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June 28, 2022

Winter of Arab discontent?

The enthusiasm having embound the democratic world in early 2011, when what was going to be historically remembered as the Arab spring happened – understood as a ‘down-top’ effort for the democratisation of societies in the Arab array – has slowly burnt down. The peak of the systemically generalised enthusiasm was the end of 2011, when the unseating of authoritarian leadership of Arab countries such as Tunisia and especially Egypt looked like a predominant trend. But the first signs announcing the end of the democratic season were already there. We do not mean the rushed taming of the uprising in Saudi Arabia by a gold rain or the Shiite reprisals in Bahrain, but the survival of the Assad regime in Syria despite a massacre the authorities had embarked on despising the protests of the international community, yielding thousands of fatalities among the peaceful demonstrators. On the one hand, the international community has started to show more reluctance to intervene and protect peaceful protesters against the bloody authoritarianism of political leaders. On the other hand, the democratic exercise, or, in other words, the free elections, brought to the surface in countries where the Arab spring had been triumphant political forces with orientations calling for a very thorough interpretation within the general political process in the Arab region in the future. It is to this last aspect that we would like to refer starting from the results of the two recent polls: the presidential election in Egypt and the legislative election in Libya. First of all, as analysis have already noted, a feature of prime importance of the elections having taken place in the Arab spring states is that those societies are not at all monolithic entities, but actually vibrate to a broad range of political views ranging from secularist of various nuances to Islamists spanning a scale starting with extremist to moderate. For example, the July 7 election in Libya was a completion of 131 parties and political organisations. They proposed to the electorate a total of 2,500 candidates (over 600 of them being ladies) competing for 120 seats reserved for individuals (80 reserved for political parties). A rough calculation indicates an average of 40 political parties participating in elections in the Arab countries from Tunisia and Egypt to Libya.  Second of all, even if the Muslim account for 85 to 98 per cent of the population of Arab states, per se it does not mean an exclusive political orientation of an Islamic nature and the less so of an extremist nature. Nonetheless, what is evident and calls for a careful analysis of possible future developments is the emergence on the avant-scene of Arab politics of an organisation that was founded in Egypt, in 1928, developed on fundaments of social solidarity with religious roots – the Muslim Brotherhood – itself accommodating various schools of thinking ranging from the moderate and democratic Islamism developed by the Party of Justice and Development in Turkey to Salafite radicalism that can be singled out in Egypt, but not only. Of course, there are also secular trends in the Arab societies but, in contrast to Islamist ones, it seems they represent a minority. The true future trend is not necessarily the clash of secularism and Islamism, but the fight inside the latter between the moderate and religious exclusivists. If to this cocktail we also add military claims, (mainly in Egypt), or the strong foreign influences, especially by major Arab world actors (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran), but also by the international system in general (first of all the USA, but also the EU, Russia and China), we will get the landscape – surely incomplete – of the Arab political array in its post-Arab spring age. To be complete, such a landscape would need to consider, among other things, what those societies understand by democracy. Opinion polls conducted highlight that, to some of them, the priority is economic performance while for some other the consolidation of the democratic features of the society. According to such polls, most Tunisians, for instance, deem economic growth more important than democratic consolidation, the Lebanese support in majority the opposite and the Egyptians are equally divided between the two views.What distinguishes the Libyan election in the context of the previous ones is the fact that it seems to have been won (the vote count is not over yet) by a bloc of centrist and nationalist parties rather than by the Islamists. But this is not insurance for the future, as threats to state unity will depend on an agreement between the country’s two centres – Tripoli and Benghazi – as well as the new Government’s capability of controlling rival militias. There are commentators who say that one of the possible reasons behind the poor electoral performance of the Islamist in Libya – in contrast to the other countries where legislative elections had taken place – is the fact that they had announced even before the promulgation of a Constitution that they would base the state on the Islamic law (the Sharia).Therefore, if the legislative election in Tunisia and Egypt were won by the Islamist bloc – with various nuances from moderate to radicals – in Libya the process went the other way around. So does the Libyan election carry the significance of a reverse of trend?While the legislative election in Egypt was won by Islamist parties, the military opposition led to the suspension of the Parliament by the judiciary. The new president elected a month ago and representing the Muslim Brotherhood tried revitalising the suspended Parliament, but eventually he had to conform himself to the court judgement – a symbol of respect for the separation of powers. However, it is clear that the short and medium future is one dominated by the collision between the presidential power and the military force. The Egyptian case is illustrative of a massive trend recently registered in post-Arab spring societies, what Charles Krauthammer was calling in a recent feature ‘the Islamist ascendancy, likely to dominate Arab politics for a generation’. The fact that in Egypt this particular trend comes against the military resistance  – a force which, in democracy, is incompatible with the open or concealed immixture in the political game – is another indication that the Arab political area is headed for uncertainty and disturbance in the future. The result of the recent election in Libya – a particular case in the ensemble of Arab societies, one of its specificities being the very visible East-West division – cannot be the sign of a reversibility of this trend. In post-Assad Syria it is expected that religiously-founded political forces will become dominant, with powerful influences expected to stem for that on Lebanon and Jordan. This gives the Mideast high indexes of geopolitical volatility, knowing the orientations of those religious forces raising stakes in the political bout regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular and relations with the West or secularist views of their own societies in general. In this context, would we be right to say that the elections in Egypt and Libya suggest the installation of a different narrative in the Arab political space, like a ‘winter’ of bloody discontent we can expect to see sooner or later?

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