Tunisia shines amid gloom

    Arab Spring protests not in vain
    After three years of turmoil and bloodshed in the Middle East and North Africa, where is the Arab Spring? Apart from the relatively tiny state of Tunisia, where it all started, the picture in the rest of the region that had been swept away by the storm looks bleak today. Egypt, the largest of the Arab world, seems to be retracing its steps to three decades of the Mubarak era, with the Army flexing its muscles.

    Libya, which never had recognized governing institutions during the long Gaddafi era, is seeking to emancipate itself from the unofficial rule of militias armed to the teeth. Nor is there encouraging news from elsewhere. Yemen has still a long way to go to achieve stability. Although the former ruler Saleh was pushed aside by a group of neighbors, he retains influence. And in Syria, in the throes of civil war, negotiations of a sort seem to be going nowhere. President Basher al-Assad is disinclined to give up power as his country is literally being destroyed.

    It is clear that he cannot remain the ruler of a united country, yet it is uncertain when circumstances will compel him to go. Obviously, he does not accept the agenda of Geneva I leading to an inauspicious start to Geneva II requiring an effective transitional authority to govern Syria by replacing the present leader. Amidst this deep gloom, it is instructive to examine the causes of the Tunisian success, tentative as it is. A key to the reconciliation in the country was the sagacity of the major Islamic party Ennahda and its leader Rached Ghannouchi, in recognizing the fact that although it was the dominant political force, it would have to meet the aspirations of others, particularly the secularists.

    In fact, it took the murder of two Socialist leaders to bring to the Islamists the truth that their philosophy must be brought into the national consensus. Going for Tunisia were its secular traditions and the freedoms women enjoyed. Significantly, the new constitution passed by Parliament as a technocratic government was formed is the most gender liberal in the Arab world. No wonder France’s President Francois Hollande graced the ceremony marking the birth of new Tunisia while the European Union gave its own blessings. Much work remains to be done, but Tunisia is showing the way to the future in the entire region. The starkly different picture in Egypt is more representative of the region.

    For a time after the Arab Spring, it seemed that the country was trying to break away from its military-dominated past. A president was freely elected for the first time in the country’s history, with the military allowing him to take office. But the task for Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood proved too arduous to manage. In short, he botched it, and as political dissent against Morsi and the Brotherhood mounted, a relieved Army under then General el-Sisi dethroned him. Although Sisi, now elevated to the rank of Field Marshal, is being coy in announcing his decision to contest the presidency, it is a matter of time before the announcement is made.

    The administration has taken draconian steps to try to crush the Brotherhood, calling it a terrorist organization and trying Mr. Morsi. The Brotherhood is no stranger to suppression in its 85-year history, but it has survived by its grassroots support through its long tradition of charity work in feeding and caring for the poor. And Egypt is in dire economic straits, thanks to the three years of political turmoil despite the attractive aid package the Gulf monarchies have given the military dispensation to express their relief at the end of the Brotherhood experiment.

    The Egyptian story is very much in the making because although the military will bask for a time in the popularity of Field Marshal Sisi, who is being presented as something of a new Nasser, the modern Arab hero, disillusionment will set in as he is crowned. Bred on military rule for more than half a century after the dethronement of Kung Farouq, there are few genuine democratic institutions for people to bank upon. Fattened on generous American military aid to further its own reasons and to protect Israel, the military has a vast economic empire. It is interesting that even during the yearlong Morsi presidency, the defense portfolio was given to Sisi and the defense budget was beyond prying civilian eyes.

    In short, the region of the Middle East and North Africa will remain turbulent for years and decades because the Arab Spring has broken the somnolence of at least half a century. It seems a matter of time before popular revolts will break out again. As it is, the continuing civil war in Syria is roiling the whole neighborhood as its neighbors and others are seeking to cope with more than two millions of Syrian refugees, and that weathervane of the Arab world, Lebanon, is increasingly being subjected to the storms raging all around it. The time frame for future events will be determined in part by how long it will take to douse the flames of war in Syria. The Basher al-Assad regime shows no inclination of leaving office, having bought time to accept the Russian-sponsored deal to divest itself of its deadly chemical arms.

    Russia has an obvious stake in retaining its foothold in Syria but there will come a time when Russian support for the Assad regime will prove too expensive. For the Tunisian street fruit seller who set off the Arab Spring by protesting against his suppression by the authorities through publicly ending his own life, it was a tragedy. But the larger tragedy has been the havoc and changes brought about by protestors leading thus far to a reassertion of the military in Egypt, thanks to the Muslim Brotherhood’s fumbling in seeking to buttress its own position, instead of giving good governance. But for the bright spot represented by Tunisia, the Middle East and North Africa will continue to roil until the US and Russia and the regional powers will make a genuine attempt to seek peace, instead of merely feathering their own nests.

    The Middle East and North Africa will remain turbulent for years and decades because the Arab Spring has broken the somnolence of at least half a century. It seems a matter of time before popular revolts will break out again. As it is, the continuing civil war in Syria is roiling the whole neighborhood as its neighbors and others are seeking to cope with more than two millions of Syrian refugees, and that weathervane of the Arab world, Lebanon, is increasingly being subjected to the storms raging all around it”, warns the author.

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