DYER: About the Arab Autumn
The “Arab Spring” was fast and dramatic.
Non-violent revolutions in the streets removed dictators in Tunisia and Egypt in a matter of weeks, while similar revolutions got underway in Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen.
The Arab Autumn is a much slower and messier affair; however, despite the carnage in Syria and the turbulent run-up to Egypt’s first democratic elections, the signs are still positive.
Demonstrators in Bahrain were driven from the streets by massive military force and Libya’s revolution only triumphed after Western military intervention in support of the rebels.
In Syria and Yemen, originally non-violent protests risk tipping into civil wars.
But, there is still more good news than bad.
In October, Tunisia held its first-ever free election and produced a coalition government that is broadly acceptable to most Tunisians.
Some worry the leading role the local Islamic party, Ennahda, gained in the new government bodes ill for one of the Arab world’s more secular societies, but Ennahda’s leaders promise to respect the rights of less-religious Tunisians — and there is no reason not to believe them.
Last weekend, elections in Morocco produced a similar result, with the main Islamic party, the Justice and Development Party, gaining the largest share of the votes, but not an absolute majority.
It will doubtless play a leading role in the new government, but it will not seek to impose its views and values on everybody else.
This Moroccan party took its name from the ruling Justice and Development (AK) party in Turkey, an Islamic party that has won three elections in a row and presided over the fastest economic growth in Turkey’s history.
Like the AK Party, the Moroccan version is socially conservative, pro-free market and fully obedient to the secular constitution.
These parties are “Muslim Democrats”, as one AK Party member in Turkey put it, comparing them to the Christian Democratic parties of Western Europe.
They have nothing to do with radical Islamist groups like al-Qaeda.
They are simply the natural repository for the votes of conservative people in a Muslim society, just as the Republican Party automatically gets the votes of most Christian conservatives in the United States.
There was no revolution in Morocco.
The new constitution approved by referendum in July was an attempt by King Mohamed VI to get ahead of the demands for more democracy that are sweeping the Arab world.
It obliges the king to choose the prime minister from the party that wins the most seats in parliament, rather than just naming whomever he pleases, and restricts his freedom of action in several other ways.
Similar changes are underway in Jordan, where King Abdullah II is also trying to ward off more radical demands for reform.
And, even the deeply conservative monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula all supported the Arab League’s decision last weekend to impose sanctions against the brutal Assad regime in Syria, including an asset freeze and an embargo on investments.
Syria may yet drift into civil war, but its fellow Arab states are taking their responsibilities seriously as only two Arab countries voted against the sanctions.
Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, resigned on Nov. 23 after months of prevarication and 33 years in power, giving that country at least a chance of making progress toward a democratic future.
Egypt, by far the biggest Arab country, this week sees the start of Parliamentary elections that will roll across the country, region by region, until early January.
Demonstrators have re-occupied Tahrir Square in Cairo, claiming the army wants to hold on to power, but things are not quite what they seem.
The army has already conceded the new president should be elected by next June rather than six months later, but the demonstrations on the square were not really about that.
They were an attempt to force the postponement of parliamentary elections.
The newly formed liberal and secular parties tacitly back the demonstrators because they fear the Muslim Brotherhood will win these elections.
It may well do so, because it continued to operate in a semi-underground way during the Mubarak dictatorship while the old liberal parties just faded away.
But, the fact some parties are not as ready as others for the elections is not an excuse to postpone them as Egypt urgently needs an elected government.
It will soon have one and, if the Muslim Brotherhood plays a major role in it, why not?
It has long outgrown its original radicalism and you can’t postpone democracy forever just because you don’t fully trust your fellow citizens.
That leaves Bahrain, the one Arab country where the Arab Spring was comprehensively crushed.
However, in Bahrain last week, the king received the report of an independent commission, which concluded there was no Iranian plot behind the demonstrations and that many detainees had been “blindfolded, whipped, kicked, given electric shocks and threatened with rape to extract confessions.”
Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa expressed “dismay” at the findings and vowed that “those painful events won’t be repeated.”
That may be a little disingenuous, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.
Bringing democracy and the rule of law to the Arab world was always going to be a difficult and tortuous process, but progress is being made on many fronts.
Gwynne Dyer’s columns appear in publications in 45 countries. His website can be found here.