The successive uprisings witnessed by most Arab countries have revealed that the people there had been living “outside of politics.” The people were taken by surprise when the tyrannies collapsed under street pressure before the revolutionaries had a chance to establish a leadership, political parties, organizations and unions, and form a solid “national front” with a solid structure that could assume responsibility for the transitional phase and start rebuilding the state.
The old regimes were spawned by military coups camouflaged by slogans stolen from political organizations with a history of struggle. The old regimes claimed to be revolutionary and exploited the people’s yearning for freedom, progress, and affirmation of national identity.
Sometimes, those regimes formed their own parties from old parties (which were never real parties), as in Egypt under presidents Anwar Sadat or Hosni Mubarak. The regimes attracted some historically prestigious parties that had renounced coups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, into an ambiguous relationship. That relationship would not be a “partnership” but rather a kind of subordination in return for a cessation of harassment, with a reward of a few parliamentary seats in a parliament that would be either “appointed” or arising from fake elections.
In other countries, such as Iraq and Syria, a group of partisan soldiers reached power by exploiting the need of a weak rule for the army’s support. Once in power, they used military conscriptions to pack the army with their supporters. Those coup plotters played on the contradictions of the various political forces then grabbed power by means of a “progressive national front” that they themselves have formed. Then the “leader-party” would claim the right to make decisions on behalf of the whole country.
In Tunisia, the “Bouazizi uprising” surprised the existing parties, which were suppressed in the era of military rule with some of their leaders living in exile or imprisoned. Those who remained in the country had to stay away from the authority’s eyes.
Ennahda and other political organizations (Islamic, progressive and traditional) as well as the trade union movement, which was once an alternate vessel for national action, formed a coalition. Ennahda quickly tried to swallow that coalition in order to grab power as the “leader-party” while giving its “partners” only second-row seats. But those parties eventually objected. The coalition fractured. And the Tunisian crisis returned to the streets.
Arab armies were never politicized. Several regimes tried to suggest that they succeeded in building an “ideological army”. But the bitter experiences in both Iraq and Syria (and perhaps Libya) have confirmed that soldiers remain soldiers, regardless of the slogans written on the barracks walls or the partisan banners raised on army vehicles.
Iraq and Syria’s bitter experiences, and Egypt before them, showed that studying in the Soviet Union’s military academies and the socialist camp didn’t turn Arab officers into communists, even if socialist countries were the sources of the Arab armies' land, sea and air weapons. In fact, Arab officers who merely appeared to have communist leanings were arrested or exiled to prevent them from influencing other officers or military units.
In the Tunisian, Egyptian, Libyan and Syrian uprisings, the Muslim Brotherhood was the party with the “most presence” in the Arab street. But this “presence” didn’t adequately prepare the Islamic organizations, which had lived in the dark for very long and sometimes colluded with the ruling regimes against national and progressive parties. The regimes assumed that the latter parties were preparing for an uprising by trying to formulate an alternative regime.
In Libya, there was no political experience or serious parties. Islamic organizations were hastily brought from exile or were made to appear bigger than they really were by generous donations of money, arms and men, but not proper organization or experience.
In Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood’s weakness and poor political experience were exposed when the street exploded in anger. The Brotherhood faced the Syrian regime without a program and without competence. The Syrian people didn’t accept the Brotherhood’s ideology, regardless of the group’s bloody confrontational history with the regime. Just because the Brotherhood had in the past bloodily confronted the Syrian regime didn’t qualify the group to lead the country, or even to lead the opposition.
Various Islamic organizations poured into the “Syrian battlefront,” among them were al-Qaeda types, some of which came from the Russian Federation or from the Islamic republics that broke away from the Soviet Union. It is clear that these organizations are alien to Syrian (and Iraqi) territory and people. They don’t care about the number of victims, the destruction, the devastation, the displacement or the damage befalling Syria and its people, be they pro-regime or pro-opposition. Those strangers don’t belong to the land and they don’t care about the number of dead and wounded, and they are not interested in submitting “political projects” for the new Syria. They are neither nationalist nor progressive.
Rather, they see themselves as holy warriors for the sake of Islam. But there are various forms of Islam. Also, Islam calls on the faithful to love their countries, because loving one’s country is part of religion. The era of “jihad” and “conquest” has ended with deadly bombings and raids on towns and villages to “guide” their people (who are already Muslim) to Islam, and to chase away non-Muslim minorities and displace them and push them to emigrate. (Those minorities were often among the early inhabitants of the land and partners in the country and in faith with the Muslims)
Perhaps one can say that the “army” is the “only party” still standing as an alternative to the political parties. The opposition political parties have been either consumed by the struggle for power or burned by power after they were suddenly thrust into oppositionist leadership roles without having clear programs on how to revive the country.
The army, especially Egypt’s, has protected the popular uprising in 2011. After that, the army didn’t suppress the uprising. Then the army protected the election, which brought the Muslim Brotherhood to the presidency, and the army didn’t prevent that from happening. The army intervened in July 2013 to stop the march of partisan intolerance, thus opening the door for a transitional phase for democracy, but only if the political forces can keep to the transition without being torn apart by differences or by the competition for power whose bases and shape have not yet been determined. Egypt’s experience is the model to the future of other Arab countries. Let’s hope that Egypt succeeds in this historic leadership role.
(Published in conjunction with the Egyptian Al-Shuruq newspaper)
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