Arab Spring: not all roads lead to Democracy

By Abdulkhalig Alhassan

The Qaddafi era in Libya is almost done. Thus, another Arab regime bites the dust. However, that doesn’t mean the Arab Spring will bring democracy to those countries that have got rid of their tyrants. There are many indications that the power vacuum that occurred as a result of the downfall of many regimes is going to be filled by political Islamic groups.

In Egypt, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood has shown a significant readiness to take over post-Mubarak’s reign since the early days after the revolution. Of course this is not coincidental. It has much to do with how well structured and organized most of the political Islamic groups are compared to other parties in the political arena. Ironically, this effectiveness happened despite the repression they had been through for decades. This can be attributed to the nature of these groups where their positioning as religious vanguards made it hard for the dictators to eliminate them or deprive them of their legitimacy in defending ‘Islamic identity’.  They have succeeded in gathering the masses since colonial times around a ‘religious identity’ that promoted the idea that the national state was a colonial product which came to divide the ‘nation of Islam’.  In this way, they succeeded in dictating the agenda of the debate among Muslim peoples.

Over time, this argument, this view of the nation state and the role of Islam gave political Islam the right to act on behalf of Muslims over the entire world and led at the same time,  to a sort of Islamising of the populace’s mentality, with ‘Islamic law’ an apparent manifestation of it.

Although the nation state became a fact of life in the Arab world, it did nothing to affect the ‘myth’ of the ‘Islamic nation’, nor did it lead to the questioning whether Islamic law could be complete in the modern state.

Given the fact that the masses in many Arab countries had ousted their regimes and worked to establish a new ruling system, with a belief  in democracy, the reality is that the term democracy has no clear cut meaning in the Arab political discourse, as it does in the West. For example, the Muslim Brothers of Egypt, although, they claim to accept democracy for Egypt, nevertheless, are creating a heavily polarised atmosphere by taking advantage of Islam as a ‘symbolic capital’. For instance Shariah Law (Islamic law) is a red line and something “not for compromising” according to their spokesman, Dr. Isam Aleryan. Moreover, they have made it clear that voting for a constitutional amendment – which would mean Islamising the constitution – is a ‘religious duty’ according to their campaign’s slogans.

Along the same lines, the Libyan rebels, represented by their political body, the National Transitional Council (NTC), came out of the closet after  long speculations about their identity to announce that post-Qaddafi  Libya will be a ‘modern Islamic’ state where Islamic law is the main source of its democratic constitution. The NTC spokesman didn’t miss the opportunity to spell out that secularism has no room in a ‘democratic’ Libya. Despite the fact that most of the Libyan rebels are hard-line Islamists, the influence of the secular and ordinary Muslims was strong, especially in convincing the USA and NATO to intervene.  Using the term ‘moderate Islam’ is more than enough to let the oil-hungry West to turn a blind eyes to the internal issues of a tribal society like Libya. As a result, the secular people and parties of the new new Libya are going to be the stray goats of the post-Qaddafi era.

Genuine democracy or a pseudo one doesn’t matter much to the West when it comes to oil deals and the ‘war on terror’ as long as ‘moderate Islamic Libya’ provides support in both these areas. Islamic law or Shariah law, in short, is a set of interpretations of the Koran and the Prophet’s sayings produced by many religious scholars at least one thousand years ago. Over time, these historical commentaries and interpretations gained a lot of importance through the political conflicts during the Islamic empire in the medieval times. The seeking of religious legitimacy among political rivals ended up making these works of commentary as sacred and equal to the Koran itself.
By putting these classics, which are now called Islamic law, beyond above time and place, the Islamists have maintained them as a ‘divine law’. However, with all the cosmetic changes these laws have been through, the fact is that these laws are irrelevant compared to the secular laws of today, especially, in terms of human rights, gender equality, women rights, individuals rights, citizenship etc — a set of rights a modern state cannot function without acknowledging and enshrining in law.

No doubt, the Arab Spring was a great event in terms of liberating many  people in the Arab World from fear and repression, yet in my view, Arab people may need another uprising, one that will detach them from the myth of a `glorious past’, especially in politics. Otherwise, the vicious circle will repeat itself.


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