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Hichem Karoui: The new Middle East in the making
September 09, 2012
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

When I wrote almost two years ago that for me, 2010 was Turkey’s year in the Middle East, I was far from imagining that 2011 and 2012 would also become Turkey’s years in the same region (See: “Turkey’s Year,” The Gulf Today, January 1, 2011). Look at what happened.

In 2011, a mounting wave of popular anger has swept away the autocratic regimes established by the military and maintained by force against the will of the people in four countries: Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. They fell down like sand castles, giving way to what has been globally depicted as the “Arab Spring” phenomenon. The first free democratic elections that have been organised in these countries after the fall of the dictators showed us another  phenomenon, which I hesitate to describe as “new” or “old”, for sake of accuracy. It is the Islamist rush to power, and most of all, the Tunisian and Egyptian voluntary identification with the Turkish brand of Islamism led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This is something!

The Turkish Islamist leaders have been much in advance on their counterparts in the Arab world, concerning various issues, in domestic and foreign policies. Because they craved power and have long been rebuked and thwacked by the military, they cleverly and diligently played the card of the European Union to get rid of the military grip. A fake democracy (i.e. supervised or manipulated by the military) would never find its way to join the EU. Thus, their tactics consisted in showing a liberal face of Islamism, which Erdogan dubbed “Muslim democracy,” likening it to the old conservative parties known to Europeans as “Christian democracy.” However, the success of the Turkish brand of Islamism is not only the result of an important shift in the political views advocated by the “Justice and Development” Party, but also the result of an economic endeavour encouraged and supported by this party to the benefit of the middle class, the middle and small enterprises, and the holders of investment capitals. That very endeavour was labelled “Islamic Calvinism,” as a way to bring it closer to Max Weber’s famous thesis on “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.”

It is never wrong to follow or get inspiration from other people’s experiences, wherever and whenever they are successful, provided the conditions are similar or at least reconcilable. Historically, these three countries (Turkey, Tunisia, and Egypt) have played a unique role in advancing the constitutionalist agenda in the Middle East, since the 19th century (maybe even before). They were the first to adopt and enforce a constitution, thus following the Western countries, for whom the elite expressed an admiration conjugated with fear. These facts should also remind the present Islamist leaders in the countries of the Arab Spring that those who voted for them, as well as those who voted for their rivals, are just equally right in expecting the fulfilment of the electoral promises. Some of those promises concern the implementation of democratic rules, democratic institutions, and democratic behaviour. Some others concern the improvement of the economy. Would they deliver?

In Libya, we have had a surprising phenomenon. The electoral success of the liberals, while everybody was expecting an Islamist landslide.

On July 16, 2011, while the Libyan revolution was raging, I have written in my TGT weekly column about a French intelligence report, which described Libya as “the only country of the ‘Arab Spring’ in which the Islamist risk increases.” The report went on saying,
“The Western powers have shown an excessive adventurism by engaging in this crisis.” (See: “Unwise intelligence report,” The Gulf Today, July 16, 2011). Well, as it happened, this tribal country, plagued, as it was widely reported, by  every kind of radical Islamism, is the only nation that gave rise, in its first free democratic elections, to the Liberal alliance of parties led by Mahmoud Gibril. The fears of those who saw post-Qaddafi Libya as the hub of militant Islamism – kind of Somali Shebab, or Yemeni Qaeda – revealed to be unfounded, not to say part of the Qaddafi propaganda machine.

As for Yemen, nothing really unexpected happened, so far. Because of the Arab-monitored transition of power in this country, the angry revolt of millions of people craving a real change has been reduced to a vulgar reshuffle, as if democracy was already well established in Yemen and only Ali Abdallah Saleh was the offender. Everybody knows, though, that those who took to the streets wanted something else. It is therefore obvious that their revolution has been stolen and their claims completely siphoned. This also is the reason why people continue to die in Yemen, since Al Qaeda and other radicals survived, and with them the threat of destabilisation. Moreover, post-Ali Abdallah Saleh’s Yemen is so resembling to the previous regime that it would not be odd to see another revolution creeping under the feet of the power elite in the near future.

Lastly, Syria has become the main news, with all the world media focusing on a conflict that grew into an enormous and ugly splash of ill-will, hypocrisy, and criminal behaviour. The Syrian revolution, which nobody doubts its final triumph today, revealed to be an opportunity for an exercise of force – as in the old days of the Cold War – between the West, on the one hand, and Russia, Iran and China, on the other hand. The latter are still keeping in “life” a regime which, without their criminal support, will die instantly. It is a criminal support because the “artificial life” of the Syrian regime costs every day the tragic fall of numerous innocent victims. However, Moscow, Tehran and Beijing still pretend that it is possible to reconcile the victims with their executioners. Such behaviour is not amazing, though, coming from those who had bombed Chechnya, crushed the students of Tiananmen, or smothered the Green revolt in Iran.
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The author is an expert in US-Middle East
relations at the Arab Center for Research
and Policy Studies (Doha Institute)

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