Ideological Power Struggle

Monday, March 4, 2013

 Pir-Mohammad Mollazehi
Expert on Pakistan and Afghanistan Issues

A cursory glance at what is happening in the Arab world would make an analyst conclude that a certain form of ideological war over power is going on in this region. It is still too early to pass a judgment on the final outcome of this war. However, the political, social and cultural inflammation which has shaken the entire Arab world is apparently still a long distance away from a point of balance. Three main areas in the Arab world should be considered separately whose developments should be analyzed in the light of the upheaval which is known as the Arab Spring. Those areas include:

1. North Africa or Arab Maghreb;

2. North of the Arabian Peninsula, including Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Hashemite Jordan; and

3. The Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman.

Each and every one of these areas within the geographical expanse of the Arab world has, at least so far, shown different reactions to the Arab Spring. The main center of change where the Arab Spring developments began was located in North Africa, and more specifically, in Tunisia. It rapidly moved to engulf Libya and Egypt. The gravity center of the change still remains in North Africa and it is this region which can determine the future outlook of the power structure in the Arab world. Taking into account that two major terms have been so far used to describe revolutionary movements in the Arab world, it would not be difficult to understand why these two terms have been used. The Arab Spring and the Islamic Awakening are two terms which have been used most frequently to describe the developments in the Arab world, each of which has its own specific meaning. The dichotomy embedded in these terms indicates that there are ideological lines along which Arab and Islamic societies have been divided. This is also indicative of the existence of two different worldviews which are the basis of ideologies adhered by two different political spectra in the existing Arab societies. Every one of those spectra has its own understanding of revolution and revolutionary movements. They also contemplate different plans for future political, social, cultural and economic systems in the Arab societies which are inspired by the worldviews underlying their ideas. Under such circumstances, it is conceivable that the ideological grouping in the Arab world will relatively take shape around two major axes:

1. The Islamist faction; and

2. The secular and liberal faction.

The Islamist faction consists of two main tendencies. The moderate faction is represented by the Muslim Brotherhood while the radical and jihadist faction is more inspired by the ideas of Sayyid Qutb and has its own special understanding of jihad. The secular and liberal faction in the Arab world relied on Arab nationalism and a form of quasi-socialism in the past. Now, it has adopted a positive approach to the Western world and believes that by cooperating with the United States and Europe, it can secure its hold on power. Therefore, its slogans are in tune with the West’s expectations and focus on such issues as the human rights, democracy and citizenship rights regardless of gender, ethnicity, and religion. In this way, they want to have the support of the West behind their plans. However, the mainstay of this faction lacks powerful popular basis in order to give it complete legitimacy in the eyes of the Arab masses. It is exactly for this reason that this faction believes it has been wronged by the moderate Islamist faction, and is putting up severe resistance against it. A large part of the ongoing unrest in the Arab countries results from the reality that the Islamist and secular factions have not been able to get along and achieve some sort of balance between them. Both sides are trying to exercise their own version of power monopoly. Therefore, they are neither able to totally monopolize the power through the ballot boxes and democratic means, nor are they ready to transfer part of their power to the rival faction. As a result, the unrest and street protests by their supporters have been going on.

At least, in the Arab Maghreb, the ideological power struggle has so far prevented the newly elected governments of Tunisia and Egypt to establish their power and has put Tunisia on a course after the assassination of an opposition leader that the Islamist government has been forced to resign. Of course, the Ennahda Movement, as the main ideological current whose ideas are similar to the Muslim Brotherhood, is still loyal to protecting the integrity of the power which has been born out of democratic elections. As a result, the resignation of the government and prime minister has had no major impact on the political determination of the Ennahda Movement for maintaining power. However, the Ennahda Movement has so far failed to come up with a clear plan for running the domestic and foreign affairs of Tunisia. The country’s economy, which greatly depends on the tourism industry, has been badly damaged and disillusionment is soaring among the generation which has conducted the revolution, but sees no sign of the change in life and expectations that they wished to be met. The situation in Egypt is more or less similar to Tunisia and the Al-Tahrir (Liberation) Square has been frequently the scene of street demonstrations by protesters who believe that the revolution has given nothing to them.

In the north of the Arabian Peninsula where political developments revolve around Syria, the ideological crisis has been taking a more acute turn. The power struggle there has developed into destructive ethnic and religious dimensions. This has provided radical jihadist forces with a historical opportunity to derail the efforts, which are aimed at power shift, from its natural course and take the situation toward an all-out religious and ethnic conflict which currently involves Alawite Shias and Sunni Arabs as well as the Kurdish, Druze and Christian minorities. Such conflicts have a high potential for rapid spread to neighboring countries like Lebanon and Iraq. If a rational solution is not found for them, continuation of such ethnic and religious conflicts will not only derail the Islamic Awakening and Arab Spring developments, but totally obliterate them. In addition, the jihadist forces close to Al-Qaeda have come together in the form of Al-Nusra Front and have gotten Syria engaged in a destructive civil war. The same forces are also able to spread their religious and ethnic war to the entire region and even get non-Arab countries engaged in it. It goes without saying that having such a capacity, they can spread the ethnic and religious war to the entire Persian Gulf region and replace the Arab Spring with an early Arab Fall.

In view of these realities, one may note that the ideological power challenge in the Arab world is more widespread and more dangerous than may seem on the surface. As a result of this challenge, on the one hand, the Western-minded secular and liberal front is pitted against both the moderate Islamists and the radical jihadist forces which are close to Al-Qaeda. On the other hand, there is also a confrontation going on between the moderate and radical Islamist figures. In the meantime, the supporters of the past regime are waiting for their chance to rebuild their lost or shaking power by taking advantage of the current sectarian strife.

The fact that the Arab countries where revolutionary movements have apparently achieved their goals are still entangled in political turmoil while other countries are restlessly awaiting the wave of the Arab Spring or the Islamic Awakening, is the result of ideological fragmentation in Arab societies. As a result of that fragmentation new forces arising from revolutionary movements have not been able to overcome the temptation to monopolize the power using ideological grounds as the excuse. As long as the Arab world has not achieved a common understanding of power, the political and social turmoil will be inevitable. Also, as long as the hectic atmosphere of revolution is still in place, the jihadist forces that have gained a lot of experience through the war in Afghanistan will find necessary room to show their power. The main risk, however, is that the Islamic Awakening or the Arab Spring may turn into ashes as the flames of the religious war between Shias and Sunnis rage on.

Key Words: Ideological Power Struggle, Arab world, Arab Spring, Islamic Awakening, Islamist Faction, Secular and Liberal faction, Ennahda, Al-Nusra

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