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Raghida Dergham

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Western Responsibility to Protect the Arab Spring

Posted: 11/04/11 03:32 PM ET

The Arab Spring is currently suffering a setback, making it more an autumn. Yet this does not necessarily mean that winter will blow over the Arab Awakening and do away with it, before we can celebrate the Arab Spring's first anniversary. Against the background of what is taking place in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia, there are legitimate fears now, especially as Islamist movements are skillfully and craftily trying to hijack the youth's revolution of change and their ambitions of secular constitutions that separate religion and state.

Yet the movements of modernity and enlightenment in both Egypt and Tunisia -- and even in Libya to a lesser extent -- are not quite on the retreat, despite the attempts by Islamist movements to exaggerate their size, and to prevent others from being given opportunities to organize themselves into political parties that would be able to compete with them. The women and the young people of Tunisia will not accept a regime in Tunis that would rob Tunisians of their freedom of opinion and of choice, and would take away what former President Habib Bourguiba granted to women in terms of rights and laws protecting them. The liberals in Egypt do not automatically yield to the attempts by the Islamist political parties to hijack the process of drafting the new constitution and to monopolize it. Thus, Egyptian liberal movements are challenging the refusal of Islamist movements to discuss the process of drafting the new constitution and the criteria for selecting the committee tasked with this function. The liberal movements are calling for a governing covenant that would guide those who draft the new constitution, in order to preserve the secular nature of the state. The battle they wage is a difficult one, in light of the skill and experience of the Islamist political parties, which seek quick parliamentary elections that the Muslim Brotherhood is poised to win, and that would allow them to monopolize drafting the new constitution if they so wish.

Nonetheless, those secular movements are moving forward in their battle, on the basis of the legal opinion that no political movement has the right to monopolize drafting the constitution, even if it obtains the majority in parliament -- especially as the Egyptian Revolution arose for freedom, secularism and democracy.

In Libya, on the other hand, there is some disillusionment with some of the rebels who have behaved with astounding barbarity. Such groups behave as if they had alone liberated Libya from Gaddafi's rule, forgetting that, without the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO) and its air-strikes, those rebels would still be cowering in fear and bowing their heads to Gaddafi's tyranny. Libya represents a bitter experience, especially as NATO countries are nearly silent about the grave violations of international law being committed by some rebels, at a time when those countries have claimed to be defenders of human rights for all people, wherever they may be. They are silent about the Chairman of the National Transitional Council (NTC) hijacking the identity of the revolution by monopolizing decision-making, without having legal authority or a popular mandate, announcing on that historic day that government in the new Libya would be based on Sharia.

Abdul Jalil thus directed a slap-in-the-face at the women and the youth of Libya, robbing them of the right to choose and imposing on them an identity he and those around him favor. In this way, Abdul Jalil has brought back to memory the dictates of Gaddafi, amid the fury of revenge and the reign of the law of the jungle. It was thus a wretched day in the life of the new Libya, a day that made those who mutilated dead bodies proud, those who took into their hands power they did not hold, who took up arms to defend a clan or a tribe, and who received money and weapons to declare their resolve to turn Libya into an Islamic republic. Yet, like in Tunisia and in Egypt, there are both inside and outside of Libya, women and men who will not be silent about their revolution being hijacked, and will not submit to dictates here or to a mob of armed men there.

Whether the defining characteristic of the relationship between Islamists and modernists is battle or dialogue, sorting out this relationship requires the broad participation of non-Islamist movements and a great deal of support for them, as well as a great deal of coordination. This is because Islamist political parties are experienced in organization and political work, since they were nearly alone on the scene of the opposition to the former regimes. It is therefore only natural for the elections to result in victory for Islamist political parties, especially as other movements have not been given sufficient time to organize into political parties, in addition to the fact that they do not enjoy the financial support necessary to wage battles such as these. This is at a time when Islamist parties are receiving financial support not just from individuals who believe in them, but also from governments in the region that have decided to support extremist and moderate Islamist movements with funds and sometimes even with arms. The most important element on the road to change in the Arab region resides in constitutions, and this is why Islamist political parties want to rush to hold parliamentary elections which they would win, leading them to hold the keys to the country's constitution. Meanwhile, the claims by Western countries that they respect the democratic process and do not interfere in domestic decision-making in Libya, for example, are nearly laughable.

France, for instance, has acted as if it were leading NATO, which carried out intensive air-strikes in Libya that contributed to toppling Muammar Gaddafi, and it was thus at the forefront of those who boasted of this achievement. Today, it behaves as if it fears angering the new rulers in Libya, who might punish it instead of rewarding it in the form of oil contracts and so forth. It is willing to overlook the dangerous violations of human rights and international law. It remains silent when one of the leaders of Libya's National Transitional Council hijacks decision-making powers to impose an opinion and a direction for which he did not consult with the Libyan people. And France is not alone, as the Obama Administration, which mobilized NATO in Libya, is in fact walking down the same road. Here, it is the duty of the United Nations to play a bigger and broader role in Libya. For one thing, it was the Security Council that was given the power of international intervention in Libya under the banner of "the shared responsibility in providing protection" to civilians. The Security Council resolutions that were taken by NATO as a legal basis for its military intervention and for carrying out the air-strikes expired last week by virtue of another Security Council resolution. The Security Council also adopted a resolution giving the UN Secretariat the power to dispatch a high-ranking official, who is Ian Martin, to help Libya during its transitional period.

It is the duty of the United Nations to demand in earnest that the new government in Libya respect human rights and international law, so as for vengeance and the law of the jungle not to prevail instead. It is the duty of the United Nations to lay down an intelligent and creative program to help Libya get rid of those weapons, which will wreak violence on people, and which could lead to dividing Libya, restoring tribalism and perhaps encouraging barbaric behavior. Then the story of Libya would become more of a legend, having seen democracy only in its imagination. The duty of the United Nations includes demanding frameworks and laws that would ensure that the leaders of the new regime will not overstep their powers, either to distribute contracts or to personally benefit by taking commissions on these contracts for their own pockets.

Indeed, Libya is headed for a difficult phase, one that could crush everything the Arab Spring has achieved, doing away with the nice image of the Libyans who surprised the world, only to be replaced by the image of Libyans who speak the language of weapons, personal interests, dictates and vengeance. It is the duty of the international community, and especially the West, to accompany the change in Libya to success, instead of throwing away the Libyan experience in the dustbin of other resounding failures. In Egypt, on the other hand, there is a dire need to support modernist liberal movements at many levels, including enabling them to effectively establish political parties and give them the opportunity to prove themselves. It would have been better for Egypt to hold presidential elections for a transitional period, during which all movements would have been able to organize into political parties. But the Islamist movements have won that battle, and imposed parliamentary elections first, as a fait accompli.

The Military Council in Egypt is oscillating between appeasing the Islamists and understanding the liberals from time to time. It is structurally weak and is nearly a burden weighing down the liberals, due to its indecisiveness and its failure to build on the revolution of change. The United States is misleading the Egyptians and Tunisians with its sugarcoated words, while barely providing any support to the democratic experience, except for strange stances by some leaders in the Obama Administration, marked by an academic nature and a great deal of ignorance. What Egypt needs is not acceptance or understanding for a self-evident matter, namely that Islamist political parties have the right to participate in power and that it is in the nature of the democratic process to respect the results of elections. That is self-evident and it is foolish to reiterate it.

The real issue is much deeper and broader, and it is connected first of all to the necessity of giving the transitional period enough time for non-Islamist forces to be able to organize themselves, in order to compete in the elections.

Secondly, practical and financial support should be extended to secular institutions, in what would be a kind of an adjustment of the balance of power, which is tipped in favor of the Islamist political parties.

Third, we should stop speaking exclusively in the language of the right of "moderate Islam" to come to power, as if that was the only natural outcome of the Arab youth revolution.

Fourth, the modernist liberal trend should be supported effectively with clear stances, instead of the Obama Administration supporting only moderate Islam, on the basis with which it has promoted itself to be -- i.e. as the alternative to extremist Islam and the deterrent against it.

If the Obama Administration does not awaken to the dangers that loom over the Arab Spring, particularly as a result of its own mistakes, extremism may emerge in the region, and Washington may not be able to protect itself against its consequences. It will be driving itself deeper into muddy waters by continuing to head in this direction. What is worse is that the Obama Administration has adopted the policy of submitting to the dictates of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which only buys it anger, resentment and desires for revenge.

The Obama Administration should be wary not to believe that its honeymoon with "moderate Islam" will ensure its security. It should be wary not to assume that the need of Islamist parties for it will protect it from being held to account if it continues to provide Israel with unabashed impunity. It is risking not just the Arab Awakening, which carried moderation in its belly before it was slaughtered; it is risking the future of U.S. interests in the Arab region.

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