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Arab Spring: One year later

The Arab Spring is entering its second year, and although the end is far from clear, certain patterns are emerging.

The Arab Spring is entering its second year, and although the end is far from clear, certain patterns are emerging. First among them is that the people, are going to have more to say about their lives and how they are governed than they ever have before. An Egyptian journalist said to me: “This is the first free election we have had in 7000 years.”

Even in countries where the voice of the people have been suppressed, even where regimes are not going to change, there will be no going back to the status quo before Mohamed Bouazizi burned himself to death in a Tunisian town. Authoritarian governments that have not been broken are going to have to bend in this wind.

In only three Arab countries have regimes actually changed: Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. And in Egypt’s case, what the tweeters and face-bookers who brought on their so–called revolution didn’t understand back in January of last year was that they never really had a revolution. It was an Army coup that removed Hosni Mubarak, and the army has been running Egypt since 1952. Egyptians are beginning to realize that now.

Flowing from the increasing power of Arab public opinion will be the rise of political Islam. Long suppressed by many authoritarian governments, elections in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt have shown that the people simply want more Islam in their politics.

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Also flowing from vox populi will be increased hostility towards Israel. Peace with Israel in Egypt and Jordan was brought about by authoritarian leaders, King Hussein and Anwar Sadat. After initial enthusiasm, peace with Israel has not proved to be popular with the people. And the continued occupation of Palestinian territory rankles throughout the region.

Israel missed a big chance when a plan offered by Saudi Arabia — peace for a return to 1967 borders — was unanimously adopted by the entire Arab League a few years ago. Israel neither accepted it nor formally rejected it as a model for moving forward, and the Arab Spring may have swept the offer off the table. A two-state solution for Palestine would not have cured all of Israel’s woes with its neighbors, but it surely would have helped.

In Tunisia, Islamic-leaning Nahda Party got the most votes in recent elections, modeling itself on Turkey’s ruling party. The Muslim Brotherhood, the big winners in Egyptian elections, say that Turkey is too secularist to be a model. Islamist parties vary from country to country, but it is not good news for either the Brotherhood or the secularists that the Wahhabi-styled Salafi parties, who want a strict, Saudi-style interpretation of Islam, got 25 percent of the vote in Egypt.

As Islamic scholar Fouad Ajami has written that “ever since the 1920s, Muslim cults…have looked at the defiled world around them- wild cities, shocking cultural trends, foreigners with alien ways, subjugation to outsiders, a world that seems to be perpetually in crisis, young men and women who have strayed from time-honored ways…” have sought solace in a return to the fundamentals of their religion. Those cults have become more and more main stream in the last 90 years. Some have turned to violence. Most have not. But secularists are becoming the big losers as a result of increased democracy.

In the 1970s, after decades of confronting Communism and secular nationalism in the third world, the West found itself embroiled with a new force claiming allegiance to God. The Soviets, too, found themselves thwarted in Afghanistan by the power of jihad, a power that is now bedeviling the US in the same country.

In the dark ages, while learning languished in the West, Islamic scholars and scientists were the best in the world. By the 16th century the balance began to shift dramatically. By the 19th century the Islamic world had become a backwater.

Should Muslim intellectuals have wondered what went wrong? Should Islam secularize as Europe had done? This was Attaturk’s answer in Turkey in the 1920s. Or should Islam compromise and attempt to reconcile East and West? Or should Islam go back to its roots?

The struggle today is between Islamists who would compromise with the West, and those who would not.

For decades, the rise of Islam, especially since the Iranian revolution of 1979, has been scaring the wits out of the West. In the nineties the Algerian army, cheered on by the West, stepped in to overturn an election which Islamic parties won. The result was a brutal civil war. More recently, Israel, abetted by the United States and Egypt, have been punishing the Palestinians who voted for Hamas in Gaza in a free election.

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The good news is that the Arab Spring has discredited Al Qaida’s narrative. Al Qaida’s leader, the Egyptian Aymen al Zawahari, believed that only violence could dislodge dictators and allow the people to choose Islam. Today change is coming to be through elections, or popular demonstrations, not jihad.

In the post Arab-Spring world it is going to be necessary for Israel and the West to seek a better accommodation with political Islam. The only thing more dangerous than letting Islam come to power is trying to keep it out.