How the West sleepwalked into the political Islamification of the Middle East: A Catch 22
It is now a month since the first of the Arab League monitors entered Syria, but the killing, maiming, riots and suffering continue unabated. I did refer to the whole exercise as a complete farce, a charade and waste of time; in view of the composition of the team, which includes and is headed by a war lord from Somalia. With its credibility under suspicion by the very the people it is supposed to protect, I referred to the exercise as akin to asking “turkeys to vote for Christmas” in my previous article. The 165-strong mission’s mandate expired on Thursday but indications are that it may be extended; although there seems to be little appetite for such futility. If anything, the casualties have ironically increased. The unrest is now believed to have claimed over 5,000 lives at the last count, while the UN awaits the report from the monitoring group. The question is why has the West or better still the UN not intervened has as it did in Libya? (Photo: Abdulai Mansaray, author)
A cursory look at recent history and the unfolding work of the political architects might give us an indication of why the rest of the world is sitting on its hands. There have been some murmurings about the need for UN intervention, presumably similar to the one that was seen in Libya; the UN dressed in NATO attire. Notwithstanding the perennial objection from Russia and China, all indications are that there is a poor appetite for such military and political from the usual suspects. The West and especially Obama took a big gamble to intervene in Libya, especially at a time that the economies are in dire need of life. Secondly, Obama was busy reducing America’s involvement in Iraq, which was one of his cardinal election pledges; a good move for domestic consumption. To remove troops from Iraq and only to send them to Libya would have been politically suicidal. IF there was intervention, he would have been considered as weak; hence the intervention that was even considered as half hearted by his detractors. It is no wonder that Obama and his allies would have been mightily relieved that the intervention in Libya was relatively short lived, with no “American boots on Libyan soil” and no American lives lost.
The current situation in Syria is fundamentally different from all that had preceded it in the region. In Tunisia, the fondly known “Jasmine Revolution” did not start because the people wanted democracy. It started because of the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, the green grocer on the 17thDecember, 2010. There was no overt intervention in Tunisia and the rest is history. The wind of change became a political contagion that blew across the region; next stop Egypt. The will and courage of the people was borne out of desperation and the knowledge that the key to change is to let go of fear. Hence disobedience became the foundation of their liberty.
The scenario was slightly different in Egypt, as it did not have the spontaneity of Tunisia. Instead it was a matter of, “if it is good for Tunisia it must be good for Egypt. The domino effect was now at full pelt and was successfully carried out by “peaceful and unarmed civilians”. Mubarak fought dearly for his political life while his friends and allies in the West were re-writing their foreign policies. He was pressured to stand down, which he inevitably did albeit reluctantly. A new dawn was breaking and the political Rembrandts were having a new landscape to paint.
Libya took over the baton in the relay for political change. Like Tunisia and Egypt, it started with the civilians but quickly transformed into something else. Unlike the two, the origin of the Libyan version was largely regional, starting in Benghazi. It is an open secret that Tripoli as the seat of power and Benghazi have a historical detente. Added to the mix were and are the tribal affiliations and loyalties that had created political fault lines as far back as the Roman times. While in its embryonic stage, Gaddaffi may have seen the Libyan uprising as the perennial opposition to his rule. No wonder then that his attempt to put down the uprising was heavy handed. Unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, it was a mixture of unarmed protesters and armed insurrectionists. The battle was unsurprisingly bloody as both sides clamoured for power. In the eyes of the West, the opportunity to get rid of Gaddaffi once and for all could not have been better opportune. The political gymnastics that took place along the marbled corridors of the UN is for history to judge.
The situation cannot be more different in Syria. Not only does it have the ingredients of the previous uprisings but suggestions of Al-Qaeda involvement are becoming louder by the day. A deadly blast hit a police detainee van on Saturday, leaving at least 14 people dead. Such blasts appear to show the hall marks of Al-Qaeda, as suggested by some circles. Unlike Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the opposition in Syria is made up of civilians, the Free Syrian Army (“deserters”), the Syrian National Council and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, to name a few. In essence, there appears to be some unity in diversity; as many cooks seem to have their own recipe. In spite of their different nomenclature, they are all united in seeing the fall of President Assad’s regime. The irony is that there is an apparent unity in diversity here, which when thrown in the sectarian and secular-islamist divide will give rise to a different kettle of fish.
Compared to the other regimes that fell before it, Syrian is proving to be a thorn in the flesh for the Western powers. The situation in Syria is more complicated than meets the eye. It has always been described as the “Arab Spring”, “Arab Awakening” or “Arab Perestroika” (mine), but in reality, the tumultuous changes that have been taking place in the region have been nothing other than the “re-islamification of the Arab region” by default. It sounds like a contradiction in terms, to say that the Arab region is islamified; being an Islamic region in the first place.
Prior to this epoch making period, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and even Syria have been secular states; whereby other religions have co-existed in relative peace. Since the “dawning of an era” the Ennahda party won in the Tunisian elections recently, while Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood enjoyed a sweeping victory in the parliamentary elections with 47% of the seats. If the trend of these “democratic reforms are anything to go by, you cannot bet against the same in Libya when that time comes. This should be seen as a positive trend in the real world and the West would love to take all the credits and plaudits for getting its gospel across to its flock. That is at face value though, for like a duck on water, there are some rumblings taking place now and political paranoia is beginning to set in.
Now we see the dilemma facing the West and other non-Arab nations with varying interests in the region. Prior to the Arab spring, rulers like Mubarak, Gaddaffi, Ben Ali and even Assad had kept a tight rein on Islamic fundamentalism. These rulers had been political bed mates of the Western powers, who had propped them for so long with alms and arms. With the political stilts coming off, a new era is emerging in the name of democracy. A similar attempt was made in Palestinian territory in 2006. George Bush trumpeted the right to democratic rule in the region but refused to recognise Hamas after it won the legislative election. The political change taking place now is regional and with consequences for all the stakeholders, active participants and even observers. It will be irresponsible to infer or state that the region will be overrun by Islamists or Islamic fundamentalism. That is the fear that may be coursing through some political veins of thought at the moment, as the political parties that carry Islamic adjectives seem to triumph. But in their quiet moments, some of the proponents who, in various ways contributed to the whole change phenomenon, may be wondering whether they have just sleep-walked into the islamification of the whole region.
It is plausibly seen by some critics that it this “unintended outcome” that has given cause for a pause and the reason for the lukewarm response that the West is giving to the Syrian situation. Has this been a time to reflect on what has gone before? With its secular-islamist and sectarian divide as the background, it is easy to see how the complex configuration of the opposition is bound to throw the cat among the pigeons in Syria. In the meantime, the West has continued drumming for more sanctions to be levied on the regime but as we all know, sanctions only strengthen the state and weaken the people.
This is an election year in America and Obama would rather see the unemployment figures fizzle away than embark on another foreign intervention. The West seems currently constipated with intervention as the Euro zone struggles with keeping its member states under one church. The withdrawal of forces from Iraq may have given a welcome breather to the purse strings, but the currencies refuse to be resuscitated. The efforts to sub-contract the solution to the Arab League have been riddled with failure from the start. It is one thing to ask the Arabs to find an Arab solution to an Arab problem, but it is ironical that the same issues are raised and have been raised in the same member countries. Situations in these member states are not that dissimilar in terms. Many see the Arab League’s mandate to mediate in Syria like asking foxes to vote for the welfare of the poultry brethren. There are some of them who are well meaning in bringing the situation under control, but hypocrisy comes to mind.
The rise of the political “islamification” in the region may have come as a surprise to many but there is a dichotomy between religion and politics in the region; in spite of their symbiotic existence. The uprisings in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt may be officially over but there is a lot of smoke spewing from the embers of these “revolutions”. There a commonly and popularly held fallacy that the revolutions and uprisings in these regions were as a result of the fervent desire for democratic change. There is no question that the people were constipated with autocratic and despotic rule of their leaders. The absence of free and fair elections, human rights abuses and the non existence of the rule of law have all combined to suffocate the social and political life out of the people. But widespread poverty, poor standards of living and mass unemployment were the driving factors which got lost in the euphoria. Under such conditions, desperation and destitution become a lethal mix; hence the revolutionary nature of the changes we have seen in the region. The default notion that a change in the driver will take the vehicle in another direction became a dream worth fighting and dying for. Political change became inevitable; but with these changes has come utopian dreams.
Elections have just been held in Egypt but some see the reforms as painfully slow. A minority of protesters against military rulers in Tahrir Square are now castigated as criminals by a conflict weary population; who just want to be able to put bread on the table. In Libya, there is a growing sense of disillusion from some sections of the populace, especially the militants who fought against Gaddaffi and his regime. In Tunisia, the picture is the same even after a year. The common denominator in these countries is that reality has started setting in. The revolutions were euphoric and the expectations have become utopian. The majority expect instant changes in their lives, and it is such expectations that highlight the precarious nature of peace in the region… Majority want to see changes in their pay packets and refrigerators.
There are a lot of misguided opinions that the Arab Spring was as a result of the people’s desire for “democratic rule”. Wrong. Like in Tunisia, it was driven by economic rather political factors. Now that the dust is settling, some are now coming to the realisation that not much has changed in their lives, and if anything its worse. It is no wonder that political and social rumblings continue to emerge in the new order. It is unrealistic to expect mass changes overnight, but if the political changes should succeed, the social landscape and the lives of the people must go hand in hand; and quickly at that. There is fear of a double dip recession, just like the fear of a return to the days of uprisings. This is more so in Libya where militants have refused to be disarmed, where clan retribution and ethnic cleansing appears to be taking place. Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh has stepped down in exchange for immunity, but only after many lives have been lost. Many will welcome this, if it means preventing further loss of life. You won’t bet against similar discussions taking place in a city near Lebanon. With the newly found “freedoms” in embryonic states, Iran and Israel locked in eye balling contest, the fragile peace in the region might just be sitting on a precipice of catastrophe. I hate to sound like a doomsday merchant but it takes only one attack from either to set the place up. One comfort though, America will not attack; it’s an election year and Obama enjoys sleeping in The White House; who would not want to do so?
Don’t forget to turn the lights out.
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