Is this really an Arab Spring and if so what does it mean?

The latest issue of Survival (April – May 2011), the bimonthly journal of The International Institute for Strategic Studies, has a cluster of interesting articles addressing this question.

The short answer is – yes this is an Arab Spring and the implications will be significant.

The impact of global warming is considered noting that in Egypt families spend on average 40% of their income on food, with food price inflation running at approximately 20%. Unfortunately these pressures are likely to continue-placing a significant pressure on both new and existing Arab governments. “Global warming may not have caused the Arab Spring, but it may have made it come earlier.”[Global Warming and the Arab Spring, Sarah Johnstone and Jeffrey Mazo.]

Some contributors note that, as set out in my brief article on why Al Qaeda has been almost non-existent in the Arab awakening, the appeal of militant Islamism (such as that of Al Qaeda) has weakened, while that of political Islamism has increased. This is not a surprising conclusion for those who have studied recent Pew Global Attitudes Surveys. It is clear that one of the models that many Arab protesters look to is that of Turkey, whose current government party, the Justice and Development Party has roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, which is represented throughout the Arab world.

The “Closing Argument” in the journal, Notes from Tahrir Square, by Mamoun Fandy highlights some Western misconceptions about the Arab Spring, and suggests some limits to it. Fancy identifies three Western fallacies.

1. Islamism playing a decisive role:

He saw no evidence of this in Egypt. However, he states that the Muslim Brotherhood will fill any vacuum left by secular forces, and that it has the most effective organisation in the country, after the Egyptian army.

2. Stability, particularly in the major cities, would continue under the existing regimes:

Fandy notes that the revolt started in a small Tunisian town and that the strongest protests and backbone of the revolution in Egypt were in outlying towns such as Suez and Alexandria.

3. That regime stability could be determined by economic and educational indicators:

outside the Gulf States Tunisia registered the healthiest development indicators.  “It was not unemployment and lack of education that drove protesters”.

The limits to this Arab Spring will probably be hit in the tribal societies in Libya, Yemen and Bahrain, says Fandy. These countries may follow the Sudan model, which led to disintegration of the state rather than regime change. The same could turn out to be true in the Yemen and with Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. Despite that Fandy is surely correct when he says “Tahrir Square was the arena where the camel met Facebook, and Facebook won.  In the rest of the Arab world, it might not win as decisively, but the train taking the Arabs to join the 21st century has left the station”.

Syria is a unique case. The Assad regime in power there comprises an Alawite minority of 12% of the population, with the overwhelming bulk of the population being Sunni Arabs. The Alawites are a Shi’ite sect which many Muslims, both Shi’ite and Sunni, view as not proper Muslims. In 1982 the regime put down a Sunni uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of  Hama, killing an estimated 25,000 people. The nature of the regime, still in power, can be understood very simply from the fact that when that slaughter was over the regime went out of its way to overstate the number of those killed to intimidate the vast majority of the population. There will be no easy answer for Syria.

The Sunni Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Syria has been described by Ayman al-Zawahiri, ideological chief of Al Qaeda, as the first real militant struggle in Al Qaeda’s campaign. That campaign is said to have started by al-Zawahiri on the death of Sayyid Qutb. This journal is the latest publication to feature a review essay  by me on Sayyid Qutb, the godfather of Islamic terrorism, www.iiss.org/publications/survival/. The Winter 2010 edition of the quarterly review  Studies also published an article by me on Qutb, www.studiesirishreview.ie.

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