'Arab Autumn' stays on track

21:00, Dec 01 2011

The "Arab Spring" was fast and dramatic: non-violent revolutions in the streets removed dictators in Tunisia and Egypt within weeks, and similar revolutions started in Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen. The "Arab Autumn" is a slower and messier affair, but despite the carnage in Syria and the turbulent run-up to Egypt's first democratic elections, the signs are positive.

Demonstrators in Bahrain were driven from the streets by massive military force, and Libya's revolution only triumphed after Western military intervention. In Syria and Yemen, originally non-violent protests risk tipping into civil wars. But there is still more good news than bad.

In October, Tunisia held its first free election, and produced a coalition government that is broadly acceptable to most Tunisians. Some worry the leading role that the local Islamic party, Ennahda, gained bodes ill for one of the Arab world's more secular societies, but Ennahda's leaders promise to respect the rights of less religious Tunisians, and there is no reason not to believe them.

Last weekend, elections in Morocco produced a similar result. The main Islamic party, the Justice and Development Party, gained the largest share of votes but not an absolute majority. It will doubtless play a leading role in the new government, but will not seek to impose its views on everybody else.

This Moroccan party took its name from the ruling Justice and Development (AK) party in Turkey, an Islamic party that has won three elections in a row and presided over the fastest economic growth in Turkey's history. Like the AK Party, the Moroccan version is socially conservative, pro-free market and obedient to the secular constitution.

These parties are "Muslim Democrats", as one AK Party member in Turkey put it, comparing them to the Christian Democratic parties of Western Europe. They have nothing to do with radical Islamist groups like al Qaeda. They are the natural repository for the votes of conservative people in a Muslim society, just as the Republican Party gets the votes of most Christian conservatives in the United States.


There was no revolution in Morocco: the new constitution approved by referendum last July was an attempt by King Mohamed VI to get ahead of the demands for more democracy. It obliges the king to choose the prime minister from the party that wins the most seats in parliament, rather than just naming whomever he pleasess.

Similar changes are under way in Jordan, where King Abdullah II is trying to ward off more radical demands for reform. Even the deeply conservative monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula supported the Arab League's decision to impose sanctions against the brutal Assad regime in Syria.

Syria may yet drift into civil war, but its fellow Arab states are taking their responsibilities seriously: only two Arab countries voted against the sanctions.

Egypt, by far the biggest Arab country, this week saw the start of parliamentary elections that will roll across the country until early January. Demonstrators have re-occupied Tahrir Square in Cairo, claiming the army wants to hold on to power, but things are not quite what they seem.

The army has already conceded the new president should be elected by next June rather than six months later, but the demonstrations were not really about that. They were an attempt to force the postponement of the parliamentary elections.

The newly formed liberal and secular parties tacitly back the demonstrators because they fear the Muslim Brotherhood will win these elections. It may well do so, because it continued to operate in a semi-underground way during the Mubarak dictatorship while the old liberal parties just faded away. But the fact some parties are not as ready as others for the elections is not an excuse to postpone them: Egypt needs an elected government.

It will soon have one, and if the Muslim Brotherhood plays a major role in it, why not? It has long outgrown its original radicalism, and you can't postpone democracy forever just because you don't fully trust your fellow citizens.

That leaves Bahrain, the one Arab country where the "Arab Spring" was comprehensively crushed. But last week, the king received the report of an independent commission which concluded there was no Iranian plot behind the demonstrations, and many detainees had been "blindfolded, whipped, kicked, given electric shocks and threatened with rape to extract confessions".

Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa expressed "dismay" at the findings and vowed that "those painful events won't be repeated." Bringing democracy and the rule of law to the Arab world was always going to be a difficult process, but progress is being made on many fronts.

Manawatu Standard