November 7, 2011

Around the Revolutionary World

The counter-revolution draws its energy from many fears, primarily the loss of Western/Gulf interests and the rise of Islamic radicalism in government. The first problem cannot be removed from the Arab world’s equation; the second, however, can be reduced in the near-term future. The face of “Islamic democracy” recently underwent a facelift in Tunisia, where the 70-year Rachid Ghannouchi has moved to the forefront of the country’s transition.

"There is some confusion in the West about Islamism," Ennahda's (Renaissance) leader told Reuters after his party’s results were finally tallied. "Some confuse it with fundamentalism and link it to violence, extremism and takfir... We are against trying to impose a particular way of life.”

Tunisia Builds a Lighthouse

Question marks still linger over Ghannouchi’s head. His Nahda party formed in the crucible of Iran’s revolution, resulting in an initial fascination with Egyptian Sayyid Qutb (whose writings inspired Osama bin Laden). Ghannouchi would amend his views around the synchronization of Islam and democracy while exiled under Ben Ali’s government, and returned by voicing full support for Tunisia’s revolutionaries. Ghannouchi and his officials are so concerned with Western opinion that his greater problem could be shifting too far away from Islamic conservatives.

Local suspicions aside, Nahda was rewarded with 41.7% of Tunisia’s assembly vote - 91 out of 217 - giving the party preeminent status within a coalition government. Rather than dramatically alter Tunisia’s political and social environment, Nahda is giving its people what they voted for: universal rights and normality. Unemployment and investigations into the revolution’s human rights abuses sit atop Nahda’s agenda. Paired with the oppositional CPR and Ettakatol, the three groups offer a broad platform of Islamic-infused democracy and secular guarantees. Coalition officials speak in relative unison and have agreed to keep the first article of Tunisia’s current constitution: the country’s language is Arabic and its religion is Islam.

"This is just a description of reality," Ghannouchi said. "It doesn't have any legal implications. There will be no other references to religion in the constitution. We want to provide freedom for the whole country.”

The new constitution is expected to take a year to ratify.

Tunisia’s model is unlikely to work for every active revolution, but it does provide evidence that each country can adapt its local features to a democratic structure. Tunisians believe that Islam and democracy can co-exist just as Western democracies founded themselves on Christianity. CPR and Ettakatol’s officials have both clarified their position to the international community (and Tunisians), explaining that their parties aren’t the “secular” opposite of Nahda’s “conservatism.” CPR leader Moncef Marzouki says he favors an Islamic national identity combined with universal (read:women’s) human rights.

"We can promote these rights without being in an ideological civil war with the conservative part of society."

Abdellatif Abid, an Ettakatol co-founder, added, "We're not secularists as the west conceives of it. We're for the separation of religion and politics, but not of religion and the state."

This relationship appears less likely to manifest in Egypt’s political system, where the Muslim Brotherhood won’t modernize to Nahda’s level. A snap election in Yemen could also allow its Islah party to out-organize the civil protesters. Yet the ongoing synthesis between Islam and democracy - essentially the mass realization that they can co-exist - should limit the influence of “Islamist” factors. New parties offer the ideal vehicle to rearrange a country’s political system without compromising national or religious identities.

"When we establish democracy, we see that it achieves many of these aims," Ghannouchi said of justice and compassion. "Anything that promotes these aims is Islamic, even if it is not called Islamic. That's why we say that Islam and democracy are compatible."

Egyptians Experiencing Déjà vu

Given the long-term trajectory of revolution, Egypt’s current situation doesn’t appear as dire as commonly assessed. Talk of a second revolution against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is certainly overblown: all of these events comprise a singular revolution against Hosni Mubarak’s regime. The SCAF “promised” to hand over power to a civilian government in six months, only to entrench itself for the possibility of two-year transitional period, and Egypt’s Emergency Law remains active. Resistance against these developments is a unified force.

The parliamentary battle to displace the SCAF will be fierce, but Egyptians stand a good chance of following Tunisia’s lead in the long-term. Its popular movement cannot be totally suppressed by brute force or political maneuvering, and the SCAF’s interference will endure sustained resistance so long as the council remains in power. Over 12,000 Egyptians have been arrested and tried before military tribulans since Mubarak’s fall, according to No Military Trials of Civilians.

“All the lawyers we’ve spoken to have said it’s a sham,” said Shahira Abouellail, an activist with in the campaign. “It’s not really a trial. You’re tried by the military. Most of the time you’re tried collectively so there’s like 30 people there and they all get prosecuted together and they all get the same sentence within like five minutes to half an hour.”

Try as it will, the SCAF cannot imprison every Egyptian who refuses to back down. Mubarak’s legacy may continue on the ground, but a new Egypt is rising up through the earth. When Alaa Abd El Fattah was arrested on October 30th, Egyptians rallied international attention to his cause and smuggled his letter to the outside world. His mother, Cairo University professor Laila Soueif, just informed Egypt's prosecutor-general that she is going on a hunger strike until her son is released "from his unjust imprisonment."

The SCAF’s ability to weather Alaa Abd El Fattah’s storm remains doubtful. After Sunday prayers in Tahrir Square, Syrian protesters joined with Egyptians are they chanted “down with Bashar Al-Assad’s rule” and “down with Ali Saleh’s rule.” Needless to say, Egyptians won’t give up on the future of their own country.

Syria’s Rising Tide of War

Unfortunately for those Syrians protesting al-Assad’s brutal regime, eight months of determined resistance have failed to produce Mubarak’s immediate fall or Gaddafi’s eventual demise. With the relatively young al-Assad overseeing a vast security apparatus, Syrians face an improbable uphill climb towards regime change and universal rights. Many remain upbeat despite the high loss of life; the turbulent city of Homs recorded 111 deaths in the last five days of fighting. Oppositional groups speak of food and energy shortages, paramilitaries and their refusal to surrender.

“It’s going to take unbelievable political and social efforts to restore normalcy again to the city after what it’s gone through,” said Fayez Sara, an opposition figure in Damascus. “It’s going to be very hard for us to reach a political solution after this.”

The possibility of an armed revolt is rising in proportion to these decreasing odds. The Arab League’s latest failure to broker a ceasefire surprised few protesters, seeing that the political bloc has applied its breaks to Syria’s revolution. Dialogue between the regime remains out of the question, says Syrian National Council chairman Burhan Ghalioun. With the international community unable to unify around al-Assad - Western capitals have erroneously latched onto the Arab League and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to “Arabize” their response - the Free Syrian Army is positioning itself for an inevitable revolt.

"We are the future army of the new Syria,” Colonel Riad al-Assad, the SFA’s leading commander, declared from a secure base in Turkey. “We are not in league with any particular sect, religion or political party. We believe in protecting all elements of Syrian society.”

While the risks of armed insurrection pile up quickly, militarized rebellion will counter the risks of non-violent resistance or surrender. al-Assad will only capitulate when a mass of Syrians force him to. The SFA will attract al-Assad’s full wrath in the near-term as he attempts to demonize the opposition, a process similar to Gaddafi and Saleh’s schemes. After protesters are pounded by security forces, reactive oppositional elements are branded as “terrorists” and exploited to pollute the revolution. Fortunately Syrians appear to be traveling Libya’s route instead of Yemen’s; Riad al-Assad hopes to cooperate with the SNC rather than compete with it.

One SNC confirmed “off the table” discussions with the SFA, saying, "Our commitment is, and has always been, peaceful resolution, but our patience has a limit. It depends on the political developments among the Arab League, the Middle East and the International Community... In 10 days we will present a new plan that is to include a military and political strategy. Here the issue of the SFA may well be put on the table."

Foreign Powers Still Rowing Saleh’s Boat

Syrians are clearly aware that their struggle must advance to the next level, and soon. International pressure can only compliment internal pressure, not bring down a regime by itself, and protesters suffer no illusions otherwise. Daniel Glaser, the U.S. Treasury Department's assistant secretary, recently briefed officials in Beirut and Amman on al-Assad’s possible attempts to circumvent Western sanctions.

Western sanctions against Ali Abdullah Saleh are even less promising.

Much like her meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the immediate takeaway from Tawakel Karman’s meeting with French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe left much to be desired. Paris’s position is considered more sympathetic than Washington and London’s, and Juppe did tell reporters, “I think asset freezes will be discussed as soon as possible.” However the operative word of “discuss” triggers immediate doubts in the West’s flimsy resolve. Financial and military sanctions against Saleh’s regime should have been implemented months ago, but were obstructed by foreign powers (U.S., Russia) aligned with Saleh’s regime.

Waiting until next week’s EU meeting may be practical, except the delay also highlights the West’s chronic lack of urgency in Yemen. Worse still, Juppe hoped that UN resolution 2014 would open an inquiry “to see if there were any crimes committed that could be taken to an international court.” He still believes the path towards stability starts with the GCC’s unpopular initiative - which grants Saleh’s family immunity from past crimes - and blamed the oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) for not uniting properly.

“I am ready to discuss with my European colleagues how to ensure the resolution is implemented, but our action would be more efficient if the (Yemen) opposition was more united.”

In reality Western and Gulf states have abused the JMP as a proxy in their political designs, forcing the group to negotiate with Saleh’s regime and cutting out Yemen’s revolutionaries in the process. Foreign powers have also ignored the autonomous causes of the northern Houthis and Southern Movement, contributing to their alienation from the JMP and its dominate arm, the Islah party. This disunity has aided foreign manipulation of Yemen’s revolution. Protesters wish to remain peaceful despite a saturation of violence, but the international community’s total failure to act in Yemen will partially explain a transition to armed resistance.

Global protesters are monitoring each other’s historical progress, and everyone is determined not to be left behind.


  1. "Syrians are clearly aware that their struggle must advance to the next level, and soon. International pressure can only compliment internal pressure, not bring down a regime by itself, and protesters suffer no illusions otherwise."

    This is also true for Yemen, with the possible exception of the clause "and protesters suffer no illusions otherwise."

  2. Most Yemenis I've spoken with are hoping for international assistance, but don't expect any. Pressure is maintained by default, or else foreign powers could intervene at a deeper level.