Arab Protests, Islam and the West

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    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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As people in the MENA countries begin to assess the changes and achievements of the last four months, questions have emerged regarding the ultimate outcome of the so called “Arab spring.”  Is the current progress tenable? What should be the role of Islam and Muslim-based organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt? Can these countries establish liberal democracy? While it is still too early to provide an adequate answer to these questions, some suggest that lessons can be drawn.

In a panoramic overview, Osama Al Sharif identifies in the pages of Gulf News three different models of uprisings based on the ultimate outcome: “What the region is going through today is unprecedented, and there doesn’t seem to be a letdown in public momentum. Few had predicted this tsunami of uprisings, which has spread like wildfire, toppling regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, and besieging others in Yemen, Libya and Syria. The geopolitical aftershocks of these protests will be felt for years as the region enters a new era and uncharted territory….We have seen different models of such uprisings: Largely peaceful protests in Tunisia and Egypt which successfully decapitated the regime in both. But there are other models as well. Yemen, which has been witnessing rallies and sit-ins for over a month now, has reached a stalemate…. Another model of Arab uprisings is also a problematic one. In Libya, confrontations between anti-regime protesters and Muammar Gaddafi have turned bloody.”

Drawing on the Indonesian experience, Endy M. Bayuni opines on the pages of the Lebanese Daily Star, “Liberal democracy can work for the Arabs….The protesters are Muslim, or certainly the majority is, and no one should brand this a secular movement…, not the imams and clerics who long turned a blind eye to violent practices of the regimes…. The protesters can be as religious as the next person. What set them apart from their elders is their craving for freedom, including individual freedom….The similarities in the nature of the uprising between Indonesia in 1998 and Egypt and Tunisia this year — from the absence of Islamist slogans to the demands for traditional liberal values — make it irresistible to suggest that liberal democracy has a chance of working in the Arab world. It’s certainly a system that can guarantee the freedoms and rights that young Arabs desire.”

James Zogby of the Arab American Institute takes a long view on the developments in the region, focusing instead on two important observations: “The first is that, while the shape and pace of the new democracies that may emerge in Arab countries will vary depending on customs and conditions, the test of their vitality and their validity will be in their ability to self-correct, change and expand. Second, while elections and expanding political participation are important, it is also imperative that governments respect basic human rights and freedoms….If new democracies do this, they will be starting ahead of where we started our enterprise. The rest will take time and hard work — though, one can only hope, not the centuries it took us.”

Others, however, are not as sanguine about the uprisings and the geopolitical changes they portend. Dan Calic expresses on Ynet a clear distrust in the ability of Arab societies to build an Arab democracy, given the “clout of Islamists”: “With the Arab world boiling in turmoil, Western leaders led by President Obama are throwing their support behind ‘populist’ demonstrations ostensibly calling for ‘freedom’ in the form of democracy, and the overthrow of governments that in all cases are dictatorial. On the surface, calls for ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ get warm reactions from Westerners who live in countries where genuine freedom of expression is allowed and true democratic governments exist. Yet Westerners who are turning their backs on ‘friendly’ dictators and taking up the rallying cries of the protestors do not have a genuine understanding of what the likely outcome will be should the protestors succeed. The result will not be democracy, and friendly relations with the West will disappear.”

This pessimistic view of the region is unwarranted, according to Anas Altikriti, who on Al Jazeera, counters such arguments: “The claim that removing or compromising regimes, such as those of Mubarak, Ben Ali, Saleh, Gaddafi or Assad will inevitably bring an extremist element to government is baseless, as demonstrated by events unfolding before us. In all of the examples of the nations that revolted against their tyrants, rather than witnessing violence, the world saw protesters insisting on peaceful means despite being confronted by hired thugs and armed security forces….Conversations in the Arab street are much more bold, brazen and uncaring about who might be eavesdropping. It’s simply a matter of time, but change is certainly now a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’. Once free, the Arab and Muslim nations will not resort to violence, extremism and isolationist practices, as some would like the world to think.”

Ayman El-Amir also believes that, while the uprisings have given Islamic elements in the region an opportunity for social change, it is not clear how these organizations will use that opportunity. In a recent article in the Egyptian Al-Ahram, El-Amir writes, “Like other members of the wider protest community that toppled decadent autocracies, [Islamist partners] have more than an equal stake in scrapping the regimes that oppressed and persecuted them and in shaping a new era of political change. However, unlike other partners, they are largely captive of a single-minded ideology that places them at odds with the more liberal forces of society. The challenge they face is whether they should stick persistently to their time-honored ideological dogma and try to dominate the new momentum for sociopolitical change or accept being a team player in a large field and the compromises that go with it….In the current state of revolutionary turmoil, religious-oriented mass organizations are stepping into uncharted territory where they will be judged by unconventional political standards they may not be able to control.”

There also seems to be a silver lining for the United States in the middle of the upheavals engulfing the region.  Daoud Kuttab in an article in Jordan Times notes, “The past few months have seen no anti-American demonstrations and no burning of U.S. flags across the Arab world. Arabs seem increasingly willing to accept — and even applaud — the Obama administration’s policy towards the region. Of course, Arabs are still unhappy with the continued U.S. bias in favor of Israel. Its inability to end the 44-year military occupation of Palestinian lands has not gone unnoticed. But many Arabs nowadays prefer to give the U.S. a break. With the exception of the Obama administration’s lack of resolve in denouncing the treatment of protesters by the U.S.-allied regimes in Bahrain and Yemen, America’s position vis-à-vis the Arab revolts has been welcomed.”

However, Kuttab’s comments should not lead the U.S. and other Western governments into complacency, especially given the tense relations that exist in Western societies between Muslim communities and various segments of the society. As the current secretary-general of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu puts it in the Turkish daily Today’s Zaman, “There is no guarantee that such transitions will have peaceful outcomes. Indeed, the current situations in Libya, Bahrain and Yemen are extremely worrying, and finding workable political solutions in these countries will challenge not only the Muslim world, but also the West and the entire international community. It would also be wrong, however, to define the relationship between the Islamic world and the West solely in light of today’s Arab mass movements. There is another aspect to the relationship…issues concerning Muslims living in Western societies, particularly Europe.


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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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