Winter descends on the Arab spring
As we are still touched with the euphoria of the Arab Spring, the Arab winter has crept up all but unnoticed, beyond the forecasts of experts and the calculations of governments. It was only this month, after all, when Libya’s civil strife was cut off by the death in a ditch of Muammar Gaddafi: however regrettable the nature of his end, it removes the main focus of a future fight back. It was only this month, after all, when Tunisia held fair and free and peaceful elections, in which a moderate Islamist party came first. It will, after all, be next month when the three rounds of voting for the Egyptian parliamentary elections begin. Why talk of a failure?
Because if there was a revolution in spring – in fact, a series of quite distinct revolts, animated by something of a common spirit – there is now a counterrevolution. Or rather, once more, a series of distinct efforts to push back, or at least control and turn to group advantage, the gains made by the demonstrators. Power is not won simply by revolt: it is won, and secured, by those interested in the exercise of power, prepared to grasp and hold it.
In Egypt, which provided to the international gaze the most stirring movement and the least ambiguous, largely peaceful, victory in the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, power is still grasped by the organization which has been the deep structure of power for more than half a century: the military. Both its will to rule and its desire to retain privilege appear to be as high as ever: and there are signs that both the Muslim Brotherhood – the only well organized political force – and the regional chiefs are coming to quiet understandings with the military leadership on how the country is to be governed.
Stability – if they can achieve it – would be welcomed by most: the economy and employment have suffered badly, and the promises from the U.S., Saudi Arabia, the World Bank and the IMF of grants, soft loans and debt forgiveness amounting to some $15 billion could stabilize the economy – if a government emerges which both understands how to use the money and how to run the state. But the euphoria of liberation, already dissipated, will not return: that was a moment only.
The strength of the Islamists is growing, and will grow further. The al-Nahda party became the largest in Tunisia’s new parliament, with over 40 per cent of the vote and 90 of the parliament’s 217 seats. It’s in talks with the leftist Congress for the Republic, which came second with 30 seats: but since the first is firmly religious and the second is firmly secular, these are likely to be hard – though, if successful, they will be an early indication of how hard line, or accommodating, 2010’s political Islamism is likely to be.
Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, Libya deposed its dictator in blood – ultimately, his own. And though the rebels have expressed their gratitude to NATO and their desire for freedom to every passing camera, they come to power as a disparate set of armed groups with quite different backgrounds, tribal affiliations and aims. From their ranks is likely to come an administration which must restore a semi-ruined economy and end Gaddafi’s self imposed isolation from and enmity with most of the rest of the Arab world (the reason why, unprecedentedly, the Arab League called on NATO to help depose his regime).
Libya’s National Transitional Council, led by Mustafa Abdul Jalil, faces a task as momentous as deposing the former dictator. The Interim Prime Minister, Ali Tarhouni, has a month to name a caretaker government – which in turn has eight months to schedule elections. The tribal and party differences in a country from which most manifestations of civil society – and thus the habit of social and political compromise – were banned, are wide and deep and likely to be bitter. Already, the Islamists have succeeded in forcing the first interim premier, Mahmoud Jibril, a secular intellectual, to step down. His successor announced that a Gaddafi-era law requiring men to ask a first wife for leave to marry a second would be repealed, saying that “this is not in our Koran: we take the Koran as the first source for our constitution.”
As for Syria, the fighting goes on, with Bashar Assad showing little sign of relenting to pressure, from wherever it may come. Even if he does, and the opposition forces his resignation or defeats his forces, the divisions in a country where independence of organization and thought was little tolerated will make a post-victory settlement a hugely complex and dangerous operation – one reason why western states have done no more than exhort, with no thought of intervention.
In a starkly pessimistic piece in the New York Review of Books, the former Bill Clinton adviser on Arab-Israeli affairs Robert Malley and the Oxford scholar Hussein Agha wrote that “revolutions devour their children. The spoils go to the resolute, the patient, who know what they are pursuing and how to achieve it…the young activists who first rush onto the streets tend to lose out in the skirmishes that follow…the usual condition of a revolutionary is to be tossed aside.”
That is what happening now, in different ways, at different tempos. But a likely common outcome will be some form of stability: how much more blood must be shed to win that, how repressive that will be, how far it breaks some of the old molds, will be the thing to watch. And to watch as well – how far a fuse has been lit for real democratization, which may burn away, largely underground, before a more extensive liberation… some way down the road.
PHOTO: An anti-Gaddafi fighter looks on during a review of the brigades from the eastern region to commemorate the liberation of Quiche in Benghazi October 27, 2011. REUTERS/Esam Al-Fetori