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The Arab Awakening

Anthony McRoy

Tariq Ramadan
Allen Lane, 709pp

The Arab Spring (or 'Awakening', as Ramadan calls it) took everyone by surprise - politicians, diplomats and academics alike. Even if analysts felt that sooner or later the pseudo-monarchic and presidential dictatorships that litter the Arab world would disappear, no one prophesied it would happen in 2011, and  nobody foresaw that sleepy Tunisia of all places would see the most tumultuous event of the 21st-century Middle East (so far!). The whole region has been turned upside down, and Western (and for that matter, Russian and Iranian) policy in the Middle East has entered uncharted waters. Rather more predictably, the Awakening has led to electoral successes for Islamist parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood (the Ikhwan) in the wake of the revolutions, notably in Tunisia itself and in Egypt (although they were beaten in Libya). Ramadan, being the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Ikhwan, as well as a leading Western Muslim scholar, has some unique insights to offer on the events that so amazed viewers.

Ramadan's writings are often dense, and can be hard to follow. But The Arab Awakening is interesting, even if one disagrees with some of his points. Any analysis of the Arab Spring it still in its infancy: not only in Syria and Bahrain, but even in Egypt, Jordan and Morocco, the revolution is unfinished. Britain and the US took many years to develop into liberal democracies after their revolutions (1688 and 1776-83), and we should not expect the Arab world to be able to overcome all its internal and external barriers in a matter of months.
Arguably, Ramadan's most controversial claim is that the uprisings were at least partly the result of a conscious decision around 2003 to encourage and train Arab cyber-dissidents, notably in Serbia, the Caucasus and the US. There may be some mileage in this, but when one considers the clearly shocked reaction of virtually every government in the world to the uprisings, together with the obviously cautious US reaction to the protests in Egypt and Bahrain, it is difficult to see any Western involvement as other than peripheral. Moreover, the modern generation seems very savvy in regard to social media, so one wonders if they need much training on the issue. Rather, everything points to the largely spontaneous nature of the uprisings.

One important contribution Ramadan makes is to refute the idea that these events are 'Islamic revolutions', after the pattern of Iran's revolution of 1979. Ramadan is emphatic: 'The Arab awakening has clearly not been the work of Islamist movements. Neither in Tunisia or Egypt, nor in Jordan, Libya or Syria were they the initiators'. Indeed, members of such groups participated in the uprisings often against the will of their leaders. This did not stop the usual informal coalition of anti-Arab racists, Islamophobes and those whose first concern is US interests from identifying the uprisings in this way, and like the Israeli government, supporting Mubarak. Ramadan notes that the Copts were a 'highly visible' minority in Tahrir Square, Confirming that these were not religious uprisings.

However, Ramadan should have observed at this point that the US and Israel had their mirror-image in Iran. Just as the US was equivocal about the overthrow of the regime in Egypt, Iran, whilst lauding the protests as 'Islamic Awakenings' in most countries, was likewise restrained about its treatment of the protests in Syria. Both US and Iran seem hypocritical in their respective treatments of the uprisings in Syria and Bahrain. Similarly, Shia Islamists have been equivocal about Syria, whilst many Sunni Islamists have been hostile to the Bahraini uprising. Ironically, it is the democratic Islamist Turkish government that has had the most balanced approach, and Ramadan frequently presents this government as a model for the Arabs.

The Arab awakening spread by 'contagion' if we employ that word in a neutral sense. First, came the suicide of the young Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi against the political and economic oppression of the Ben Ali regime, and then - again giving the lie to the idea that Arab women are mere ciphers - a young Egyptian activist called Asmaa Mahfouz 'posted a YouTube video in which she spoke of the victory of the Tunisians over Ben Ali and called upon Egyptians to follow suit'. She put this into practice by protesting in  Tahrir Square, and the rest is history. The close US links with Egypt and its central role in Washington policy caused America to 'dither'. This makes the victory of popular non-violent resistance all the more startling.

However, as Ramadan observes, it was not all plain-sailing. The revolution in Libya was viciously resisted, leading to NATO intervention, and the same state violence has been present in Syria and Bahrain. Ramadan is dismissive of the Assad regime - which he says 'plays the role of a useful regional enemy for Israel: it keeps opposition under tight control... and uses violent rhetoric while never taking any action'. If and when Assad falls, it will be interesting to see what regional policy its successor government follows. The West's non-reaction to the Saudi-led crackdown of Bahrain dissent is noted: of course, the US has an important base there, and fears the consequence of democracy - i.e. that the Shia majority will be pro-Iran. It also fears 'contagion' in the Gulf monarchies.

Although most people equate the Arab Spring with the events of the Collapse of Communism, in many ways a better analogy would be with the 1848 liberal and nationalist revolutions that ultimately failed because of inter-ethnic rivalries, ideological divisons, or simple repression. Ultimately, however, in some form, within about 20 years, the main aims of the revolutionaries were successful in several cases.

Will Saudi Arabia - the key player in the Arabian Gulf and a lynchpin of US policy - be able to resist the democratic trend, or will what happened in Europe after 1848 reproduce itself? It was able to resist Nasserite secular pan-Arabism by playing the religious card, and Iranian revolutionary Islamism by playing the Sunni-Shia card. Given the existence of Al-Jazeera, and the social media in general, can it cocoon itself for long with a mixture of Wahhabi rhetoric and economic bribes, or will its cards be finally trumped? As Saudi citizens see their Arab brethren decide their lives in genuine elections, and enjoy national independence, can the regime perpetually forestall 'contagion'? This is one area to which Ramadan devotes insufficient attention. If the region's largest oil-producing state, with the added religious prestige of Mecca and Medina falls to a democratic revolution, where does that leave Western policy in the region, other than in the dustbin of history? Perhaps the most dramatic events in the Arab Awakening await their climactic Last Act.

Anthony McRoy