Arab Spring: Was it all for nothing?

Arab Spring: Was it all for nothing?
Strong fundamentals: Tunishia's active civil society group and strong trade union played a heavy role after the uprising.

On Dec 17, 2010 when Tunisian fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire after a municipal council official confiscated his cart and fruits and humiliated him, little did he know that this would set the Middle East and north Africa alight with dreams and hopes for change.

The flames of the Arab Spring started in Tunisia and then swept like wildfire to Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria.

There was the clamouring for democracy, greater freedoms, human rights and removing the shackles of oppression, corruption, poverty and dictatorship.

Now, four years down the line, those flames of hope seem to have died down.

What is smouldering instead in the Middle East and grabbing the headlines is the rise of radical Islamic State (IS) militants intent on setting up their self-styled Sunni Islamic Caliphate in Iraq and Syria.

And they have no qualms slaughtering, torturing and beheading Shias and foreigners, raping and murdering women and under-aged girls and kidnapping for ransom - all done in the guise of Islam!

Political analyst Dr Chandra Muzaffar says one cannot divorce the IS from the Arab Uprising.

He points out that in every one of the states where there has been an uprising - be it Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Libya or Bahrain - there has been an Islamist movement or an Islamist element that has been very significant.

The uprising forced Tunisia's President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee, and one of the world's top Islamic thinkers Rachad Ghannouchi of the Ennahda Party then swept into office.

In Egypt, pressure from the massive street uprising made President Hosni Mubarak step down, bringing the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi to power. But that was short-lived as he was ousted in a military coup a year later.

In Bahrain, the popular uprising of the Shia majority was crushed by the Sunnis who hold the seat of power.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE sent in ground troops to help Bahrain quash the protests because they felt it was in their interest that power remains in the hands of the Sunnis.

In Libya and Syria, too, which were secular before the uprisings, now there are Islamist elements coming into play. Both countries are in a mess.

"IS is one of the offspring of the Arab uprising. Many of these uprisings were against authoritarian regimes, dynasties or feudal monarchies and the modes of governance that the Islamist elements were against.

"If you look at the Arab uprising in a simplistic way, for them (Islamist element groups), Islam is the answer. But what have they been able to provide as a solution? They haven't really thought things out."

Even the Muslim Brotherhood, he says, bungled when they were in power.

He notes that when people were most concerned about jobs, water and electricity, the Muslim Brotherhood focused on enhancing the Islamic agenda, proper Islamic dressing, head scarves, cultural programmes about Islamic identity and the Islamic character of people holding positions.

"This was their undoing. They showed they were not capable of addressing the real issues.

"When you are faced with an army controlling the economy and you try to push this agenda, the army would find ways of undermining you. So they created demonstrations over economic issues and people related to it very easily."

In the case of IS, Dr Chandra describes it as an "extreme expression" of the Islamist movement.

"It is the most vulgar and despicable representation of people attached to an ideology that hasn't been worked out."

He also points out that wherever there is foreign intervention and outside forces attempting regime change - as in Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein (2003), in Libya to oust Col Muammar Gaddafi or in Syria to get rid of Bashar Assad - it always ends up in a mess.

"There was no al-Qaeda in Iraq while Saddam was there," he says.

Universiti Malaya's political scientist Prof Mohamad Abu Bakar feels that the presence of IS - regardless of whether it is a creation of the West or an indigenous reaction to the civil war in Syria and turmoil in Iraq - serves the Western purpose very well.

"IS can provide an alternative enemy for the West to unify itself and rally around a common cause now that communism is gone and the Soviet Union is no longer a challenge to Western interest."

He notes that the Arab world is fraught with historical tribalism, religious fanaticism, extreme nationalism, and modern leftism, which are all ingredients that can produce and build turmoil and continued crisis.

And this, he says, gives the West the opportunity to pick and choose and harness these so-called destructive elements to their benefit.

The people, he says, are oblivious and ignorant of the outside machination because they are so bogged down by local sectarianism.

"The moment they are oblivious, they become gullible and that is why they turn to IS. They easily fall prey and are pitted against each other. They have been living for centuries together and marry each other but all of a sudden, sectarianism and religious fanaticism overtake and overcome their lives

"And this has been cooked up, it acquires a life of its own."

Dr Chandra says people become attracted to the IS for a variety of reasons.

He says religious teachers and their propaganda have an impact when they keep saying that Islam is under threat.

The role of the new media too is tremendous, he adds, because people anywhere in the world can see and hear what a preacher is saying and be taken in by what he says is important.

He also says some Westerners turn to Islam and IS because they feel a certain kind of emptiness despite the material benefits they are enjoying, and they think the Caliphate is the answer.

"It is a combination of all these factors and the betrayal of people's interest and poor governance. So people feel this is happening because the government is not Islamic and that Islam is the answer."

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