What are the big stories in the Arab world today? A newly elected parliament is being seated, and a deposed president is leaving the country. But beyond that, the remarkable thing is that there are any political stories at all. There weren’t, a year and a half ago. The political stories of today are not about the advent of paradise, but about the politics of transitions.
It was never acceptable to assert glibly in an op-ed that things have happened “Because Arabs are… ” such and such. It has the form of a racist argument. Arabs are only united, if at all, by a common language (and even it is diverse). Things happen because “Arabs do…”, because of actions they take for reasons of their social interests, not because of what they supposedly “are.”
The new Arab world created by the people power movements of 2012 is not suddenly Sweden. No one should have expected it to be. The Arab world had been stuck in a stagnating rut, of dictatorship, family cartels, embezzlement, corruption, and stagnation. Where economic growth of 5% a year began being reported, as in Tunisia or Egypt, it was either a lie or was mostly captured by a small economic elite, the Arab 1%.
What began in some of these countries in 2011 was a transition, a transition that activists hoped would be toward regular, free and fair parliamentary elections and ways for students, workers, office workers, women, religious activists, and religious minorities to have an impact on policy. None of these things would have been possible in the least under the old regimes. There was no hope. Now there is hope but no certitude.
In Tunisia and Egypt, that transition has begun. In Yemen, less stark change is afoot, but some sort of transition seems at least to be beginning. In Libya, the dictator was overthrown but elections are still some six months off. In Syria, a popular movement is still attempting to kick off the transition. In Bahrain, the movement was crushed, but village demonstrations bravely continue.
In Morocco, Algeria, and Jordan, there have been at least some reforms to forestall the outbreak of a more vigorous movement. In the oil rich states of the Gulf, the monarchs and emirs have attempted to bribe their publics into quiescence.
The transitions may fail. They involve politics, the working of social conflict among large social groups into political speeches, elections and policies. Sometimes a democratic transition begins and stalls out. Sometimes it is incomplete (one thinks of Russia). Sometimes it remains incomplete for a long time. Sometimes dictatorship returns (Ukraine?). Sometimes longstanding democracies themselves deteriorate politically (think of Italy under Silvio Berlusconi with high levels of corruption and a form of press censorship).
The success or failure of transitions depends on many things. It helps to have a wealthy country, but perhaps only Tunisia fits the bill even a little bit in the Arab region. It helps not to have strong ethnic divisions and grievances. It helps to have a strong middle class and institutions such as labor unions and chambers of commerce. Religion is probably irrelevant as an explanatory consideration.
Those who throw up their hands over the rise of Muslim religious parties in Egypt or the continued instability in Libya are not looking at what has happened as a set of processes. If anything good came out of the uprisings of 2011 it is precisely this flux, this opening toward possibilities, this politics. Because in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt or Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya there was no politics of an ordinary sort, only secret police and massive embezzlement and arbitrary arrest and torture.
If some of the transitions don’t get off the ground or if they fail, there are concrete economic and political reasons for it. Those need to be investigated and understood. The day when bigots could say that Arabs or Muslims are incapable of a certain kind of politics has passed. But the day when we can understand in detail why their politics evolves as it does is still not here.
So here are the stories of the transitions today, the stories of politics in a region formerly beset by censorship, secret police, domestic spying, and deadening silences.
1. On Monday, the newly elected lower house of parliament met. The last elected parliament, of fall, 2010, had been almost completely dominated by members of the corrupt National Democratic Party of Hosni Mubarak, and clearly all challengers to his regime had been excluded from winning seats by the police who counted the ballots. Public rage at a clearly phony electoral outcome fed into the uprising of Jan. 25-Feb. 11. The new parliament is dominated by Muslim religious parties, with the Muslim Brotherhood, at 47% of seats, the largest. It met with three other parties to choose the new speaker of the house, Mohammed al-Katatny, who is resigning from his position in the Muslim Brotherhood to take this post. That is, al-Katatny’s appointment was passed by the Wafd Party, which has a lot of Coptic Christians and secular Muslims in it, and the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, as well as the Salafi Nur Party (the second-biggest). Nur and the Wafd will supply the two deputy speakers.
The Muslim Brotherhood has been attempting to become a central actor in Egyptian society and politics for many decades, so its dominance of this parliament is historic. As AP points out, they are avoiding triumphalism or extreme policies because they don’t want to provoke the kind of social conflict that occurred in Algeria in the 1990s after a Muslim religious party came to power at the polls there but was deposed by military intervention. Some 150,000 persons are said to have died in that fighting.
2. Thousands of political prisoners have been released in Tunisia, a year after dictator Zine El Abidin Ben Ali was overthrown. In addition, 122 prisoners on death row had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment by President Moncef al-Marzouqi, a human rights activist who had been exiled to France by his predecessor. He has pledged to work to abolish capital punishment.
3. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has left Yemen for Oman on his way to the United States for medical treatment. (He had been wounded in a bombing in summer, 2011). Before he departed, he gave a speech asking the people to pardon him for any mistakes committed during his three decades of rule. Saleh’s opponents have opposed the immunity from prosecution granted him by the plan of the Gulf Cooperation Council. He had said that he turned power over to his vice president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who, however, complained that Saleh continued to interfere in the political process. On Sunday, Saleh is said to have finally relinquished all prerogatives to Hadi. Saleh says that he will return in February, as head of the General People’s Congress Party, which will contest the presidential election scheduled for that month. Hadi will be the standard bearer for the ruling party.
The Arabic press reports that on Sunday, tens of thousands of demonstrators came out at Change Square in Sanaa to demand that Saleh be tried for crimes he committed in the course of trying to put down the rallies of winter-spring, 2011.
4. Libya’s Transitional National Council is facing protests from activists in the country’s second largest city, Benghazi. That city was crucial to the movement that overthrew Qaddafi, but its residents say that they are the victims of neglect by the transitional government, which has a lot of former regime officials in it. In both Tunisia and Egypt, transitional prime ministers had to resign under pressure from democratic activists not satisfied with how much continuity there was from the old regime.
5. On Sunday, the Arab League called for President Bashar al-Assad to step down and to allow a government of national unity to guide the country to a new system. This plan sounds very much like the one adopted (or partially adopted) in Yemen. Al-Assad angrily rejected the suggestion as undue interference in Syria’s internal affairs.
It isn’t surprising that the Baath government castigated the Arab League for interfering. What is amazing is that the Arab League is attempting to suggest a way forward for Syria, out of its crises and gridlock. For decades the Arab League was a cypher. But under Secretary-General Nabil Alaraby, it has become an international organization of some importance. It called for the intervention against Qaddafi in Libya. Al-Assad has blown it off, treating it as if it was still divided and toothless, as in the past. He may be making a mistake. His strong alliance with Iran and the unsavory sight of all those sniping attacks on his own civilians has turned a lot of the Arab League against him.