By Abdelhafidh Abdeleli and Frédéric Burnand
A year after the fall of Ben Ali in Tunisia, analysts warn that political divides have increased in the Middle East and a successful transition faces major challenges.
In the past few months, voting has taken place in both Tunisia and Egypt. In Tunisia, the moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, banned under Ben Ali, won the most seats in the Constituent Assembly, which is to draw up a new constitution.
Elections to Egypt’s new national assembly were held in three stages from November to January and have seen Islamist parties winning about 70 per cent of the vote.
After the euphoria with which the uprisings were greeted in the West – and the hope for change they generated even beyond the Arab world – many people are now wondering what kind of change the Arab Spring really ushered in.
Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, head of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Geneva Center for Security Policy and a former foreign minister of Mauritania, told swissinfo.ch it was easy to lose sight of what had actually happened.
“In the space of a few weeks and throughout the region we saw the basic nature of the relationship between state and society in North Africa and the Middle East completely reshaped,” he said.
But he added that the revolts in each country – Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria – were in fact different in nature and were playing out differently.
Nevertheless, the common theme to all is that they were “human rights revolutions”.
“Authoritarianism always runs into an impasse when its repressive mechanisms find the average citizen is in revolt against them not out of tactical political considerations, but simply because he is worried about his very survival.”
But Mohamedou warned that the transition to a society where the ideas of “dignity, liberty and justice” were truly implemented would not be easy and “will demand a lot of hard work”.
Patrick Haenni, a researcher at the Religioscope Institute in Fribourg, who has been studying Islamist movements on the ground for many years, told swissinfo.ch that over the past year political divides had increased in the countries that had got rid of their dictators.
“In Tunisia and in Egypt, there is first and foremost a divide between revolutionaries calling for a radical change in the institutions and a more conservative camp – which brings together the Muslim Brothers, remnants of the old regime and, in general, the army – that wants to see a certain continuity in the institutions,” he explained.
He added that political movements were changing very quickly as they came up against the practical issues of power.
“It’s hardly possible to support the economy and tourism in Egypt or Tunisia if you have a morals police on the beaches or ban the sale of alcohol, as certain Salafist circles are proposing,” he said.
“Today’s political Islam will sometimes have to make compromises between respecting a certain dogma and the demands of good economic governance.
The [Muslim] Brothers have chosen to present themselves as supporters of efficiency and good governance, and they know that this implies making concessions. They know they will be judged by what they do.”
For his part, Mohamedou pointed out that the parties which won the elections were “organised openly and conducted their campaigns in a competitive and multi-party framework”.
“Voting was transparent and took place in the presence of international observers,” he said. “And voters plumped for the Islamist parties in full knowledge of what they were doing.”
He said the Islamist parties now had to prove themselves and continue to respect the democratic game.
“This will make it possible for the civic system to mature – and for citizens to learn what it means – but it will then also be possible to get beyond the Islamist bogeyman which different sides have capitalised on.”
The Islamist “bogeyman” has been worrying many in the West, who have followed the results of the elections with dismay. But for Mohamedou this smacks of hypocrisy and is asking for trouble.
“If you attribute opinions to [voters] that they don’t actually hold, you are in fact being intolerant in the name of tolerance,” he said.
“And if you get enthusiastic about the democratisation process south of the Mediterranean only as long as it produces results that are clones of Western democracies, you are perpetuating the same patronising attitude which enabled the authoritarianism which predominated in the region to last so long.”
He says the Arab Spring was essentially about local conditions, but the cosy relationship between the former regimes and the West was one of the things that sparked protestors’ anger. The two sides must now redefine their relations, respecting each other’s legitimate interests.
Haenni said the so-called “Western fear” of Islamism needed to be examined more cautiously.
“For one thing, the Western camp is itself divided in the face of Islamism. Fear isn’t the only attitude and you find some political circles which are inclined to test the Islamists, see how they cope in practice with being in power,” he said.
“And then, it’s not only in the West that the fear exists. Islamists worry some of the people and the elites in Arab countries too.”
He pointed out apparent contradictions, for example in the position of women: they were very active in the revolutions, and yet more and more of them are wearing the Islamic veil. At the same time they are becoming freer to choose their husbands or to hold positions of responsibility.
He said Arab societies were modernising faster than people think, and religious parties were also involved.
“That said, the question of individual freedoms will be one of the next great debates in the Arab world. Such issues as conversions and the fate of religious minorities are going to arise,” he believed.
“The Islamists are in favour of democracy but against liberalism, if this is understood as extending public and religious freedoms. That is the front where there will be tensions with the West in the years to come.”
(Adapted from French by Julia Slater)