The Arab Revolutions, Political Islam, and Democratic Transitions
Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.
On February 29, 2012, the Brookings Doha Center hosted a policy discussion with Gilles Kepel, professor at the Institute of Political Studies (IEP) and research director for France’s National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). Professor Kepel’s address focused on the large-scale dynamics of the Arab Awakenings, with particular focus on the impact of changes in the region on the role of Islam in the political arena. The event, which was followed by a question and answer session, was moderated by Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, and attended by members of Qatar’s academic, business, diplomatic, and media communities.
Kepel began his remarks by explaining that the recent uprisings in the Arab world have had varying trajectories in different parts of the Middle East. He noted that all successful revolutions have been in North Africa, while attempts at revolution in the Arabian Peninsula were stalled, and it remains to be seen what effects the uprisings will have on the Levant. Kepel then divided the Middle East into three subregions, which he dubbed Zone A (North Africa), Zone B (Arabian Peninsula), and Zone C (the Levant).
Zone A, Kepel said, is unique because it is the area where the first successful revolutions took place. That region is distinct, he said, because domestic issues there are more important than international ones. For example, even when change came to Egypt, a key player in the Arab-Israeli system, the revolution was perceived by the outside world as a development that could be absorbed by the international system. Kepel went on to distinguish countries in Zone A as having a fair degree of national cohesion – especially in comparison with the states of the Levant. In Libya, he said, in spite of the country’s tribal divisions, the revolutionary process itself had engineered a significant degree of national cohesion. Kepel went on to say that revolutions could take place in Zone A largely because that change they were not perceived as a threat to the global order. In fact, some outside actors even welcomed these revolutions both for ideological reasons, as they supported democracy, as well as from a strategic point of view.
Kepel began his description of Zone B by stressing that changes in the Gulf have a global impact given the region’s critical importance to the global petrol supply. Therefore, regime change in Zone B is considered far more dangerous than elsewhere. For instance, the uprising in Bahrain provoked fears of upheaval in global markets and the political order. Indeed, despite the fact that they did not use Shi’i language and stressed their cause as Bahraini, the revolutionaries were widely seen as “stooges of the Iranian Republic.” When the uprising was then quashed by the GCC’s Peninsula Shield Force, international reaction was muted, as many feared the global effects of genuine revolution in the Gulf. Yemen, the other country in the Gulf experiencing a widespread uprising, was on the verge of disintegration. Ultimately, however, the GCC stepped in with a political solution to the crisis, as neighboring countries and other powers have a critical stake in keeping unrest in Yemen within Yemeni borders.
Zone C, Kepel explained, could be distinguished by the deep sectarian and ethnic divisions in the societies in the Levant. This subregion, Kepel noted, was deeply scarred by Lebanon’s civil war. Today, then, the possibility of the fall of Bashar al-Asad in Syria is measured against the fact that this might unleash a bloody civil war. Indeed, one main challenge to the Syrian opposition is whether the group would be able to deliver social peace in the event of Asad’s ouster. Asad himself is playing on this fear both internationally and domestically. In fact, it is this fear, Kepel contended, that has prevented the elites of Aleppo and Damascus from withdrawing support from the regime. Because Iran and Israel are located in this Zone, the explosion of neighboring Syria will change the balance of power. Syria, Kepel said, is “to some extent the linchpin of the Middle East system politically – as much as the Arabian Peninsula is its lynchpin financially and economically.” At the moment, he explained, Arabs are split on the issue of Syria. Some consider Western support for the opposition evidence that the uprising is a plot of American imperialism and Zionism. Others, however, see the need to oust Asad as a means of diminishing Iranian power in the region.
Kepel next described the recent revolutions as having three phases. The first, he said, included events that proved to be starting points, such as the self immolation of Muhammad Bouazizi and uprising of Sidi Bouzid, the arrest of lawyers in Benghazi, the assassination of Khalid Said, and repression in Deraa. During this phase, certain actions crystallized latent tensions. These events played off popular discontent, since social conditions had significantly worsened in the region in recent years. Originally, these first phases of revolt had very little to do politically with Islamists of any kind, he noted.
Kepel described the second phase as that of elections, in which Islamists, primarily of the Muslim Brotherhood have been successful. Phase three, he explained, is the post-election period. During that time, those who have succeeded at the ballots must now deliver socially and economically. Al-Nahda in Tunisia in particular is already facing this pressure, as unemployment has increased and prices have risen. Meanwhile, Kepel described a “tripod of power in Egypt: the army, parliament, and the square.” Tahrir Square, Kepel said, had originally been the source of revolutionary legitimacy though this was hijacked, he claimed, to some extent by the Muslim Brotherhood, who have the popular legitimacy of the ballots. Kepel stressed that the Brotherhood will be forced to deliver when control is ceded by the military – in particular as Egypt faces the threat of bankruptcy in a matter of weeks.
Kepel ended his remarks by stating that two issues are of great concern for the immediate future. The first is that of the GCC-Iranian tension and its link to Syria. If the Syrian system breaks down, Iran will clearly have less leverage in the Levant and Arab world more broadly. This, Kepel asserted, may therefore be seen by Israel as an opportunity to strike Iran, which would have massive global consequences. The second is the social issue. Tunisia and Egypt are already feeling enormous economic pressures, and the new regimes’ ability to deal with such issues will be a litmus test for the very near future and harbinger for future tensions.
Following Kepel’s remarks, the question and answer session covered a range of issues, including the role of Al Qaeda in the revolutionary Middle East, the emergence of extra-regional powers on the Middle Eastern stage, and Israel’s stance on the Arab Awakenings. Moderator Salman Shaikh began by asking whether the success of Islamists at the ballot box could be explained by the fact that they were the best organized parties or whether their success connoted increased religiosity in the post-revolutionary era. Kepel answered that astute autocrats like Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak, and Muammar al-Qadhafi remained in power largely by exploiting the threat of radical Islam, while moderate Islamists garnered support on the ground. Once the autocrats were ousted, Islamist parties remained the only other political force, and “a re-Islamization of society at a basic level made their political language palatable.” People feel deeply religious, Kepel stated, and Islamists were using language they understood.
Another question concerned what parties would come to power if mainstream Islamists fail to meet social and economic needs of the post-revolutionary countries. Kepel answered that the rise of the Salafis is a significant trend in post-revolutionary North Africa. This is surprising, he noted, as Salafis originally did not support the revolution, at least in Egypt. The Salafi vote in Egypt is now economic vote, with most of their support coming from among the poorest communities. He stated that the extent of the Salafis’ electoral success was an embarrassment for the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. It remains to be seen, however, to what degree Salafi movements will attempt to apply whatever religious or social agendas they have, or whether they will act more as opposition parties.
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