Islam Plays Diverse Roles in New Arab Regimes

Article Summary
Each of the revolutions sweeping the Arab world has resulted in a different formula for the establishment of a new ruling order. But in every affected country, be it Tunisia, Egypt or Libya, Islam will play a significant role in the formation of the new government. Talal Salman explores how the different contexts of various Arab states will affect how Islam is employed in renegotiating the social contract.

Finally, the streets of Arab cities, towns and countrysides belong to the people--all the people. Ordinary laborers and intellectuals, business owners and employees, city dwellers and shepherds, physicians, engineers, lawyers--and everyone under God’s great sky.

The streets no longer belong to the security forces; they no longer seem empty even when crowded with passersby and the Sultan’s convoys.

Suddenly, it is those in the streets who are calling the shots.

Those who occupied the streets--unexpectedly and without prior organization--were not merely dreamers. They wanted change even though they were unsure of their own capacities.

They were not united. Their coming together did not mean they agreed on how events should unfold after their chance encounter. They had to get acquainted; they had to debate one another before finding common ground and discovering on what level, and over which points, they disagreed. For they neither shared a common political past nor a vision of what should come next. Also, what is most dangerous, they were not given the necessary time to discuss, and prepare for, an agreement over future plans.

Furthermore, some of them have had extensive experience, born of a certain intellectual perspective that had practical applications in opposing the Sultan’s regime. This experience came from peace offerings and confrontations, jail, exile and appeasement, holding parliamentary seats and being marginally involved in government. Others have arrived burdened with their own opinions and dreams of climbing the peaks of democracy. These dreams were carried on the demonstrators’ shoulders, bolstered by the support of established democracies led by the Americans.

Previously, and until very recently, the demonstrators that filled the streets were driven either by their emotions or orders from others: They used to angrily demonstrate against the Mubarak regime’s failure to back Palestine. They also raged at the regime’s cowardice and inability to stand up to Israeli invasions that went beyond Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza strip--those that reached all the way into their own capitals and beyond.

At other times, they filled the streets under orders from the Sultan, to support  him against “others”--be they conspiring states and regimes, or suspicious entities that the Sultan’s whims might ultimately decide include them, the people!

Where do we go from here?

That has been the explosive question after the Mubarak regime redeemed itself by sacrificing its own head!

The regime’s allies have appropriated the squares and proclaimed to the protesters: You have successfully toppled the tyrant! Congratulations! You have accomplished a blessed task. Allow yourselves time to rest now and let us save the state’s remnants! The state is necessary for life--it is even the source of life. Let us protect the state while you busy yourselves with agreeing on your future regime!

In many an Arab capital, the streets were emptied of their people and replaced by controversy.

In three of the four Arab countries which have experienced a revolution, the  uprising succeeded in toppling the regime. But victory was lost amid the chaos and was replaced by anxiety, confusion and uncertainty about a successor. This led to an inability to form a government with the speed and determination necessary to do so.

Only Tunisia seems to have overcome this impasse, temporarily perhaps, because Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s regime chose to flee with its riches--having been let down by the army, whose real leadership turned out to be independent from the Palace at Carthage.

Furthermore, Ben Ali’s “heirs,” who returned from faraway exiles, were able to organize their ranks thanks to external support, which quickly became apparent, and which they themselves didn’t hesitate to reveal by announcing their agenda from the heart of Washington. In effect, the former exiles’ agenda was a westernized, edited and modified version of the Muslim Brotherhood’s agenda. It first appeased Paris, and then the rest of the West, including Erdogan’s Turkey and Sheikh Hamad’s Qatar with his bountiful blessings of bags of gold!

One thing that probably helped in the relatively calm formation of the new regime was that Tunisia is a “marginal” country. Furthermore, the regime of its first president, Habib Bourguiba, succeeded between 1957 and 1987 in fabricating a social mix that satisfied the West without departing from the principles of Islam.

In addition, Ben Ali’s regime fell in record time, before government institutions had a chance to disintegrate or collapse. Meanwhile, the army remained as the guardian of public order and thus the state remained present. Elections for the new regime were carried out with the help of the old guard--with only some “heads” being replaced. With the blessing of Islamic scholars, leaders who now attained positions of power issued strict guarantees that Tunisia would remain as it was, and that tourism would continue to be the primary source of national income.

On the other hand, attempts to preserve the regime by cutting off its head were made in Egypt, which led to the toppling of Hosni Mubarak. This task was initially carried out with a minimal amount of casualties, and it was followed by attempts to wear out the demonstrators through a series of measures aimed at delaying their “decision.” Concurrently, the forces qualified to lead during the transitional phase prepared themselves for the upcoming elections!

An abundance of thorny issues were raised, and lengthy discussions were held pertaining to the role of the army and its relationship with the demonstrators and the constitution. Debates were held on whether the constitution would be amended first, or whether this would be left until after the Shura Council and presidential elections. In fact, the constitution itself became the subject of futile debate. Governments without authority got lost amid the controversy. The first government’s head was replaced by a substitute, which was soon exchanged for a third one brought back from the past.

In the meantime, and with clear assistance from the army, the demonstrators split up into groups, including demonstrators of faith, represented by the Muslim Brotherhood; to their right, the Salafists; and finally, the rest of the demonstrators, who find it hard to agree on a unified agenda because power is still held by those who refuse to hand it over to people they do not know, or more precisely, people whose abilities they do not trust. This mistrust is due to suspicion over the other groups contentious positions, be they political, intellectual or social.

Thus, the army was transformed from a temporary replacement and referee waiting for the people to decide upon their future regime, into the chooser of its own “heir.” Therefore it morphed into a force that publicly backed a certain movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, which it knew was the only one capable of reaping the fruits of the elections because it was the only one with a long enough pedigree. In addition, the army saw the Brotherhood as very well organized, and as the possessor of extensive political experience that allowed it to persevere despite the wars waged against it through the years.

In Libya, on the other hand, where the armed brigades were the private army of the Sultan, Muhammar Qaddafi, and his children, the army could not play the role of a transitional force for change. It could not protect the regime by decapitating it to ensure its persistence. A substitute was therefore necessary to safeguard the popular uprising, which was threatened as much from within as from the fire without. This fire was nearly ignited in Benghazi before the opposition had the chance to unify its ranks.

When the rebellion became embroiled in the game of military escalation, it was only natural that discussion of its leadership took on the utmost importance. Would the leadership come from the vanguard of the rebels from Al-Bayda and the Al-Barasa tribesmen among them, who had long feuded with Qaddafi’s revolution because it had overthrown their ruler, King Idris? Or would the revolution’s leaders come from Benghazi, the capital of eastern Libya?

A quick rescue was needed--one that could not come from inside the country. Hence, the Arab League crafted an edict by which the United Nations Security Council, and the nations that bore a long-standing vendetta against Qaddafi, commissioned NATO with the task. Clearly the latter was unconcerned that the death toll would surpass sixty thousand, or that the airports would be destroyed along with all the modern fighter planes, barracks, missile bases, and columns of tanks and heavy artillery.

This did not matter, for tomorrow’s oil revenues would be used to purchase newer and more efficient armaments. In this, the West now stands ready to supplant the Soviet Union and its satellites as suppliers.

Who is in control now? Is it the Transitional Council, the Transitional Government or the Libyan Tribal Council? Where do the Islamists fit into all this? What is to be done with Misrata’s rebels, who credit themselves with ending the war by seizing Sirte after weeks of fierce resistance that ended with the death of the tyrant in ambiguous circumstances and in a reprehensible manner? Where are the Islamists who suddenly jumped onto the scene--some of whom belong to Al-Qaeda and arrived straight from Washington, London, or even Doha, which has become the universal cradle of the revolutions, supplying them with funds, arms and media access?

We thus find ourselves faced with a multitude of Islamic formations; some of them were resurrected from a past of repression after passing through an American “purifier,” while others--the Salafists--returned to the scene having been born out of a past that preceded Islam’s transformation into a universal religion.

Under the banner of religious slogans, the battle for change becomes more difficult and complex. This is especially true in the Arab Orient, where, after more than a thousand years, memories persist of historical atrocities that nearly dealt a death blow to the nascent religion [of Islam]. The battles at Al-Jamal and Siffin during the first Muslim civil wars, and the massacre at Karbala all remain fresh in hearts and minds.

This is why talk of Syria and the future of its regime quickly devolves into talk of the dangers of civil war with clear sectarian overtones. If such a  war were to erupt, it would lead to a bloodbath that would spread across all of the Arab Orient--to Iraq and Lebanon, with strong repercussions in Bahrain and Yemen that might reach all the way to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, floating atop a sea of black gold. Furthermore, it might disrupt all the smaller entities built on oil and gas platforms that surround it.

It is well known that Lebanon’s wounds have not yet healed. Its people and those of Palestine, along with their armed resistance movements, have endured or been forced to endure unilateral peace agreements with the Israeli enemy. In addition, they endured an eon of civil wars under a multitude of pretenses along never-ending fronts and toward elusive goals.

Now Iraq is covered with blood, and is celebrating the voluntary withdrawal of the American occupation forces that invaded the country in the spring of 2003 and quickly deposed the tyrant, Saddam Hussein. This is only natural because the latter had exhausted his people’s capabilities with absurd wars, sometimes outside his country’s borders but often inside them and against his own people.

Post-occupation Iraq, however, is still without a national leadership that would be able to bring its people together. They have been caught up in a series of trials and tribulations that have damaged their national unity. In short, it can be said that the occupation inherited Iraq from the tyrant, and then passed it down to civil strife.

The question remains: Which form of Islam is best qualified and most capable of building an Arab future in all of the countries in the Muslim Nation? Those countries find themselves living in fear while rebellions fill their squares and topple their leaders, while past regimes are rejuvenated by religious slogans and warnings of civil wars without end.

Lord! May the demonstrators retake the streets and continue the march toward change with a clear agenda in hand, unfettered by the compromises of the past.

Talal Salman was born in Lebanon in 1938. In 1957, he started his career with Al-Hawadeth weekly.  In 1974, he founded As-Safir daily, which would reach the second largest circulation of Lebanese newspapers after An-Nahar. He was the spokesman of the "Islamo-progressive" left wing during the Lebanese civil war.

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