Arab Spring Mugged By Reality / Michael Curtis

March 27, 2012
It is a reminder that Libya, like many of the Arab states, was essentially a tribal society in which people were more loyal to their tribe than to the state.

In a speech in Istanbul on March 18. 2012, Khaled Meshal, leader of Hamas, heralded the Arab spring as a milestone in the history of Muslims. He saw it, he said, as a fight against corruption, as aimed at honor, in favor of freedom, reform and democracy, which would lead to economic growth, and to political and economic development. Above all, he said, it would also strengthen the unity of the Arabs against Israel, and therefore the Arab nations will strongly support the Palestinian cause against Zionist policies. For Meshal, Israel remains an invader state, a state of crime and terrorism, and the fight against it must be continued in the fields of politics, diplomacy, the press, and propaganda.

Meshal , following the current non-military international campaign against Israel, shrewdly avoided any mention of violence, and was in line with the ongoing activity of the international community to engage in the struggle against Israel by the use or misuse of the law and by a fallacious narrative of the inadequacies or deficiencies of Israel. However, he has not appreciated that this year the Arab spring will be a little late in arriving. Expectations that the cries of "freedom" and "democracy" by demonstrators against the Arab regimes in Tunisia, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, would lead to real political change and to the creation of democratic institutions have been dispelled by the realities of Arab societies and politics.

By chance, one of the realities of the Arab Spring occurred the same week as Meshal's speech: the decision -- emerging from a meeting of major tribal leaders, military commanders, and political figures in Benghazi, Libya -- that called for the establishment in Cyrenaica, the eastern part of the country, to be a semi-autonomous state, called Barqa, from central Libya to the Egyptian border in the east and to Chad and Sudan in the south. It would have its own legislature, police and courts, and Benghazi as its capital; the central government in Tripoli would control foreign policy, the army, and oil supplies.

This is a reminder that Libya was an artificial country created by Italy in December 1951 combining three provinces, Tripolitania in the west, Cyrenaica in the east, and Fezzan in the southwest. Even more it was a reminder that Libya, like many of the Arab states, was essentially a tribal society in which people were more loyal to their tribe than to the state. In Libya over 140 tribes and clans, interrelated through alliances, and of which about 30 have influence on affairs, exist in a society with tribal feuds, and divided by uneven distribution of oil wealth and polarization between rich and poor, by geographical tensions, and different rebel militias. To retain power Gaddafi, who himself came from the Gadhadfa clan, which was allied with ten others by marriage, to which he gave special privileges, had coopted tribes, persuading them with cash, and various perks and jobs, especially in the security services and military. He also controlled the military, well armed with 4,000 tanks and other armored vehicles, 400 combat aircraft, and 20,000 portable surface-to-air missiles. He fell when part of the army split from him and joined the rebels or mercenaries in the country. The question now is how tribal loyalties will be expressed in any fair election, especially as the tribe with the largest number of members tends automatically to get the most votes.

The Libyan situation illustrates in the major forces and the balance of power in Arab countries, the dynamic between tribal leaders linked by family and blood; the army, previously the most stable institution, based on honor and virility; and the Islamic mosque, a meeting place not only for religion but also for fraternity and the transmission of ideas and allegiances. Tribal alliances abound in Libya, Yemen, and Jordan. In Syria, suffering from the brutalities of the Alawi-dominated Bashar Assad regime's murder of thousands of its own citizens, parts of the country are really tribal areas, hostile to the regime and getting aid and weapons from Sunni Muslim insurgents. Egypt, however, dominated from 1952 on by the military: General Mohamed Neguib (1953-54); Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser (1954-70); Colonel Anwar Sadat (1970-81); and General Hosni Mubarak (1981-2011). Even today it is not clear whether there will be in Egypt an alliance between the military, which refused to fire on the protesting crowds in the streets, and the Islamists.

The Arab spring, a term inappropriately borrowed by commentators from the Prague spring of 1968, in the liberalization movement to free Czechoslovakia from the domination of the Soviet Union, started not with any similar political ideology of liberalization but from the self-immolation of a 26 year old street vender in Tunisia. The consequent changes have varied in the different Arab countries and have had unintended consequences. What is most surprising about the outpouring of people in the street and the ending of entrenched regimes is that the activity, hardly a movement, had no leaders, no individual theorist inspiring it, and no real agenda or objectives other than the overthrow of the existing regimes, and a general aspiration for economic and political improvement. Mobilization and communication took place in diverse ways through the internet and cell phones, not through political manifestos.

Changes have occurred: Saudi Arabia, in spite of its intolerant Wahhabist adherents, suggests it will allow women to vote and run for municipal office even though still not allowed to drive. Saudi Arabia, however, has an unfortunate history of promising changes -- such as women soon being allowed to drive -- that then never happen.

Elections have been held in Tunisia and Egypt, and in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. About a quarter of the new Tunisian legislature are women. But secularism is in crisis and few could have envisaged that Islamic groups would have benefited from something they did not start and that they would emerge politically to the degree that they have. The Arab spring has become an Islamic spring.

In Tunis, the Islamist Ennahda [Renaissance] party gained 41 percent of the vote and 87 of the 217 seats. In Morocco the PJD (Justice and Development party) won 30 percent of the vote and has been the ruling party since November 2011. In Egypt for over half a century the military rulers, Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak, had limited the place of religious groups in public life. The Islamic parties there allegedly got 70 percent of the vote, a figure currently considered beyond improbable and currently under dispute; the relatively moderate and politically astute Muslim Brotherhood (FJP) is the leading party but the real surprise has been that the more extreme Islamic group, the Salafist Al-Nour party, which has only been in existence for nine months, and which is opposed to alcohol, pop music, and Western culture, allegedly got 29 percent. Islamic groups in other countries -- Hama in Gaza, Islamic Action Front in Jordan, the FIS in Algeria, the AKP (Justice and Development party) in Turkey -- have all been influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood, created in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna who called for a political system based on Islam. All the groups argue they will end corruption, promote justice and dignity, and continue the welfare system they have begun for the poor.

The present reality in the different countries is mixed. Egypt has closed civil society groups, including some financed by the United States, which continues to provide the country with $1.3 billion a year in military aid. It has also reduced female representation in parliament and other groups. Turkey has harassed the media, the military, judges, and the middle class. Although the Arab League has, in November 2011, called for sanctions on Syria, including a travel ban on senior officials, a freeze on government assets, and a ban on commercial exchanges, some Arab countries are unwilling to abide by this. Russia is interested in selling arms to Syria; since 1971, it has had a naval base at the Mediterranean coast port of Tartus, Syria's second largest port. In early 2012, Russia sent a naval flotilla, led by an aircraft carrier to the port to show support for Syria, as well as attempting to block sanctions imposed on the country.

The crucial question for the world, and especially for Israel, is whether these groups, now influential and stronger than ever before, can adapt – or even want to adapt -- to a more moderate position. Does the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood genuinely believe in a free market and equality of faith and gender, especially the rights of women and religious minorities, as it claims? More specifically, will the Arab community, presently engaged in national fashion in problems of their own countries, become more concerned with Israel as a convenient diversion? It is an ominous signal that the Egyptian Islamists have threatened to revoke the 1979 peace treaty with Israel. Spring may become a sad winter.

Michael Curtis is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Rutgers University and author of Should Israel Exist? A Sovereign Nation under attack by the International Community.

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