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Is the Arab Spring moving towards season two?

May 07, 2012 11:38 IST

A hopeful reading of the recent events in the Muslim world would suggest that it is heading towards another thaw, says Shahid Javed Burki.

 The first one occurred more than a year ago. The Spring of 2011 brought about regime changes in a number of Arab countries that had been ruled for decades by military autocrats. They were forced to leave -- in one case, in Libya, the leader was assassinated -- and periods of transition began.

There is no doubt that the crowds that assembled on the Arab streets and in the public squares were bringing about a revolution. By their sheer number and the ability to mobilise and organise by using modern means of communication, they demonstrated their political power.

But revolutions don't follow predictable paths. This one was no different. Having forced out the old regimes, the revolutionaries were not clear what they would like to put in their place. This is where the second thaw enters the picture.

The crowds that produced the first Arab Spring established one political fact. It became clear that no future regime will be able to ignore popular sentiment. A mobilised populace will act as a constraint on the exercise of arbitrary power by whoever rules.

Whatever political structure got erected had to be built on the firm ground of citizens' support. But what did the citizens want? Did they want western-style liberal democracies and unconstrained market capitalism? Or did they want an Islamic order based on the Sharia? Or would they favour a combination of the two? The answers to these questions are likely to come from three large Muslim states -- Egypt, Pakistan and Turkey.

The period of transition in Egypt is entering its second phase. In the first, the people gave three-fourths of the seats in parliament to two Islamic groups. The Muslim Brotherhood won almost half the seats, while the more radical Salafis secured a quarter.

Some western analysts have attributed the success of the Islamic groups to their better organisation and not necessarily to their broad appeal. This was one reason some liberal elements in the Egyptian society wanted a longer period of transition.

That would have allowed them to create an organisational structure that would have matched the reach of the Brotherhood. The "Brothers", although suppressed and persecuted by the military regimes, were able to maintain their ability to reach the masses.

However, this interpretation of what occurred in the parliamentary elections cannot be entirely correct since the Salafis -- and Nour, their political wing -- are organisationally weak. They succeeded since they were able to tap into a strong belief system that did not want to copy the ways of the West. Whatever political and social structures were to evolve had to have their roots in the Egyptian soil.

But what will that soil nurture? It is highly unlikely that we will see the emergence of an autocratic and religious regime in Egypt like the one that has ruled in Iran for more than three decades. The Iranian revolution was also a reaction to the extreme westernisation of its ruling elite, its corruption and its total disregard of the wishes and aspirations of the people.

However, the new rulers were able to move towards the other extreme, since there were no checks on the exercise of power by then. By the time the street got activated in the country, the new regime was well-established and could not be dislodged. But the situation in the transitioning Arab world will be very different.

The Salafis and their puritanical followers may want an Islamic regime to be established in Egypt but that kind of political order will not be acceptable to the street, which will keep a watch on the way the situation evolves.

The people's power is still on display. It appears to assert itself whenever the process of transition seems to be moving away from the direction in which the citizens want it to go. Without the power of the street, it is very likely that the military establishment would have reasserted its authority and taken the country towards another spell of authoritarian rule.

The people will react in the same way were Islamists to attempt the establishment of a theocracy.

Turkey and Pakistan provide some hope that the political development in the Muslim world will not veer towards the establishment of strict Islamic regimes. In Turkey a political party with strong Islamic roots has demonstrated that the Muslim faith can coexist with popular democracy.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has gathered enough strength to successfully challenge the military and its claim to be the champion of a secular political order. The country's secular forces don't seem overtly troubled by the increasing strength of Mr Erdogan's party. They believe that democracy itself provides a check that will keep the ruling Islamic party moving on the right track.

Although Islamic extremism appears to be a greater force in Pakistan than in other large Muslim nations, it remains on the economic and political fringes of the society. Democratic forces have managed to assert their authority, pushing back both the military and the extremists.

Shahid Javed Burki
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