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The Second Arab Awakening

Posted on Apr 11, 2013

By Rayyan Al-Shawaf

(Page 2)

Things are different in the second Arab awakening—at least so far. As Dawisha points out, “The men and women who poured onto the streets and squares of Arab cities had learned from the experience of the first Arab awakening; they understood that their revolutions would not be fulfilled without the establishment of democratic institutions.” Dawisha gives us an account of the successful uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, as well as the periods immediately preceding and following them. He examines the brutally suppressed democracy movement in Bahrain, the political stalemate in Yemen before and even after its divisive president was persuaded to step aside, and the ongoing civil war in Syria, where peaceful demonstrators eventually resorted to arms in the face of a tyrannical regime’s violent crackdown. Rounding it off are analyses of the severely flawed democracies of Lebanon and Iraq, and the encouraging but limited democratic reforms undertaken by the absolute monarchs of Morocco and Jordan.

While pondering the future relationship between Islam and democracy, Dawisha opines that “in the end, Islam is what Muslims make of it,” an assertion with which many Muslims as well as critics of Islam would take issue. Nevertheless, his treatment of Islam and the Arab Spring will have few detractors, save for the misguided who insist that Islamists constitute a monolithic entity. The author’s overview of the situation on the ground is nuanced and free of generalizations and predictions, though it would have benefited from the exploration of possible outcomes. Tackling the Islamist phenomenon also fills out his account of the second awakening. After all, one of the salient features of the new political landscape in the countries of the Arab Spring is the emergence of Islamist political parties.

For those closely watching this development, two realizations will take shape. They are paradoxical though by no means contradictory. First, despite the wide spectrum of Islamist parties, the Islamist trend is ominous for any prospect of secularization. This is something Dawisha fails to stress. The second realization is that Islamist parties are not interchangeable. The author shows us that both the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and the Salafists’ Nour party in Egypt are more radical and less willing to compromise than are Tunisia’s Ennahda and Morocco’s Justice and Development Party (known by its French initials PJD). Dawisha notes that the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists, who insisted on dominating a committee charged with drafting Egypt’s constitution, “got their first major lesson in the imprudence of political inflexibility” when liberals and Coptic Christians quit in protest. In Tunisia, however, “After proposing to include a reference to al-Sharia [Islamic law] in the Tunisian constitution, Ennahda quickly withdrew it once it became clear that the proposal would prove divisive.”

Despite the many differences between the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Ennahda in Tunisia, however, both have enraged their liberal opponents and confirmed some of their worst suspicions. Liberals, women’s rights advocates, and religious and even ethnic minorities are expressing growing dissatisfaction with the Islamists where they have ascended to power. Since this book went to press, the Muslim Brotherhood and Ennahda, both of which enjoy a major share of legislative and executive power, have faced street protests over their anti-democratic tendencies.

The Islamists of Egypt and Tunisia may even have to work hard to remain popular among their own electorate. They stand to lose much support if they fail to shore up their countries’ ailing economies, a significant point Dawisha gives its due. They may also have to scale back any planned policing of societal morals if their voters, however devout, object to cultural, sartorial or other restrictions (an intriguing scenario Dawisha does not contemplate). And where Islamists are in power, how they handle opposition, whether by liberals or their own supporters, will be crucial to the success or failure of the political process.

Indeed, returning to Arendt, Dawisha says it is too early to tell whether the second Arab awakening, unlike the first, will institutionalize democracy, but he knows in whose hands its fate increasingly lies. “It is somewhat ironic,” he observes, “that the ultimate realization of Hannah Arendt’s simple and elegant formulation, linking the success of revolution to the establishment of democracy, would be left not in the hands of liberals and secularists but in the custody of those professing fidelity to principles whose compatibility with democracy is contested.”

Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and book critic in Beirut.

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