Ideas and Movements behind the Arab Spring
Thursday, August 22, 2013
Shireen T. Hunter
In January 2010 in Tunisia, a youth set fire to himself and thus sparked popular protests that not only led to the unseating of the country's president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, but also spread to other Arab states, most notably, Egypt. In Egypt, too, the protesters eventually forced the country's long-serving president Hosni Mubarak to resign. Other Arab states followed, notably Libya, where the regime of Muammar Qaddafi was toppled as a result of popular protests and the Western military intervention in the form of NATO airstrikes. In Syria, the anti-Bashar al-Assad movement led to a bloody civil war, and in Bahrain an uprising resulted in a harsh crackdown by the ruling royal family, as well as military intervention by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in support of the Bahraini government. These protest movements and their outcome collectively came to be called the Arab Spring.
A major goal of the protesters everywhere from Tunisia to Bahrain and Syria was to create more participatory and representative political systems, a fairer economic system, and independent judiciaries. At the beginning, the success of protest movements in some Arab states ignited hopes that these goals could be achieved, and that various groups united against the ousted governments could develop democratic mechanisms to settle their disputes and reach consensus on key issues facing their respective countries.
These hopes, however, were not realized, and the success of the protest movements in bringing down corrupt, repressive, and unpopular governments did not result in the establishment of the institutions and practices conducive to greater democracy, better economic management, or fair and independent judiciaries. On the contrary, disagreements soon surfaced among various forces that had been united in opposition to the existing regimes about the future direction of their respective countries, the principles and philosophies that should underpin the new institutions and practices, as well as over who should yield power and through what mechanisms. Even worse, in many cases, disagreements among various groups did not remain limited to the more acceptable forms of electoral competition and verbal skirmishes—they degenerated into violent clashes among opposing forces.
This situation, in addition to demonstrating the formidable challenges facing those who want to develop participatory, open, and non-corrupt governments in the Arab World, meant that the successor governments could not tackle their countries numerous, serious economic problems. These problems have actually worsened in the last few years.
Yet this outcome is not surprising. This is because the Arab World, like most Muslim countries, is bedeviled by many societal fissures and fault lines along economic, cultural, and ideological boundaries. Moreover, many of these countries are also divided along ethnic, regional and sectarian lines. For example, in Libya there are regional differences that also translate into political disputes. The Syrian conflict has a decidedly sectarian element to it as the country's Sunni majority resents the Alawite-dominated government of Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile, Bahrain's Shia majority chafes under the discriminatory rule of its Sunni royal family.
Of all the divisions that bedevil Arab societies, those along cultural lines are the most significant in terms of political ramifications. This divide is between the more westernized, secular segments of Arab populations and those who remain religious and loyal to the traditional Islamic culture of their societies. Politically, the secular population desires a system more or less along the lines of Western liberal democracies. By contrast, the traditional, religious Muslim populations prefer a system that if not based entirely on Islamic law is largely informed by Islam and its ethical values.
The importance of this divide has been demonstrated during the post-uprising period, as most clashes and disagreements have erupted between the proponents of a more secular system and those wanting to establish an Islamic system. In fact, the political battle lines in the post-uprising Arab states have been largely drawn along Islamist-secular lines. The situation is further complicated by the divisions within the secularists and the Islamists. For example, secular forces in places such as Egypt and Tunisia comprise groups with leftist as well as liberal, nationalist tendencies. The Islamists, meanwhile, are essentially divided between the more established and relatively moderate, enlightened Islamic groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Al Nahda in Tunisia, and the new, more conservative groups such as the Salafis, which demand a political system based on a restrictive interpretation of Islam.
This cultural divide is even reflected in disagreements among various groups in the Arab World and elsewhere in the Muslim World about the nature of the Arab uprisings and the primary ideational motivation behind them. In fact, since the beginning of the Arab Spring, there has been much debate about whether these uprisings were inspired by Islam or by ideals of Western liberal democracy. In reality, however, in terms of their demands and desires, there is not much difference between Islamists and secularists: all want political representation, all want freedom of speech and other basic human rights and respect for their dignity, and all want an equitable socioeconomic structure.
This is the reason why the mainstream Islamists also talk of popular sovereignty, the people's rights, and social justice. The main reason for this is that, over more than a century, Arab populations have been deeply influenced by the major political ideas developed in the West, most notably the ideas of popular rule and the rights of the people, and socialism advancing the theory that society and the state are responsible for guaranteeing social and economic justice for all. Consequently, today no political group can hope to win sufficient popular acceptance without subscribing, sincerely or not, to these ethos.
The Islamists are no exception to this rule. They might claim that Islam has already guaranteed such rights and provided the guidelines for how to secure them, but they cannot deny their legitimacy and importance. The main area of disagreement between the secularists and the Islamists relates to social ethics and cultural issues. The Islamists believe that certain freedoms common in secular societies have no place in majority Muslim societies. They believe that the freedom of choice of individuals in Muslim societies is limited by the moral and legal prohibitions imposed by Islam. To illustrate, according to the Islamists, a woman's freedom of choice in terms of her appearance is limited by the Islamic rules of veiling (hijab) and modesty. Similar limitations apply to other aspects of personal behavior.
The Arab World's cultural divide also largely corresponds to its economic divisions. In other words, most religiously motivated citizens belong to economically less-advantaged classes, while the secularists are economically and educationally more privileged. The cultural fault line also partially reflects the urban-rural divide in the Arab states, with the urban population, particularly those of large cities, being more secular than religious.
The Arab countries' societal divides, especially those related to cultural, political, and economic areas, in turn reflect their experience with modernity and its as-yet unfinished state and its consequences, and the Arab societies' varied responses to these consequences. For example, the rise of Islamism has in part been a reaction to modernization and its outcomes. In fact, it could well be argued that the Arab Spring and its aftermath is another stage in this evolving process of the Arab world's modernization with its many twists and turns.
Therefore, to understand the Arab Spring and its aftermath, one must look at the movement in the context of the Arab World's encounter with modernity, the ideas that accompanied modernity, and the dynamics that this process set in motion.
The beginnings of the Arab/Muslim societies' introduction to modernity and the ideas and philosophies underpinning it dates to their encounter with the West in the late 18th century. In the case of the Arab states, a good starting date for this first encounter would be the landing of Napoleon Bonaparte's French troops in Egypt in 1798. This event would mark the beginning of the process of Western imperial expansion into the Arab lands and their eventual colonialization.
Napoleon's entry into Egypt, coupled with developments in other parts of the Islamic World, brought the Arab/Muslim peoples face to face with the harsh reality of their decline. This realization, in turn, set in motion a long process of soul-searching about the causes of this decline as well as efforts to find ways of reversing it through the application of necessary reforms. And this process of reform then set in motion dynamics that dramatically altered the fabric of Arab/Muslim societies and gave rise to new forces, ideas, and groups that have been affecting the evolution of Arab societies for over a century.
Until the early 18th century, Arab/Muslim societies had more or less equal status in terms of their scientific and industrial development. Moreover, the moral and ethical foundations of their societies were essentially also similar. This was so because until that time, both in the West and in Arab/Muslim societies, religion provided the moral framework and to a great degree the legal framework of each society. In earlier times, the present divide between the West and Arab/Muslim countries on these issues, especially as it relates to personal ethics, did not exist. However, this situation began to change after the dawn the Age of Reason/Enlightenment in Europe followed by the Industrial Revolution.
The first development led to the secularization of the Western societies and the rise of ideas, such as nationalism and constitutionalism and the inherent rights of the people, and eventually the idea of progress. The rationalist mind set also accelerated Europe's scientific advance and also contributed to an acceleration of Europe's industrial development. The end result of these developments was a growing and still-persistent gap between the power of the West and those of the non-European countries. This discrepancy in power, coupled with he growing Western belief in its own civilizational superiority, in turn led to the European imperial expansion into the Arab/Muslim world—which resulted in the defeat of Muslim powers by European countries and their eventual domination by them.
The cultural changes that had led to the increase in the European powers and resulted in their victory over the Muslim powers led many in the Muslim world to conclude that cultural factors, notably the excessive role of religion in Muslim societies, was responsible for their decline and hence their defeat. A further conclusion was that to remedy their decline, Muslims must adopt the Europeans' way of thinking and doing. However, not all in the Muslim World agreed with this analysis and attributed Muslims' decline to their distancing of Islamic values and principles.
For nearly a century, European ideas and models became the inspiration for Muslim countries' effort to change their societies and acquire the scientific and other tools that would enable them to at least narrow the gap in power that had emerged between them and Europe and had led to their domination by the Europeans. The result was the infiltration and spread of European ideas of rationalism, secularism, nationalism, constitutionalism, and above all, progress. Meanwhile, reforms in educational systems of Muslim countries and in general the expansion of education created significant cultural shifts in the society. However, since different segments of society were affected by these reforms to varying degrees, these shifts had led to the fragmentation of the cultural unity of Muslim societies. The shifts also led to the emergence of a gap between a still-limited Europeanized and secular elite and the majority of the population, which had remained religious and traditional. Despite several decades of development, this cultural divide has not disappeared, as evidenced by the glaring secular-religious divide apparent in the Arab Spring uprisings.
Educational and other reforms, meanwhile, also resulted in a degree of economic development and the emergence new professional and industrial working classes. An early consequence of the modernization and development process was that the economic and social position of the religious and traditional classes eroded and further deepened the secular-religious divide. On the political front, by the mid-20th century, at least the outward forms of European constitutional systems were adopted in those Muslim countries that had gained their independence from the colonial powers.
From the mid-19th century to the 1940s, the Muslim World's main inspiration was Western Europe. However, by the 1940s, socialist ideas, especially from the Soviet Union, had also gained currency in the Muslim countries. Moreover, the victory of the Bolshevik Revolution (the Russian Revolution of 1917), and later the communist victoties in China and Cuba, had popularized the concept of revolution as a vehicle for rapid change and progress among Arab/Muslim intellectual elites and the new professional and working classes. In the Arab World, the influence of socialist ideas had led to the development of local variants such as Arab socialism (best embodied by Egypt's President Gamal Abdel Nasser) and Baathism (such as that of Syria's Baath Party); and by the 1950s had resulted in revolutions in Egypt and Iraq, and later in Syria and Libya.
Since the beginning of their reform movement, and especially since the late 1940s when development became the main focus of Muslim countries' peoples and governments, the Islamic World has made significant progress in many areas. However, the level of most Muslim countries' development has not been sufficient to meet the rising expectations and aspirations of their peoples. More seriously, the fruits of whatever development has been achieved have been unevenly distributed among various segments of the population, which has led to the growing socioeconomic gap.
Meanwhile, the process of modernization and development, most notably advances in education, have led to what in the development literature is referred to as the phenomenon of rising expectations. Middle Eastern populations expected that after decades of development their conditions should have been improved much more than it has, and the socioeconomic gap narrowed instead of widening. The fact that in many places the overall conditions had somewhat improved was not sufficient.
A very important consequence of this discrepancy between the level of people's expectations and government performance was that by the early 1970s the ideas connected with various developmentalist projects—be they of free-market or socialist type—had lost their validity in the eyes of a large part of Middle Eastern populations. This disappointment in turn created a need for a new discourse for dealing with the manifold socioeconomic and other problems of the Arab and Islamic countries.
In view of the important place of Islam in the Arab/Muslim peoples' identity and culture, it is not surprising that when disillusioned by the results of development projects based on foreign ideologies, Muslims tried to find a model suited to their indigenous cultures and turned to Islam for guidance. Consequently, a number of Muslim intellectuals and political activists began to look to Islam to provide them with a road map to chart the Muslim countries' path to socioeconomic development, social justice, and fair governance.
The result of this endeavor was the emergence of what has been called political Islam. However, the term ideological Islam would be more apt, since in the process of creating a discourse based on Islam, Muslim intellectuals turned Islam into an ideology. This transformation of Islam into political ideology was a direct result of the process of modernization, especially the expansion of education and Muslim intellectuals coming into contact with various Western ideas, most notably socialism. Intellectuals such as Seyyed Muhammad Qutub of Egypt and Ali Shariati of Iran developed their ideas under the influence of Marxism. They both had studied (Shariati) or spent time in Europe and the United States (Qutub), and were well acquainted with Western ideas.
Political Islam was also the discourse of those elements of the society that had remained traditional and religious despite undergoing secular education, but felt politically marginalized and inadequately rewarded by the existing systems. Rashid Ghannushi, the founder of Tunisia's Al Nahda party, is a good example of such Islamist intellectual and political activists. However, with the exception of the Persian, non-Arab Iran—where the Islamic Revolution succeeded and led to the establishment of an Islamic government—Islamist forces were kept in check in the Arab countries. But for three decades, the Islamists constituted the main opposition to the existing regimes. Now, in those countries where the old regimes have fallen, these forces are competing with secular forces for the control of the levers of power and the shaping of their society's future.
The Islamist movement has always had different local varieties reflecting the peculiarities of various countries. For example, Tunisia's Islamist movement was different from that of Morocco or Egypt, while also sharing common features. In the last 15 years, however, the movement has also developed varieties based on their interpretation of Islam. This has given rise to what is variously referred to as liberal Islam or reformist Islam. Reformist Islam is an effort to synthesize Islam and Western liberal ideology and try to make Islam compatible with notions of democracy and closer to the international understanding of human rights. Then there are moderate conservative Islamists, best represented by the Muslim Brotherhood. Meanwhile, a new restrictive and literalist form of Islam often referred to as Salafist has also emerged, largely under the influences emanating form Saudi Arabia. During the Arab Spring, and especially after the fall of the Arab regimes, this strain of Islamist discourse has also been competing with other Islamist and secular forces.
The events known as the Arab Spring are a consequence of the difficult and often-interrupted process of development and modernization that the Arab/Muslim countries have undergone for more than a century. During this process, which began as a result of Western colonization of the Arab World, many foreign ideas, ranging from nationalism to liberal democracy and socialism—plus Islam as the cornerstone of Arab identity and culture—have informed the Arab peoples' efforts to develop their societies and to improve their own living conditions. In the process, many of the basic ideas relating to the right to a decent life, and to social justice and basic civil and political rights (including the right to have a say in the running of their societies) have developed a strong foundation in the Arab countries. Sometimes these rights are claimed on the basis of some foreign ideology or political philosophy, and at other times on the basis of Islam's own principles. The important point is that these ideas have grown deep roots in the Arab soil.
However, these societies still lack the institutional mechanisms to achieve these goals. Moreover, cultural and ideological differences within these countries are causing difficulties in reaching agreement on goals and the means of achieving them. In addition, other ethnic and sectarian divisions, some the result of the Arab World's colonial past, further complicate the creation of democratic institutions and practices.
Lastly, most Arab states are still subject to external regional and international influences trying to shape their evolution and that of the broader region, according to their own preferences. One example of this is the NATO intervention in Libya, the Saudi intervention in Bahrain, and Saudi, Iranian, Turkish, Qatari, and Western intervention in the Syrian conflict. In the process, these interventions only deepen the Arab World's already existing divides. In short, the Arab Spring is unlikely to result in stable, just, and democratic societies any time soon. On the contrary, if the turmoil in Arab societies continues, nostalgia for order might turn the clock back and result in the emergence of new authoritarian systems of government of either secular or Islamist variety, and in this way perpetuate the cycle of dictatorship and rebellion in the Arab World.
 The origins of the term Arab Spring refers to the liberalizing movement in 1968 in Czechoslovakia known as the Prague Spring.
 Chris Stephen, "After Gaddafi, Libya Splits into Disparate Militia Zones," The Guardian/ The Observer, June 9, 2012 at:
www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jun/10/Libya-splits-between-militias; also, Steve Hendrix, "Post-Gaddafi Libya Confronts Its Diversity," The Washington Post, March 31, 2012; also, Justin Hyatt, "The Secular Fret in New Tunisia," Global Issues, November 26, 2012, at:
 Christopher Alexander, "Suspicion and Strategy in Free Tunisia," The Middle East Channel, January 20, 2012 at: http://www.mideast.foreignpolicy.co/posts/2011/06/20/suspicion_and_strategy_in_free_tunisia
 For a list of secular parties in Tunisia see: Noha El Hennawy, "Tunisia's Islamist-Secular Divide Gives a New Meaning to the Battle," Egypt Independent, February 5, 2013, at: http://www.egyptindpendent.com/news/tunisia-s-islamist-secular-divide-gives-a-new-meaning-to-the-battle
 Robert Sibley, "Arab Spring Not Islamist Uprising, Says Muslim Intellectual," Islam Today, July 20, 2011 at: http://www.islamtoday.org/eng/Islam/996.article.htm; also, Ahmad Bakhshi, "The Arab Spring Is an Islamic Uprising," Mehr News Agency, February 4, 2011 at: http://www.mehrnews.com/NewsPrint.aspx?NewsID=1525574
 Samir Khalil Samir, "Unfinished: The Arab Spring's Islamic Winter," Asia News.it, June 12, 2012 at: http://www.asianews.it/index.php?1=en&art=26560&size=A#, the author identifies the main impetus to the Arab Spring the peoples desire for "…bread, work and dignity."
 See: Shireen T. Hunter and Huma Malik (eds.), Islam and Human Rights: Advancing a U.S.-Muslim Dialogue, Washington, D.C.: Center For Strategic and International Studies, 2005.
 For a discussion of these issues see among others: Shireen T. Hunter and Huma Malik (eds.), Modernization, Democracy And Islam, Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005; also, Shireen T. Hunter (ed.), Reformist Voices of Islam: Mediating Islam and Modernity, Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe Inc., 2008, pp. 6–17.
 For examples of this phenomenon see various chapters in Shireen T. Hunter, The Politics of Islamic Revivalism: Diversity and Unity, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1988.
 The idea of revolution, however was not totally alien to earlier generation of Arab/Muslim elites. In the 19th century and the early 20th century, Muslim intellectuals seeking constitutional governments were inspired by the ideas of the French Revolution. This was especially the case with Iran's 1905 Constitutional Revolution.
 See the chapter by Norma Salem on Tunisia in The Politics of Islamic Revivalism.
 See: Reformist Voices of Islam: Mediating Islam and Modernity.
*Shireen T. Hunter is Visiting Professor at the Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding of Georgetown University in Washington DC, United States. She is also a distinguished scholar (non-resident) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC.
Source: ABC-CLIO's World History: The Modern Era Website
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*Politics Fuels A Rising Sectarian Fire: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Politics-Fuels-A-Rising-Sectarian-Fire.htm
*Middle East Uprisings: Impact on US Regional Influence: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Middle_East_Uprisings_Impact_on_US_Regional_Influence_2.htm
*These views represent those of the author and are not necessarily Iran Review's viewpoints.