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In its most basic way, the Arab Spring was a liberal revolution; it was about the freedom of people to choose their own way in life. But what, as seems to be the case, if the Arab people use this freedom to elect anti-democratic or Islamic parties? In the confusing post-revolutionary political system, the Arab people will have to find a way of marrying liberal democracy with the principles of Islam. And this requires an open mind on our part as well.
By Koert Debeuf
Our common knowledge of the Arab world is disturbingly limited. Before the war in Iraq very few people were able to point out Syria on a map. In fact, many people’s knowledge did not stretch far beyond the whereabouts of Israel and Pales-tine. No wonder that people were surprised and worried when millions took the streets in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Morocco, Jordan, Libya and Syria. We had no clue who was protesting, why they were doing so and what their aims were. We also did not understand why the street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in the Tunisian town Sidi Bouzid on December 17, 2010 after the police confiscated his wares and humiliated him. Was this not an overreacting? What was this street vendor hoping to achieve?
The answer to this question is that the protesters in Sidi Bouzid asked for justice and dignity. Many of them were in the same precarious situation as Bouazizi; living on the borderline between poverty and extreme poverty. Their main problem however was not their poverty as such; it was the fact that the system in which they lived blocked the way towards a better future. They almost had to live the life of sheep. The system lived and worked for itself, totally corrupt and totally disinterested in the life of the people. Actions of the police were arbitrary, depending on the mood of the day. Starting a business in an in accordance with legal guidelines was almost impossible. On a massive scale people were forced into illegal work, depending on half official or even non-official authorities which did hardly ever move without bribes. If you were protesting against an arbitrary police action, you were tortured, sometimes along with your family. In order to get you out of prison, your wife might be forced to give her body to one of the high ranked police officers. In the meantime, you would see government officials living in the richest villas and you would see your president giving speeches on television about the happy state of the country.
I have been repeating the story of how the Arab Spring started because – although it is well known – it is also often forgotten. Despite our initial fears and impressions the uprising had nothing to do with Islam, but with certain liberties that we in the West usually take for granted. One Tunisian girl used a strong image on Italian television: the coffin of Mohamed Bouazizi was not covered with the green flag of Islam but with the red flag of Tunisia. The revolt was about changing the system. It was not so much about poverty, but about the injustices that blocked people from forging a better life for themselves. It was against the arbitrariness and the brutality of the police, about the attitude of the bureaucracy, about the secret services controlling every facet of life. In short, this Arab Spring was a revolution against dictatorship and tyranny. In this most basic way, the Arab Spring was a liberal revolution; it was about the freedom of people to choose their own way in life.
But like every revolution the people on the street do very well know what they want to end, but once the revolution has succeeded, they disagree on what has to come in place. It would be unfair to blame the Tunisians, Egyptians or Syrians for their discord. The revolution of all revolutions, the one of 1789, was not different. The French knew that they wanted to end the dictatorial monarchy and that they wanted rights for everyone, but they struggled for eighty years on how to implement these values. It was not until the Third Republic that the French more or less agreed on which system should replace the one that had been previously overthrown. The same story goes for the Russian revolution which was taken over by Lenin’s communists, who got rid of the initiators of the 1917 revolution. The same is true for the Iranian revolution of 1979. The people fought against the regime of the Shah and got an Islamic one instead.
Times of revolution are very confusing. Mixed in with the confusion in the Arab world was the presence of Islamist movements. In Tunisia Ennahda only joined the revolution when it was nearly over. In Egypt, the Muslim Brothers joined the protesters on Tahrir Square three days after it had started. The Salafis, who endorse a more conservative vision on Islam imported from Saudi Arabia, were hardly present during the uprising, at least not in an organized way. Nevertheless, both have a large following among the people and are very well organised. Moreover, both in Tunisia and Egypt Ennahda and the Muslim Brothers have been staunch critics of dictatorship. Their leaders spent many years in prison or had to move abroad. The credits from this early and brave criticism combined with the fact that they were seen as the most stable opposition group secured them a win in the first elections. But the Islamists face the same common revolutionary problem: they know what they do not want, but it is hard to come up with the right alternative once in government.
Do the Arab people want a liberal (-democratic) regime? What problematises this question is that in the Arab world the word ‘liberal’ refers often to two, not too bright periods in their history: firstly, the period after the first World War until the fifties, when dictators took over and secondly after the year 2000 when many dictators tried to open up their respective economies. In both periods, the so-called liberal system favoured only the elites. There is a second problem with the word ‘liberal’ in the Arab world. To many ears it is a synonym of ‘atheism’. In many parts of the Arab world, people just do not understand how someone can be an atheist. They understand being from a different religion and will in fact repeatedly insist that they truly respect Christianity and Judaism, but not believing in a God at all is simply one bridge too far.
This is the reason why many liberal parties in the region prefer not to use the word ‘liberal’. Mahmud Gebril won the elections in Libya with his National Alliance Forces. In the media he and his party are consequently called ‘liberals’. When I went to Tripoli provide training to the top of this party on how to form electoral lists, how to build a sound party structure and on campaigning, they told me that even though they were liberal, they would not say so in public in fear of losing the elections. The Libyan Muslim Brotherhood would corrupt the word ‘liberal’ and say that the National Alliance Forces were against Islam, just like they did in Egypt and Tunisia. And although these countries are ninety to one-hundred percent Islamic, the policy of the dictators was often to break the backbone of the religious structures. That is why being allowed to publicly profess to the Islamic faith is also felt as one of the gained freedoms of the revolutions.
So, are these revolutions liberal? Yes, definitely. The people want democracy, free and fair elections, freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of association, freedom of religion. They believe that these freedoms are key to ending injustice and to restore their own dignity as well as their country’s. But at the same time, they will have to find a way of marrying liberal democracy with the principles of Islam. To our ears that might sound as the complete opposite of liberalism, but the two are not necessarily so far apart. First of all, let’s remind ourselves that there is no such thing as the sharia. We have to stop thinking of sharia as Taliban. There are many interpretations of Islamic law, under which also very liberal – you can even call it secular – ones. Secondly, there were periods in Arab history where religion and science/state were separated. The most famous one is the Abbasid period – the caliphate of Bagdad – which produced world class scientists, writers and philosophers.
All things considered, it is clear that the Arab Spring was inspired by liberal values. But it will take some time to turn these values into practice, and combine them with local and regional realities in which religion plays a crucial role. Such a situation is hardly uncommon; take for example Poland where liberal parties are very Catholic at the same time. Instead of fearing faith and focusing on the difficulties in conceptualising an Islamic form of liberalism, we should consider this as an opportunity to open our minds, step in and help to create a liberal Arab region.
Koert Debeuf is the former Chief of Cabinet of Guy Verhofstadt, President of the ALDE group in the European Parliament. Currently he is living in Cairo, representing the ALDE Group in the Arab World. Debeuf studied Ancient History at the universities of Leuven and Bologna. He worked as political advisor for the Mayor of Leuven, for the Flemish Parliament, the Belgian Parliament and the European Parliament. In 2008 – 2009 he founded a liberal think tank, Prometheus, of which he was director.
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