FaithWorld

Arab revolts set to transform Middle East

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(Bahraini anti-government protesters in central Manama, February 16, 2011/Hamad I Mohammed)

The astonishing popular protests against Arab autocrats that have churned the region for three months are the authentic birth pangs of a new Middle East. Israel’s American-backed attempts to bomb Hezbollah and south Lebanon into submission in 2006 did not change the region, as Condoleezza Rice predicted it would. Nor did the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq three years earlier, which former President George W. Bush touted as introducing democracy to the Arab world, have much effect.

The change now is coming from within — and from below. Ordinary people taking to the streets swept away the presidents of Egypt and Tunisia. The leaders of Libya and Yemen are fighting for survival. Arab leaders almost everywhere else are trying to fend off real or potential challenges with a mix of repression and concessions.

“The rulers are running scared, with good reason — the people have terrified them,” said Rashid Khalidi, professor of Arab studies at Columbia University in New York. “The spectre of popular power haunts the dictators and monarchs.”

The region’s mostly Muslim citizens are at last proving they are no exception to the democratic trends that have transformed eastern Europe, Latin America and much of Africa and Asia in recent decades. The pro-democracy movement will reshape the Arab world as powerfully as the ideologies of Arab nationalism, socialism, communism and political Islam in the last 150 years, argues Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Center in Beirut.

Many Egyptian Christians voted ‘no’ on constitution, fearing Islamists

egypt referendum

(Pope Shenouda (L), head of Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church, casts his vote during a national referendum, at a school in Cairo March 19, 2011/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany)

Many Egyptian Christians say they voted to reject proposed constitutional amendments in a referendum on Saturday because they fear hasty elections to follow may open the door for Islamist groups to rise to power. It turned out they were in the minority — 77% of those voting supported the proposed changes.

Parliamentary elections should take place in late September followed by presidential elections in December, giving scant time for new parties to organise, including ones representing the aspirations of Christians. Foremost among these aspirations is the creation of a civil state where religion is not a basis for legislation.

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood wants quick constitutional amendments

brotherhood

(Khairat el Shater at Tahrir Square in Cairo March 4, 2011/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany)

Egypt needs to start functioning again and prevent army rule from dragging on too long, the Muslim Brotherhood said, calling for the swift implementation of constitutional amendments to restart political life.

A month after a popular uprising forced President Hosni Mubarak from office, politicians from across the spectrum have begun to debate whether a new constitution is needed to breathe life into political institutions.

The Muslim Brotherhood can rally support quickly and would benefit from a quick election. It says it would take too long to draw up a new constitution that included all parties’ desires, so amending the current one is the only way forward.

U.S. eyes Egypt Islamists as extremist fears fester

egypt flag

(An Egyptian flag with a peace sign at a rally in Trafalgar Square, in central London February 12, 2011/Luke MacGregor)

U.S. officials are concerned that Islamic extremists may try to exploit Egypt’s upheaval but are not yet convinced that the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s most influential Islamist opposition group, is necessarily a threat.

The toppling of President Hosni Mubarak on Friday marked the beginning of a new, uncertain era in Egypt that promises to empower Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood, long viewed with deep suspicion in the West.  Al Qaeda is widely seen as weak in Egypt thanks partly to Mubarak, and his departure is raising fears in the U.S. Congress that the rise of even moderate Islamists may give radical elements more room to operate.

Concern about Islamists masks wide differences among them

holding up korans

(Hamas supporters hold up copies of the Koran at a protest in Gaza City December 26, 2010/Mohammed Salem)

Part of the problem trying to figure out what Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood or Tunisia’s Ennahda party would do if they got into any future power structure in their countries is knowing what kind of Islamists they are. The label “Islamist” pops up frequently these days, in comments and warnings and (yes) news reports, but the term is so broad that it even covers groups that oppose each other. Just as the Muslim world is not a bloc, the Islamist world is not a bloc.

I sketched out a rough spectrum of Islamists in an analysis today entitled  Concern about Islamists masks wide differences. This topic is vast and our story length limits keep the analysis down to the bare bones. But the overall point should be clear that any analysis of what these specific parties might do that ignores their diversity starts off on the wrong foot and risks ending up with the wrong conclusions.