The Arab world of tomorrow will be very different from what we knew. After
decades of oppression, Arab masses are on the move.
They have discovered
that they can change their fate. Not all regimes will crumble, but they all will
have to implement substantial reforms and allow a measure of freedom of
expression as well as greater respect for human rights.
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This does not
mean that the core elements which characterized the political, economic, social
and religious framework of Arab nations will disappear overnight. These nations
will have to overcome the legacy of centuries of backwardness and fight beliefs
and faiths which have molded them since the dawn of Islam.
revolutions free them from tribal and client systems which still prevail in Arab
societies? Will discrimination and oppression against women cease? What about
the high percentage of the population which is partially or totally illiterate?
It is doubtful that they can take a meaningful role in shaping democratic values
or initiate economic progress.
Many questions and too few answers. It is
unfortunately clear that the Middle East will go through years of instability
before the new regimes can find the right balance between the demands of the
emerging political forces and those of traditional Arab societies.
revolutions are far from over and the masses will fill the streets time and time
again to protest measures taken by the new regimes or the reforms instituted by
the old regimes which survived. Radical elements will try to divert these
multitudes to their own ends and thus hijack the revolutions. Such is the way of
popular revolutions until they peak and die. Look at the path taken by the
French Revolution or the Russian Revolution.
However, through this fog of
uncertainty a few facts have emerged. The first is that the Palestinian issue
had no part in getting the masses into the streets. Here and there opposition
forces tried – and are still trying – to get the people to demonstrate against
Israel because of the intifada or the wars against Hamas in Gaza or Hezbollah in
Lebanon, but with very little success.
The Israeli question, used for
decades by Arab rulers to focus their peoples’ attention away from their sorry
economic state, is now revealed for what it was: just a ploy. A similar
conclusion can be drawn on the subject of radical Islam on both of its main
aspects, the jihadist organizations and the Muslim Brotherhood.
was able to inflame the masses and lead them to topple the
Al-Qaida and its offshoot jihadist organizations did manage to
conduct countless terror attacks in Arab countries and carried out extensive
campaigns of incitement through the Internet, in the mosques and with the help
of satellite channels such as Al-Jazeera, but all they could achieve was to
recruit a few thousand youths. Al-Qaida and the like were never an alternative
to the regimes in Arab countries, with the possible exception of Somalia, where
the central government was toppled years ago and anarchy now reigns.
most they could do was to whip the crowds into a frenzy against the West
following the publication of the Muhammad drawings in a Danish
The Muslim Brotherhood, active for decades in Arab countries,
is working openly to create an Islamic regime and is regarded as a permanent
threat in the Arab world. Yet it has failed – up to now – to achieve its goal.
It was for economic reasons that in Egypt and Tunisia students and unemployed
belonging to the lower middle classes started to demonstrate.
Brothers did not join them at first, thinking, wrongly as it turned out, that
the demonstrations would fail and taking part in them would not further their
objectives. They realized their mistake fairly quickly and did join the
protesters, but kept a low profile.
On the other hand, the fact that the
movement’s foremost theologian, Yusuf al- Qaradawi, was allowed to conduct
Friday prayers in Tahrir Square, where hundreds of thousands had gathered,
testified to the fact that the Brothers had been busy behind the scenes. They
now have representatives on the committee that was set up to amend the
constitution, and they have managed to block the cancellation of Article 2,
which states that Islam is the country’s religion and that Shari’a is the
principal source of law. In other words, the Army Supreme Council had decided to
adopt a conciliatory attitude towards the Muslim Brothers – having come to the
conclusion that they constituted a well-organized political force, but also that
for the present Egyptians on the whole wanted to preserve the Islamic nature of
In Tunisia, though the leader of the Brotherhood, Rashid
Ghannushi, came home after 20 years in exile, the organization does not seem to
play a meaningful role in the ongoing revolution. It is probably due to the
success of president Habib Bourguiba and his successor Zine El Abidine Ben Ali
in curtailing the movement, which led to an increased Western
The exact opposite has occurred in Jordan, where the Brothers
are the main force against the regime, though at the moment King Abdullah’s
throne appears secure enough. Regarding Libya the situation is unclear but it
does seem that Islamists make up one of the strongest elements against Muammar
What is no less interesting is that the Muslim Brothers
themselves are affected by the currents washing over the Arab world. In Egypt, a
group of young bloggers who are members of the movement are calling for a
demonstration on March 17 in front of the Brothers’ Cairo offices. They demand
the resignation of the group’s supreme guide, Mohammed Badie, who was elected
barely a year ago, the dissolution of all the movement institutions, and free
and transparent elections.
These are extreme demands striking at the
heart of the Brotherhood and they could not have been formulated even a month
ago; the bloggers affirm that no fewer than 30,000 members have voiced their
support and will demonstrate.
Brotherhood official leaders, for their
part, protest that the movement is united behind them and that they are pursuing
their efforts to set up a “democratic country on the basis of the
They intend to form a political party which shall be called
“Freedom and Justice,” a satellite television channel as well as daily and
weekly newspapers. In other words, they want to be an influential part of the
The Brotherhood has always been known for its unswerving,
dogmatic positions on theological matters; at this stage it is not clear what
the winds of change will bring to the almost century-old movement.
are therefore a great number of unknowns in the unrest spreading over the Arab
world. Will Islamists succeed in setting up “moderate” Islamic political
parties, and how “moderate” would they really be? And what will happen in Saudi
Arabia? The king is 87; he is just back from the United States and Morocco after
a difficult surgery for a slipped disc. He immediately ordered to give every
family $500, a move seen as trying to placate the people ahead of trouble, but
which falls woefully short. Saudi Arabia is not better prepared against
revolutions than other Arab countries. Most of the huge oil revenues go to the
20,000 princes who lord them over the masses. Poverty and unemployment are rife
and the extravagant lifestyle and corruption of the rulers is a source of
The Shi’ite minority suffers from oppression and
discrimination; it is to be found in the east of the country – where most oil
reserves are situated – close to Bahrain, a kingdom where the Shi’ite majority
is trying to overthrow the Sunni royal family. Will Saudi King Abdullah be wise
enough to give up some of his privileges to pacify both the masses and the
Shi’ite minority? He has made in the past a few minor reforms in the field of
education, but nothing to deal with the real problems.
worries about events in Bahrain, Yemen and Oman – his nearest neighbors
suffering from the same ills. On the other hand, he may be relying on the
traditional alliance between the royal family and the Wahabi religious
establishment, though that alliance may falter in front of an Egyptian-style
revolution. For the moment the kingdom welcomes fallen dictators such as Ben Ali
and has offered sanctuary to Mubarak.
President Barack Obama’s most
recent declaration about welcoming changes within existing regimes is being seen
as tacit support for the embattled oil-rich kingdoms.
When all is said
and done, the main question today is how, and in what measure, if at all, can
Islamic tradition and Arab nationalism be reconciled with democracy and
In the meantime, it does seem as if the issues which dominated
both the Arab world and the West in recent years – the Israeli- Palestinian
conflict and radical Islam – no longer occupy center stage. Arab masses above
all want better economic and social conditions.
Finally, Iran appears to
be the main beneficiary of the turmoil, since its strongest opponents, the
so-called pragmatic rulers, are busy with their internal problems – which some
say Iran has actively promoted.The writer is a former ambassador to
Egypt and a fellow at The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.