Competing Identities and the Arab Spring

Article Summary
The revolutions of 2011 have brought once-marginalized communities into conflict with the state and one another in countries across the Middle East. Abd Al-Hussayn Shaaban explains how repression and authoritarianism helped nurture the divisions now threatening the internal cohesion of numerous Arab states - not to mention regional stability.

The mood of concern and frustration over the Arab Spring has resulted in an important argument that it has already and may continue to damage national identities [in Arab countries]. The fact is that even under authoritarian regimes, [these identities] were the basis of national unity and one of the pillars of the state, despite the existence of some difference [between different segments of the population]. This has led to the rise of religious, ethnic, sectarian, tribal and other identities.

The conservatives [supporters of the former regimes], frustrated by the rise of political Islam, may feel that [national] identity has become [purely] Islamic and that it will result in a state of fragmentation and disintegration. They take as evidence the rise of the Islamic movements and the emergence of a tribal system in Tunisia, a country with no recent precedent for such a phenomenon. Add to this the exacerbation of the conflict between Copts and Islamists in Egypt, and the worsening Southern problem in Yemen, which has become more complicated in recent years, as well as the (pre-existing) problem of the Houthis. Alongside these are the deepening sectarian problems in Syria, especially between Sunnis and Alawites; but there are also attempts to ignite the Christian-Islamic conflict and revive the sense of nationalism among [Syria’s] Kurds, who are claiming political, cultural and national rights as well as their rights to citizenship, equality, non-discrimination and nationality. Moreover, clan, tribal and territorial conflicts have escalated in Libya, Mauritania, Jordan and other countries, while the Amazigh [Berber] problem persists in both Morocco and Algeria, and sectarian tensions are still being felt in both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

Even if [the existence of all these conflicts] is strictly factual, it is [also] true that they are the result of  objective reasons which made it inevitable that these problems would emerge at some point. The fire was already kindled, as they say; for most of the Arab regimes had deepened religious, sectarian, tribal, regional, ethnic or other [kinds of division] in order to maintain their rule at any price.

The emergence of such issues may be a natural consequence of any process of change. In fact, the former Iraqi regime, which ruled the country through violence, helped ignite the fire of sectarianism, resulting in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis to Iran, under the pretext of Iranian dependence. [Sectarian conflict in Iraq als resulted in] the persecution of the Kurds and the use of the most brutal methods against them - including chemical weapons, which are internationally banned - as occurred in Halabja and elsewhere. Add to this the so-called Anfal operations, which killed tens of thousands of Kurds. As soon as the [US] occupation began, and especially under the Interim Governing Council established by US civil administrator in Iraq Paul Bremer, sub-national identities began to emerge, in place of the unified national [Iraqi] identity, which was the basis of Iraqi nationalism and of its distinct [ethno-sectarian components].

It may be that the reasons for persecution and discrimination have prompted both extremists and non-extremists to deepen the conflict, search for gains and even cling to their sub-identities as a way to protect themselves from injustices, whether related to employment, sect, ethnic group, religion or other [classifications] at the expense of the inclusive Iraqi identity - especially considering that these communities have suffered from injustice and marginalization for many years.

As soon as the nightmare ended, the true nature of society was revealed. In fact, revolutions give rise to the noblest and most beautiful ideals. But at the same time, they develop the most humiliating, contemptible and hideous ideologies. This has been experienced by the peoples expriencing transitions following the overthrow of authoritarian and dictatorial regimes, acknowledging that the new situation relies on a balance of power and the role of religious and civil leaders in proving their skills and demonstrating that they deserve to be elected.

While the period of military coups had brought Arabist and leftist parties to the fore, the role [of these parties] has greatly diminished for both general and specific reasons. Moreover, it does not seem that the near future will be bright for them, given their long record of failure, their rigid methodologies, and international and regional imbalances. Therefore, the Islamic forces that have shaped the political landscape after the Arab Spring will take the lead - not only in Arab countries, but also at the regional level, regardless of their religious and sectarian tendencies, their radical orientation or their political projects.

It is noteworthy that Turkey is ruled by moderate Islam within a secular state [structure], and that it has a religious background and leadership. In fact, Turkey does not want to give up its NATO card, because it wants to defend its Ottoman ambitions. Moreover, Iran is governed by an Islamic radical group immersed in open sectarianism, and it is needless to mention that [this country is plagued by] nationalist Persian ambitions. For its part, Iraq is governed by sects and ethnic groups, and these have become the basis of the state and its practices - not to mention the Sunni and Shiite map, which followed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime. For its part, the Gaza Strip is controlled by Hamas whereas the Palestinian Authority is still [the source of power] in Ramallah. Pakistan and Afghanistan are governed by Islamic leaderships and trends, be they in power or in the opposition.

But after the Arab Spring, Islamists scored a big win, especially Ennahda in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists in Egypt. Islamic forces won in Morocco, and the Islamic movement [got the majority of seats] in the Kuwaiti Parliament. In Bahrain, the Shiite National Accord Movement continues its popular [protest of the regime], while Islamic Hezbollah carries on with its resistance and rejection [of Israel] in Lebanon and continues to impact the decision-making process. The role of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria is becoming increasingly strong, especially in the context of the opposition, just as it was in the 1980s, and the Islamic movement is re-emerging in Algeria, Libya and Mauritania. Nor should [the Islamist parties’] role be overlooked in Jordan or the Gulf States, for it constitutes a heavyweight in the political opposition. Add to this the role it plays in Sudan and it is clear that [the whole of the Middle East] is strongly affected by this new [Islamist] current.

Following the establishment of the contemporary Arab state, especially post-World War I, had the ruling authorities respected sub-national identities within the context of equal citizenship, the most fanatical movements [would have embraced a national identity rather than] clinging to their peculiarities and sub-natonal identities. The situation can indeed get this bad; it has gotten even worse in South Sudan, following the referendum that revealed Southern secession and independence to have won more than 98% of the vote. [Similarly,] any referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan held under normal and peaceful conditions, would reveal that a large proportion of the people favor the establishment of an independent state.

I would like to point out that there should be no fear of the dominance of Islamic parties and movements, should this dominance occur through the ballot box and in compliance with the constitution. Arabists and leftists should be aware of this fact, especially if these [parties and movements] seek to satisfy popular and realistic demands - which reflect the concerns and needs of the people, without allowing them to cling to their ivory towers and special treatment - and if they heed the demands of the people and rush to satisfy them, as they had done in the past, with humility and without looking for priveleges.

Prior to the Arab revolts, Islamists were, more than other groups, subject to suppression. And when masses fail to achieve their hopes and dreams, they abandon earth and resort to the kingdom of heaven - especially when every possibility of change has been exhausted. 

Found in: tunisia, syrian crisis, sectarianism, sectarian conflict, sectarian, nationalism, muslim brotherhood, minorities, islamists, identity politics, history, egypt, arab spring, arab

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