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Raghida Dergham

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Fears of the Arab Spring Becoming an "Islamist Spring"

Posted: 01/20/12 04:44 PM ET

Beirut - Mistaken are those who demand that power be handed over to the Islamists in the Arab region of change, even on the grounds that they have been brought to power by a democratic process that must be honored, and that there is no choice but to submit to the de facto situation until the Islamists are tested in power. This is because democracy has been abortive as a result of excluding women and the youth from decision-making, and there are dangerous indications that the personal freedoms of Arab women and religious minorities are being undermined in the age of the Islamist monopoly of power.

The youth of the Arab Awakening launched the revolution of change, but the ballot boxes brought victory for the Islamist movements. While they had toppled their regimes jointly in 2011, they parted ways in the 2012 battle over the fateful choice between the modern state and the Islamic state.

This is not to say that the modernists reject the results of the elections, for they, despite their fear of the Islamists, are not opposed to democracy. Rather, the lack of clarity of the direction taken by the Islamists, and the uncertainty regarding democratic nature of such a direction is arousing terror, because no one is providing guarantees for the rotation of power, or indeed for the secular state and legislation that would ensure equality among all citizens.

For this reason, when those who call for respecting the outcome of the democratic process in terms of the Islamists coming to power, demand that we wait for the latter to be tested, as they are insulting the women of the Arab region. Arab women are paying today the price of change coming through an abortive democracy, yet they are being demanded to remain silent and accept to be sacrificed in the name of democracy.

This becomes even worse when a country like the United States is actively rushing to enable the Muslim Brotherhood to ignore the youth, excluded today from power, and ignore women, who are now being blindsided. The bottom-line of this American stance is placing the fate of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel ahead of the rights of over half of the Egyptian people, i.e. women and young people.

The Obama administration may believe that in this manner, it is buying the loyalty of Islamist movements instead of their hostility; that the policy of containment and attraction is in the interest of the United States; and that it is inevitable for the Islamists in power in Egypt, for example, to turn to Washington, because they are in dire need of economic aid to remain in power. But the Obama administration is only repeating the clichéd American way of being ready to dispense with anyone, -- if this is in its interest -- while turning a blind eye to principles and values. Abandoning the modernists, the enlightened or the secularists is indeed what the U.S. doing, no matter how much Washington tries to provide explanations or justifications for it. If Washington had remained neutral, at an equal distance from both the Islamists and the modernists, then it would have been above board. But by engaging the Islamists at the expense of the modernists, Washington is sending the Arab youth a message that is both wrong and dangerous, as the youth see this as betrayal -- or American betrayal, as usual.

In spite of this, the Arab youth and Arab women do not intend to remain still under a new regional order being forged -- with Turkey's leadership, of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab region -- whom the West labels followers of moderate Islam or enlightened Islamists. Turkey has its own interests in seeking influence, or in fact hegemony in the Muslim region, under the banner of the "Turkish model," which the West has since come to terms with; while warning that what is really happening is that secularism is being overturned.

And it is also in Turkey's interest to be prominent in the balance of trust in the Middle East. But what brings Turkey, Iran and Israel together is the desire to neutralize the Arabs in the regional balance of power -- if not by dividing the Arab region, then at least by sharing influence therein.

This is what many young Arabs realize today, which is why young people have begun to take precautions. However, they are exhausted and this might require them to carry out another revolution, this time against the revolution of change itself. The Arab region is divided in its emotions, and not just in its assessment of what has come to it in the name of the Arab Spring.

Part of it welcomes the victory of the Islamists, considering it to be the natural outcome of the demands of the region's inhabitants. Another part of it is expecting a struggle for power within the ranks of the Islamists, between the Salafists and "the Brotherhood." Then there are those who are falling into the dark pit of pessimism regarding the future of the region, on the background of the Arab Spring turning into an Islamist Spring. Finally, there are also those who cling to their belief in optimism, because the nature of change in the Arab region has begun distorted. So what is happening then?

In Beirut, during the conference of Reform and Transitions to Democracy held by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), public and captivating talk and remarkable discussions took place behind the scenes, between Islamists coming to or seeking power, and modernists who want secular constitutions that separate religion and state. Optimism and pessimism were also mixed into the fray, sometimes negating generational differences.

Former Yemeni Prime Minister Dr. Abd Al-Karim Al-Iryani, for example, understood the pessimism, but rebutted the arguments for it by pointing to the vitality and meaning of the "collective movement" of the youth in Yemen, and to the fact that Egypt's youth still remain active, because "the dynamic movement belongs to the youth alone." He came to the conclusion that youthful change will not be likely to retreat in Yemen because change in the Arab region has become an established international principle. Change is coming to Yemen on the 21st of next month with the election of a new president, and a historical event not witnessed by Yemen in a thousand years is likely to be recorded if a president from Southern Yemen is elected, as it is expected.

Then there will be in power -- for the first time -- both a President and a Prime Minister who hail from Southern Yemen. The importance of this is that this historical event may be the security valve to keep Yemen united and prevent its descent into conflicts that would lead to its partitioning once again. And that is cause for optimism, because then the path of change in Yemen would have led to fundamental and profound results that include the President stepping down, elections being held, and the division of Yemen being foreclosed.

But in spite of this, democracy in Yemen is being abortive in a manner that is absolutely unacceptable when it comes to women. The likes of Iryani call for respecting the democratic process whatever its results may be, and waiting for what history will lead to after the winners are tested. Yet the voices of young people and women have risen up in protest against the calls for patience, and have called for action now to cause the necessary shock to those who embrace the abortive democracy, so that they may not believe that the revolution of change has given them the authority to hold a new monopoly.

In Egypt, where the disappointment of modernists is great as a result of what took place with the ballot boxes in favor of the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood, there is a profound division with regard to the future and in the balance of optimism and pessimism. Indeed, Egypt, in the opinion of one seasoned politician in thought and in politics -- who did not take part in the conference -- represents the basis and the measure of what will happen in the Arab region. And he is optimistic.

He is optimistic because the situation will change within six months, when the time comes for change through a new constitution, wagering on the fact that Islamists are a minority in Egypt and that Egyptian thinking will not tolerate an Islamist monopoly of power. Meanwhile, the presidential candidate in Egypt, and former Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, Amr Moussa pointed to the importance of the "Al-Azhar document" that was recently issued, and which was characterized by lucidity, moderation, tolerance and modernity, and considered it to be a frame of reference. He said that the transition towards democracy "has an Islamist flavor" and that moderation is "the new Islamist flavor." Nevertheless, he stressed the necessity of keeping branches of government separate, and respecting the judiciary and other tenets of true democracy. The election of a man like Amr Moussa, a non-Islamist, as President in Egypt may well be the safety valve for the country's stability, because the Islamists in power need a president who would speak the language of consensus, would nearly be a guarantee that the Islamists will not monopolize power, and would allow the West to extend essential aid to Egypt by insisting on respect for citizens' rights and refusing exclusion.

Behind the scenes, a remarkable discussion took place between the Islamist candidate for president in Egypt, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, and an open-minded Lebanese cleric and expert on Islamic jurisprudence, Sayyid Hani Fahs. It is noteworthy that it was Fahs who demanded distinguishing between religion, the state and politics, and who challenged the Islamist candidate's interpretation of religion and jurisprudence, which spoke of Islam alone being the solution. In the public sessions, a young Tunisian activist stood up and said that change in the Arab World was not an "event" that had taken place and had ended, but rather a course and a process that had just begun. He calmly and logically warned that the youth of Tunisia would not submit to the Islamists in power without holding them to account or without objecting. A female Moroccan human rights activist then declared, "It bothers me that we are asked to accept and surrender to the results of the electoral process."

At the present time, what is required of the youth and the women of change is full engagement, and organizing and preparing for the next round. A female Libyan judge then spoke of what Libyan women had done in the revolution against Gaddafi, only to be "surprised" by the stances of the National Council and the presence of only one woman in the council -- "We then began to review what we had done". In addition, a Lebanese feminist organization organized the Sawa Sawa March called for by the New Arab Woman Forum under the slogan "No Spring without Women."

Most prominent in the discussions is the fact that modernists are raising their voices in saying that change would remain lacking and failed, as long as women and young people are not at the core of decision-making; as long as the state is not made up of legal and secular state institutions; as long as the constitution is not based on citizenship; and as long as the forces of modernity do not move today and now to organize, mobilize and refuse to wait silently until it is too late. Also prominent is the awareness in the Arab region of the necessity of being vigilant about the regional balance of power. Indeed, both the Islamic Republic of Iran and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's Turkey are based on religious confessionalism, and this limits their horizons. Neither of the two will be able to seize regional leadership, and together, they will not be able to share influence and divide the Arab region amongst themselves, no matter how much they try and how much they work towards this. For one thing, the Arab youth will not sink into slumber. Egypt is still in the process of sorting matters out, a process that may lead it to rise as a pioneering country in the Arab region.

The change coming from the Arab Awakening is going through a frightening phase that is causing much frustration, and yet there is something in the air preventing a downward spiral into pessimism -- something that awakens frustration into the necessity of challenging monopoly.

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