The Arab world into the unknown

The Arab world into the unknown

Our friends Peter Harling and Sarah Birke contributed the following piece, a reflection on the state of the Arab world after a confounding 2013 that saw, for many, the dissipation of the enthusiasm of 2011. Harling is Senior MENA advisor at the International Crisis Group; Birke is a Middle East Correspondent for The Economist.

Two and a half years ago, Arab countries were abuzz with interesting conversations. Rich and poor, old and young, villager and urbanite, Islamist and secular all had their own take on the bewildering turmoil of the uprisings they were caught up in. They tended to be aware of the risks, hopeful that change was both inevitable and ultimately beneficial, and proud that the region could awaken and, after centuries of foreign interference, set its own agenda. Opinions were also invariably sophisticated, with people speaking profoundly about societies they thought they knew and had started to reassess. 

This was a refreshing change from the pre-2011 tune of impotence. The region at that point, as its inhabitants saw it, was hostage to ossified regimes, intractable conflicts, worn-out narratives, and crumbling economies – not to mention Western hypocrisy, and schizophrenia, about urging client regimes to reform. Sterile agitation on the regional or international front, notably around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, distracted from thorough stagnation in domestic politics. Commentary was a cyclical run through the latest episode of violence, round of sanctions, realignment of alliances, or half-hearted diplomatic ventures. Uninspiring solutions to lingering problems left citizens reluctant to choose, among players in this game, the lesser of evils. Standing up to the US (like firebrand Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) or surviving an Israeli assault (as Hezbollah did in 2006 and Hamas in 2009) could certainly make you popular beyond your traditional base, but not for long. 

Less than three years after popular protests streaked across the Arab world, conversations appear to have come full circle. Optimism that societies in the region could no longer be ignored and would bring about change has reverted to doom and gloom. Outside observers have jumped from one label to the next: Arab spring to Islamist autumn to reactionary winter. All-too often, local residents view protests as a conspiracy, a naïve illusion or an ill-fated hope at best. Many see a stark choice between a failing old order and hegemonic Islamist rule—or war, as in Syria. Opinions are generally crude, aggressively intolerant and more rigid than ever. Interlocutors sport surprisingly definite conclusions about their home-region, no matter how fluid and contradictory the current trends actually are. 

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The counter-revolution and women

The ugliness and ridiculousness of the army and their defenders' arguments this week has been hard to countenance. 

Much of the debate has centered on the shocking image of the young woman dragged, half undressed and mercilessly beaten in the street by soldiers. The denial, misogyny and hostility on display has been in direct proportion to the impossibility of defending this conduct. 

A sheikh with the Gamaa Islamiya exemplified the worst of Islamist bigotry and hypocrisy by telling Al Ahram a few days ago that "real Egyptian men don't follow April 6 women into the street" and if people are concerned for women's honor they should worry about girls sleeping overnight in tents with boys and dancing.

The focus on women -- their safety, their "honor," their participation -- has brought out the worst in the counter-revolutionaries. In the pro-army Abbasiya protest yesterday, people chanted: "From the ladies of Egypt to Ghada.." -- addressing this brave young woman, beaten by the army -- "Your end will be annihilation." They also reiterated the perversely common argument that the woman in the blue bra entrapped soldiers into beating and stripping her in the street. The event was headlined by Tawfeeq Okasha, a weird populist TV station owner (and former Mubarak supporter) who judging by this video -- in which he creepily tells activists Nawara Negm and Asmaa Mahfouz that he has guys all ready and lined up to marry them and teach them to calm down and love their country -- is a raving psychopath and misogynist. Just for good measure, the Abbaseya demo also reportedly featured posters of popular private TV channel presenters Mona Shazly, Reem Maged and others with nooses around their necks. 

The loons in Abbaseya are an extreme end of popular opinion (albeit one that is being dangerously encouraged). Many other Egyptians are shamed, shocked and scared by the army's violence towards citizens, and (although I think by now almost everyone knows that something terrible happened Downtown last week) would prefer to believe that it didn't happen -- or that those it happened to somehow deserved it. Egypt is still fighting the same battle, a year on: a battle over whether all its citizens deserve safety and dignity and whether those who are in power can be held accountable. The denial and incoherent rage being directed at protesters -- and at those women who, according to these arguments, chose to embarrass themselves and their country by getting themselves nearly killed in the street by soldiers -- shows how difficult and threatening this kind of change will be. 

More on the counter-revolution

This is going to be a bleak post, taking stock of some of the worrying developments of the last week:

- The re-invocation of Emergency Law, plus redundant, extra-repressive bells and whistles (see Issandr's post) clearly aimed at anybody (the media, unions, NGOs) who might be thinking about challenging the SCAF

- The crack-down on Al Jazeera's live Egypt channel and the general intimidation of the media 

- Rumours that the SCAF will appoint members of the constitutional assembly (rather than have parliament select them), going back on the agreed-to process sanctioned by last March's referendum -- and a dawning realization that presidential elections may not take place till mid-2012

- A judicial and political transition process that remains deeply (deliberately?) muddled, with almost all political parties criticizing the (as yet to be finalized) new electoral law, the new districting plan, the lack of a clear time-table -- to little avail. 

- A security apparatus that remains resistant to all change -- except for a name change -- and incapable of facing the country's quite real crime wave

- An opposition and protest movement that is more fragmented than ever, still stuck playing Tahrir politics 

Of course the activists who have been skeptical of the army from day one will say: Why are you surprised?

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