Misperceptions of the Arab Spring
After successful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt this year, Western media almost unanimously characterized protesters in the Arab Spring as "pro-democracy protesters" with no shades of gray. Any opposition to the existing regimes -- whether in Bahrain, Libya, Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco -- was hurriedly classified as part of the democratic camp, with very little analysis of their specific ideologies or nuances.
The real problem is that many of these incidents are emblematic of a more profound epidemic: the rise of political Islam and the re-Islamization of societies across the Muslim and Arab world.
This epidemic, moreover, is being spread by some of the West's myopic characterization of the Arab Spring in the mythical belief that anyone opposed to Mubarak, Qaddafi, Saleh, Ben Ali, and Assad is of the same liberal democratic camp we like to embrace. Offshoots of Al-Qaeda have been found on the front lines fighting alongside Libya's Benghazi-based rebels against Qaddafi's forces, while Yemen, the region's least governable country, has recently seen countless Islamic militant takeovers in the country's southern provinces.
While the planning for elections in Egypt has shown a number of wholesome developments, such as the legalization of political parties and dismemberment of the former repressive state apparatus, under the veneer of democracy that seems to resonate so well with West, the Muslim Brotherhood's [MB] theocratic and undemocratic agenda has been eclipsed by the mainstream media's focus on "pro-democracy activists." Despite the MB's consolidated and organized nature, which could mean a parliamentary domination -- if not now, later, as with Hezbollah in Lebanon -- not enough people have expressed concern about the possibility of such an outcome.
Sobhi Saleh, for example, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, elected by the Egyptian supreme council to partake in the constitutional amendment process, publicly announced that Brotherhood men should marry only Brotherhood women as -- in his eyes, at least -- they are superior to other Egyptian Muslim women. He also started calling secular Egyptians atheists. So much for tolerance and the supposed "moderation" that many commentators have seen in the Muslim Brotherhood.
Although people may argue that Saleh is not representative of the Brotherhood, some events are worth recalling: After Mubarak's overthrow in February, the MB, seeking to alleviate the fears of secularists and liberals, proclaimed it would contest only 30 percent of seats in parliament, and not run a candidate for president. Recently, however, the percentage of seats the MB said it would contend rose to 50, and several members, such as Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, announced their presidential candidacy – an apparent testament to the Brotherhood's desire for increasing political clout.
There are other alarming concerns. Not only has the Muslim Brotherhood clearly announced its goal of Islamic statehood and imposing sharia law -- its members claim the Koran is their constitution -- but there is also some ambiguity about how exactly the MB will incorporate political Islam as a civil code. Despite public reassurances of moderation within the MB, it seems clear that this theocratic group is seriously divided and cannot be dealt with as a monolithic political party. The schisms in the MB are particularly frightening as many members turn to extremism, which could seriously derail the revolution, especially through the ballot box.
Other events that deserve attention include waves of violence, incited by conservative Salafi Muslims, that have killed dozens of Christians and wounded hundreds – foretelling a precarious future for Egypt's Coptic minority. In March, members of the Egypt's Coptic community were persecuted by fundamentalists; Coptic churches were burnt down. Salafi members, inspired by the extremist Wahhabism exported by Saudi Arabia, amputated the ear of a Copt, Ayman Anwar Mitri, and torched his apartment – a punishment for having rented out his unoccupied home to a Muslim woman.
People argue that Salafis, as they believe democracy is un-Islamic in that it gives power to the people rather than God, are not political, and that they therefore do not pose a significant threat to post-revolutionary Egypt. This is just a wish. Egyptian Salafis have long realized that the shortcut to establishing an Islamic caliphate is through elections. They have even joined the MB in support of the March constitutional referendum proposed by the military junta, and have claimed they will cooperate with the MB in introducing a number of Islamist candidates for the next parliamentary elections. This alliance is deeply problematic and could easily derail Egypt's fledgling experience with democracy.
Although the Arab Spring is promising and may introduce democracy to a region once thought of as resistant to change, it is crucial now to side with the pro-democracy protesters – but with composure and reservation. The West needs to look closely at the complexities and nuances within their political ideologies, rather than paint a picture of "good vs. evil," or " democracy vs. authoritarianism." The picture has more shades of gray than first seems. While some of the uprisings in the Arab Spring have promising democratic leanings, other groups lurking in the background, waiting to emerge, might not have such liberal democratic intentions.
If the West is not cautious about the groups and individuals who are seeking to hijack these unprecedented changes, the Arab Spring with the help of the West, will usher in only an irreversible, dark winter: a step back not just for the Arab world but for the whole world.
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