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An Islamist Winter?
January/February 2012

Flying the flag for freedom: Egyptians in Cairo's Tahrir Sqaure after the parliamentary elections in November (Stefan Simanowitz)

Is the Arab Spring morphing into an Islamic Winter? The question is haunting those interested in the outcome of the series of political earthquakes that, from the start of 2011, have shaken most of the 21 member states of the Arab League. Those who remember the initial days of the Arab uprising on Bourguiba Avenue in Tunisia and Tahrir Square in Cairo wonder what happened to the promise of the modern liberal society that was supposed to be about to be born out of the pages of Facebook accompanied by the jingles of mobile phones. Where have all the clean-shaven, jeans-wearing, cappuccino-imbibing young things gone? And where did all these bushy beards and extra-thick hijabs, absent from the early stages of the "revolution", come from?

To find an answer let us start with the certainties of the situation. First, it is too early to speak of an Arab revolution. Revolutions are baptised as such only after they have happened. What we have in the countries affected by the Arab Spring so far is the promise of a revolution. For the first time in decades almost all Arab societies are in a state of flux. Everywhere, the regimes in place have run out of the energy and imagination needed to keep themselves in power. Arab governing elites are no longer able to respond to the hopes, fears and aspirations of their peoples.

The emergence of modern Arab states in the Middle East and North Africa dates back to the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, and then the decolonisation movement that followed the Second. Initially, the Arab elites toyed with the idea of reviving the Islamic caliphate, a dream that haunted ambitious leaders from King Fouad of Egypt to King Abdul-Aziz of Saudi Arabia. However, the reality of the emerging Arab states was something else. These were states created around an army, even when, as was the case in Saudi Arabia and Transjordan, it consisted of a tribal band of irregulars. At the start, almost all the newly created states were monarchies under different names. In Yemen the monarch was called the imam, in Egypt he was the king and in Morocco the sultan.

From the late 1940s onwards, army officers, sometimes using a political party as interface, started to topple the monarchies and developed the military-security state in the name of pan-Arab unity, the "liberation of Palestine" and/or socialism. By the end of the 1960s, eight Arab nations lived under new-model military-security regimes claiming legitimacy based on empty slogans about pan-Arabism and socialism.

Although the Arab Spring has shaken every Arab regime, including monarchies such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain, its principal target has been the military-security regimes. At the time of writing only three were still in place: Syria, Sudan and Mauritania, all of which were also in various stages of popular revolt.

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A reader from NY
January 2nd, 2012
12:01 PM
While I agree with the premise and conclusion of this piece, I am as bewildered as the previous reader ("Orientalism") by Mr. Taheri's depiction of the Turkish government as a "model" of secular Islamic democracy. As Turkey's Islamist PM Erdogan vies for accession to the EU, on the one hand, and to fill the regional power vacuum left by Mubarak's ouster and the Arab Spring, on the other, one must look to events of the last 18 months and wonder how independent a truly secular government in an Islamist society can be, particularly when that society derives its intellectual, moral and spiritual guidance from its religious scholars and theologians - NOT its politicians. Moreover, to offer Turkey's NOMINAL separation of state and religion as a beacon to the Arab world is as naive as the presumption that the Islamic Brotherhood's newfangled secular campaign platform is to be taken at face value. I've often thought the Occupy Wall Street activists would do well to look East for a better appreciation of their "99 vs. 1" mantra; but, if this movement has anything in common with the Arab Spring, it's that both were fomented by passions rather than a plan. One can rail against social injustice, economic hardship and political corruption, but there is a world of difference between identifying a problem and knowing how to fix it. Absent a solution and the means to implement it, there can be no remedy - or revolution.

January 1st, 2012
7:01 AM
Informative and well summed up. However, some may argue that we are seeing the following now in Turkey as the military security regime that protected secularism is being dismantled.... the description of Iran post 1979 revolution resonates with many Turks these days... you could replace mullahs for the ruling AKP party. 'the mullahs and their minions were infiltrating the apparatus of the state, placing their people in strategic positions within the bureaucracy, the judiciary and the media, and creating paramilitary squads. They accepted elections on the basis of one man, one vote, once' And this also applies to Turkey when talking about military repression of Islamist parties.. 'They know how to hide their true colours and bide their time. If it is foolish to overestimate their strength when they are part of a broader picture, it is deadly to underestimate their capacity for doing harm when they seize all levers of power.' Some may say, if the popular vote wants a more pro-Islamic run country so be it, but as the writer also mentions 'obsessions such as the Israel-Palestine issue, anti-Americanism, vilification of minorities and anti-woman programmes' are old Islamists discourse and are anti-democratic, in my opinion. Today,we are seeing a visible backwards trend in Turkey on these issues. Turkey noteably has the highest number of journalists in prison. Most live in fear of reprisal for having a critical voice. Wire-tapping by the pro-government police force is common. Turkey as a model?

Sarat Kumar
December 26th, 2011
8:12 PM
It is not really important whether the Islamists allow tourists to drink alcohol or even whether muslim women would be veiled, scarved or not. Will they: Amend constitutions to allow non muslims to occupy the highest political, military and social offices in Arab and Muslim countries? Allow all religions and atheists to preach and propagate their beliefs peacefully? Adopt constitutions without references to Islam? As someone who has lived in the Middle East for 14 years, let me tell you, Mr Taheri (I know you dont need my telling) the Arabs in particular and Muslims in general are light years away from these concepts.

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