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Arab spring: Gaddafi, elections ... and then what?

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Robin Lustig | 16:58 UK time, Friday, 21 October 2011

If there is one thing above all that unites the millions of people across the Arab world who have been out on the streets protesting since the beginning of the year, it must surely be their demand to be able to choose their own rulers and live their lives free from fear.

And nowhere, I suspect, is that truer than in Libya, where the death yesterday of Muammar Gaddafi must increase substantially the chance that Libyans will now also have an opportunity to map out a better future for themselves and their nation.

Naturally enough, they have been celebrating the news of his demise. But we know, don't we, from Afghanistan, Iraq, Tunisia and Egypt, that the overthrow - even the death - of a hated autocrat doesn't necessarily spell the beginning of a bright new future.

It might do - you could even argue that it should do - but in the words of the old song, it ain't necessarily so.

Take Tunisia, for example, where this remarkable year of Arab upheaval and revolt began. This weekend, the people of Tunisia will get their first chance to exercise their newly-won freedom, by voting for a 217-seat Constituent Assembly. It will be, in all but name, a parliament, with a mandate to draw up a new constitution and appoint a transitional government.

Next month, Egypt will begin a similar process, under the baleful eye of the military, who have ruled the country since the overthrow of President Mubarak in February, and who - according to their many critics - have shown a marked reluctance to introduce the root-and-branch reforms that the Tahrir Square protesters were demanding.

In both countries, it is all too easy to find people who will tell you that they are deeply disappointed at how little has changed since those heady days in January and February. Economies are in a tail-spin, and jobs are as scarce as ever. Elections alone aren't likely to change that.

Perhaps that's one reason why in Tunisia only just over half of the people who are eligible to vote have registered to do so. A low turn-out on Sunday will do nothing to encourage the belief that a stable democracy is taking hold.

Another could be that, according to Erik Churchill writing this week in Foreign Policy, "many Tunisians have expressed doubts that the elections will be truly free and fair. Despite all evidence to the contrary, it is commonplace to hear arguments that the outcome has been predetermined by the West."

If the elections are fair - and the expectation is that they will be - it looks as if the Islamist party Ennahdha (Renaissance) will win the largest number of seats in the new assembly. And as soon as I write the word Islamist, I can almost hear the intake of breath.

So is Tunisia on its way to becoming another Iran? Not according to Ennahdha's leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, who wrote in The Guardian on Tuesday:

"Charges of theocratic tendencies continue to be levelled at us. However, we believe in a civic state, based on equality between all citizens, regardless of faith, gender or race. We believe that the right to political and social association and organisation should be guaranteed for every citizen. We believe in the independence of civil society from the state, within a free and fair democratic system based on the principle of protecting personal and public liberties and guaranteeing a balance between the state and society."

He also wrote: "We have long advocated democracy within the mainstream trend of political Islam, which we feel is the best system that protects against injustice and authoritarianism." And there are plenty of people, both in Tunisia and elsewhere, who wonder exactly what constitutes "the mainstream trend of political Islam".

All revolutions suffer from the curse of dashed expectations. But it's still less than 12 months since the end of the old order in both Tunisia and Egypt, and I can't believe that anyone seriously expected that decades of authoritarian rule would suddenly make way for the sunlit uplands of liberal democracy.

And as I've pointed out before, you need more than an election - even the most perfectly-run election - before you can boast of having introduced real democracy. An independent judiciary, equality before the law, religious and media freedoms - they are all essential ingredients as well.

On the other hand, you have to start somewhere. And that's what the people of Tunisia hope they'll be doing this weekend. We don't yet know when the people of Libya will get their chance to start mapping their new future.

We're going to be reporting from right across the Middle East and North Africa over the coming weeks: Paul Moss is already in Tunisia, and we'll be broadcasting the second of his reports from there tonight (Friday). Next week he'll be reporting from Morocco.

During November, we'll be reporting from Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and Ritula will be in Turkey to look at the region's fastest-emerging new power and ask whether it could be a model for other would-be Islamic democracies. I'll wrap up the season from Egypt early in the New Year.


  • Comment number 1.

    As someone mentioned on the World Service --it took America 190 years that the right to vote for freed slaves was accepted. ( debatable ?)

    Apartheid is still present after 60 years in Israel and religious hatreds and suspicion are still present in pockets of Britain.

    The definition of a democratic society appears now to be that no riots occur after an election -- no matter how the society is structured -- but even that is being questioned.
    "And there are plenty of people, both in Tunisia and elsewhere, who wonder exactly what constitutes "the mainstream trend of political Islam".

    -- The West supported the Dictatorships of the region -- there is no use in ´crying over spilt milk´ -- when the opportunity to support fairer societies was not only ignored but actively fought against.

    Dictatorships were more acceptable than social assistance for the oppressed -- now Islam will attempt to correct that -- the West ´blew it´

  • Comment number 2.

    Here it comes - the first flowers of the Arab Spring. Dictators who had ruled for decades toppled; first "free" elections are under way in Tunisia, soon Egypt.
    But, Islamist parties in Tunisia & Egypt - even Libya - are best organised. Is the west prepared to welcome them to power if they dominate in the polls?
    I feel Western fear of Islamist-led governments emerging in the Middle East. The West is basing its fear on impressions not facts.
    Revolutions that swept the region were in fact not started or even led by Islamists — they came from the more liberal, leftist, and socialist segments of society. In fact, if there is animosity between the West & Islamists, it will only be because the West supported dictators for decades who oppressed Islamists.
    If Islamists do come to power they will be faced with the same social & economic challenges left by their predecessors & they will be under public scrutiny to deliver.
    Islamists probably realise the task will be daunting; they will need to reach out, build alliances with other parties — including leftists and secularists. While the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is seeking a larger political role it doesn't want to be solely responsible for everything. With power comes responsibility; the Brotherhood does not want to be ‘blamed' if it is unable to adequately deliver to the Egyptian people. The Brotherhood wants to have a substantial political presence but it does not want to have the governing majority. They are afraid any failure will provoke domestic & international backlash.
    As for Tunisians, if Islamists gain a majority in the government, they will be forced to be ‘moderate Islamists. Islamists are expected to win between 20 and 30% of seats in Tunisia. Tunisians are unwilling to give up their secular life & new freedom in exchange for religious oppression.
    So, we will have to see what we will see & that means waiting.

  • Comment number 3.

    It has just been declared that Libya will follow Sharia Law principles, Islamic banking principles and monogamy.

    -- and have given (at present) moral support to the revolutions in Jemen and Syria.

    --- ´Patience is a virtue´ --- There is no other choice after decades of Western support of their oppressors !

  • Comment number 4.

    Arab Spring - the demand to choose own rulers & live own lives free from fear.
    Odd then, don't you think that Tunisia, Egypt, & Libya will likely end up under Islamic Governments, as though they message they have absorbed is this: Western democracy cannot be trusted - not to rule, not to run banks, not to handle protests, not to do anything. This is the message Arab's have absorbed from what they have actually seen from the west.
    In no country except Libya had citizens enjoyed so much freedom, so much economic support, & a very prosperous future. What will they now enjoy from the west, except the stealing of the oil AND WATER? Not all Libyans are celebrating, just the imported ones, just the NTC. Gaddafi was not a dictator, and sadly Libya now has lost his benevolence.
    What makes we arrogant westerners think that Arab countries want to emulate us? What have we shown them is so great about emulating democracy? Why would they believe that democracy is anything more than plutocracy, oligarchy, rule by the rich?
    If elections are free, I would expect Islamic victories because the west has not demonstrated a viable choice.
    Islamists can (and more often than not do) believe in a civic state, based on equality among all citizens - regardless of faith, gender or race.
    We must face the fact that westerners are bigots; the west says "Islam" and it is adjoined to terror, decivilization, injustice, authoritarianism, the hacking of arms & legs...oh and 9/11. Why is it not possible that Arab countries have fought, and will fight, for Islamic democracy?
    So, don't bother reporting about the Arab election - unless you are prepared to separate church and state, the way you would for any western election.

  • Comment number 5.

    The financial crisis in the West is a result of financial and political corruption..not a model that the Arab states should emulate. It is disingenuous for the West to profess some higher moral ground after the theft of retirements and pensions of the middle class by the banks that was facilitated by the governments and the solution is to take even more from the middle class while protecting the wealth of the wealthy. Theocratic influences were what kept a moral standard in the West, of course the bankers found moral and ethical behavior restrictive in business. Politicians followed suit. The Arabs understand corruption and brutal governments and will wish to develop something that is responsive to their own situation and not one that will necessarily provide advantages to Western business and banking interests. Western governments will clammier in loud opposition, but the protest will be hollow. A newer and better model is needed and maybe the Arab world can develop one. Let them develop their own solutions, after-all it took the West a long time to become so corrupt.

  • Comment number 6.

    Egypt is 'THE" election that most holds my attention. Some Egyptian presidential candidates & representatives of Egypt’s revolutionary youth groups got together IN WASHINGTON with hundreds of Egyptian Americans to discuss the future of Egypt. The theme: road to democracy & economic development.
    Young activists who led the revolution explained their vision for a democratic Egypt have complained the Military Council, which is running the country during the transitional period, is dragging its feet; the Supreme Military Council is not achieving the revolution goals of democracy, freedom & dignity for all. There is much frustration. Apparently, US stated that it will not allow the transition to go astray because Egypt, as a US friend, should lead the democratization in the Arab world.
    Other sessions of conference discussed
    - upcoming parliamentary elections
    - right of Egyptian Americans to vote in Egypt’s elections, &
    -demand Egyptian embassies around the world provide ballots for expatriates to vote. (Each year, @ $2B is transferred from Egyptian Americans to Egypt.)
    This Washington Conference has been construed by some as US attempt to interfere in Egyptian internal politics. That media campaign in Egypt DISCOURAGED leading presidential candidates from attending. Personally, I don;t see what a new democracy, like Egypt, can learn from American democracy, but Egyptian Americans can help Egypt's future through technology transfer, teaching at universities, advances medicine, scientific research, etc.
    Mohamed ElBaradei, the former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) participated in the conference through video messages. Egyptian Americans, ElBaradei told the audience, are urged to help Egypt in every possible way to get over its low rate of economic development, fight poverty that is plaguing 40% of the population, revive tourism & help the transition to democracy.
    New constitution must stipulate that the people are the source of authority.
    Egyptians should adopt principle their country is for all & religion is for God; & the new constitution should guarantee equal rights for all citizen - regardless of their faith.
    Participants urged Supreme Military Council to expedite the transfer of power to a civilian authority. A presidential election is "expected" (not confirmed, but expected) to be held in Egypt in March or April 2012. (Hosni Mubarak had been President from 1981 until February 2011.). These dates so far away and so uncertain, must make Egyptian democracy seem so far away and so uncertain.

  • Comment number 7.

    Arab spring: Gaddafi, elections ... and then what?
    Years of unconditional support to the dictators, Betryal by French americans and everyone else, murder of Ghadafi incited by NATO, elections...and then.... the usual anti islamism..The spring was neither a spring nor was it an arab, as all these three countries are located in Africa..To call arab culture take over the african countries is extremely misguiding..If arab spring can come in Africa, then it can also occur in Europe..

  • Comment number 8.

    I borrow your opening statement with which I agree 100%: "If there is one thing above all that unites the millions of people across the Arab world who have been out on the streets protesting since the beginning of the year, it must surely be their demand to be able to choose their own rulers and live their lives free from fear."
    Is this not applicable to Palestine?
    Palestine gets lifted by UNESCO, which makes a very brave but controversial decision knowing that the United States will cut off funding to UNESCO in response to the UN cultural organization's decision to admit Palestine as a full member.
    I say thank-you UNESCO!
    State Department Spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland says the decision was "regrettable & premature" and that Washington would stop all financial contributions to the UN Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organization. The United States' contribution is @ 22% annual budget. (Washington is currently UNESCO's biggest source of funding.) Nuland continued, saying the US was not going to be able to continue contributing to the budget. Palestinian membership as a state in UNESCO triggers longstanding legislative restrictions which will compel the United States to refrain from making contributions to UNESCO. The United is not compelled; it is not unable, unless of course Nuland means that the United States is compelled and disabled by AIPAC and Israeli pressures.
    There is a law alright, passed in the 1990s, which states that Washington is prevented from funding any UN-affiliated body that accepts Palestinian membership.
    How biased is that, how cowardly is that!
    Nuland, however, says that the US would maintain membership in the UN body. The US rejoined UNESCO in 2002, after having left the organization 19 years earlier.
    Palestinians won the UNESCO seat in a Paris vote on Monday with 107 countries out of 173 voting in favor, 14 against the bid. Fifty-two abstained from vote.
    US lawmakers have repeatedly urged the UN body to reject the membership request. Former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton said that Palestinians UNESCO membership signals weakness in US diplomacy since some of Washington's closest allies such as France voted in favor of the move. Thank-you, France, and shame on my own country Canada which voted against.

  • Comment number 9.

    Is this not applicable to Palestine?
    Obviously not. Whatever is good for the rest of the world is never good for palestinians.The riots can become spring movements overnight while a geniune struggle for freedom of palestinian is termed as terrorism, or the security problem for the occupying forces, which now by moving their checkposts a few feet away can boldly say it doesnt occupy.And just for the records, the three countries liberated are not arab countries, they are African..the arab countries in which spring tried to sprang are Bahrain, Yemen and Syria, of the three, only Syria gets the attention.In Yemen, USA is busy droning, in Bahrain the Saudi forces are busy helping the ruler.To call three African countries


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