim, pluralistic Egyptian society is setting limits to its progress.

Uncertainty in Syria

And what happens to Syria if the regime falls? The demise of the government in Damascus seemed yet another step closer last week, when rebels, allegedly for the first time, shot down two army helicopters with surface-to-air missiles. The incident suggests that the regime of President Bashar Assad, whose air force had long given him military superiority, is now seriously threatened. Until now, the United States and other Western countries had vehemently refused to provide the opposition with weapons of the kind used to down the helicopters.

No one knows exactly how many foreign jihadists currently support the rebellion in Syria, but they do exist. When the governor of Homs Province and fighters with rebel militias tied to the Free Syrian Army sought to reach an agreement last week, foreign fighters frustrated the effort at rapprochement, reports a military observer. "The extremists, who are loosely associated with al-Qaida, have their own agenda," says an intelligence agent. "They don't want a ceasefire; they want to exterminate the Baath regime and establish an Islamist state." If Syria sees a transition process similar to what took place in Tunisia and Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood will likely be among the first groups to position themselves in Damascus.

"Bread, freedom and Islamic Sharia!" thousands of Muslim Brotherhood supporters chanted on Alexandria's central Al-Qaed Ibrahim Square 10 days ago, as they waved Egyptian flags and held up pictures of President Morsi.

"Bread, freedom and social justice!" their opponents, who had turned out in even greater numbers and included secular Egyptians, leftists and liberals, shouted in return. It was a rude awakening for the Islamists in Alexandria, which had been considered one of their strongholds.

When the two sides, standing only a few meters apart, tried to shout each other down, an eyewitness says he felt that the situation could soon spin out of control. "The air was filled with hate and the feeling of civil war."


Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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SHBasse 12/04/2012
1. Democracy comes through development!
The problem in Egypt and other developing countries are that only a (substantial) minority in the cities are mature and ready for our form of democracy while the vast majority of the population are vulnerable to non democratic manipulation by tribal or fundamentalist interests. When democracy evolved in Europe it went through several stages. First it was the landowners (men) who got a vote, then it was all rich men, then it was all men without debt, then it was all men and finally about 100 years ago also the women got the vote. By understanding that democracy is an evolving process, it is possible to establish a transitional democratic system, a system that caters to the actual needs of developing countries. A system that gradually will evolve as the population matures. By giving everybody one vote and supplementing this with extra votes for those with a basic education, extra votes for higher education, extra votes for persons having societal responsibilities and extra votes for persons that pay the double of average tax (every time you double up your payment you get an extra vote!) it will be possible to establish stable democratic institutions in countries that are not quite ready for our form of democracy. As more and more people get educated and prosper, the number of votes will grow and eventually the system will be mature for a restructuring into a one vote per person democracy as we know it.
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