Arab Spring ushers in bright future despite worry

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The euphoria sparked by the Arab Spring is giving way to disquiet over political instability and the growing influence of Islamists, but the democratic process still looks unstoppable, experts believe.

In 12 months, the Arab world has gone through more changes than it saw in decades, with Tunisia and Egypt staging historic elections.

A popular uprising ousted long-time Tunisian leader Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in January, sending shockwaves rippling across North Africa and the Middle East.

Protesters overthrew autocratic Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak a month later, while Libyans took up arms and finally toppling dictator Moamer Qaddafi and killing him in October.

Following months of bloody unrest, Yemenis are turning a new page after their long-time autocratic leader signed a Gulf-brokered agreement under which he is to cede power by February.

And their Syrian counterparts might finally be seeing light at the end of the tunnel as the Arab and international communities boost efforts to end a bloody crackdown on dissent that has lasted nearly nine months.

“The uprisings have opened new horizons after long years of tyranny and stagnation,” said Syrian intellectual Sadiq Jalal Al-Azm.

Ziad Majed, a lecturer on Middle Eastern affairs at the American University of Paris, also foresees a bright future.

“The path towards democracy will only move forward,” said Majed. “It’s impossible for things to go back to coups and despotism after all that has happened.”

Islamists are beginning to reap the benefits of the Arab Spring which was led by independent youths defying the myth of “oriental despotism.”

But with Islamists who have always been suppressed by Arab autocrats aspiring to power in many countries, liberals are voicing fears of a different type of dark era ahead. An argument dismissed by Majed.

“Some say that the victory of some Islamist groups in elections brings to an end the hopes for democracy which these revolts have promised, but this is not true,” he said.

“The Islamists winning now did not seize power through violence or jihad, and they do not reject elections and power transfer in principle.”

Islamists are rising to power thanks to years of oppression under the rule of secular autocrats, according to French academic Jean-Pierre Filiu.

“The various dictatorships that have portrayed themselves as the shield in the face of Islamists have largely participated in raising the popularity of these Islamist parties as a sole alternative to their governments,” said the Paris-based professor of political science.

Azm agrees that Islamists “have benefited from sympathy votes”, with most of their prominent leaders having spent years in exile and their followers frequently jailed.

Filiu, author of “The Arab Revolution: Ten Lessons from the Democratic Uprising,” said Islamists would use this to their advantage.

But they would “struggle to prove themselves on the ground because of the weakness of their social agenda, which will certainly be one of the main challenges facing the Arab world over the next decade.”

In Tunisia, Islamists emerged as the strongest political force after elections in October, whereas in Egypt, they achieved a surprise 65 percent of votes in the first phase of polling.

Their rapid rise has sent shockwaves through liberal ranks.

The real question is whether these Islamist movements, which have no real experience of government, will cling to power or would be prepared to let go if beaten in future elections.

Azm, known for his book “Critique of Religious Thought,” which provoked Islamists in the 1960s, believes the influence of the Turkish model on emerging Arab Islamism is a determining factor.

“If Islamists, including those of Tunisia and Egypt, manage to implement even half of what their counterparts in Turkey have managed to achieve, then there will definitely be a movement towards a more balanced democracy,” said Azm.

But if they “cling to power in case they lose in future elections, this will mean a return to tyranny.”

Arab monarchies, meanwhile, have to a large extent been spared the uprisings, with the exception of Sunni-ruled Bahrain where tensions remain high almost nine months after security forces crushed Shiite-led protests.

Others such as Jordan and Morocco have seen sporadic demonstrations urging reform while also pledging support for the ruling dynasties.

Arab monarchs can protect their thrones if they introduce reforms — a step Morocco is beginning to take.

The rulers of Gulf states, however, are more fortunate as they are able to use oil wealth to keep the people satisfied.

“Leaders (of monarchies) will not be able to avoid the impacts of the uprising emerging from the rest of the region, and will not be able to ignore demands for reform,” Majed said.

Whatever the future holds, Majed is confident that “this generation will reinforce the principle of accountability … this is the most important gain from the Arab Spring.

“The word ‘forever’ (in power) no longer exists.”


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