Four years after Mohammed Bouazizi set fire to himself, triggering the Arab Spring, Islamic State set fire to Jordanian pilot Muath Alkasasba confirming that it had turned into the Arab nightmare.
Jordanian pilot Muath Alkasasba
Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, took his own life on 17 December 2010 in in protest at confiscation of his wares and humiliation by municipal workers in Sidi Bouzid. The ensuing revolution brought down the then Tunisian President Ben Ali giving great hope to the Arab world that citizens could effect change and overthrow decades-long rule by dictators.
This was quickly followed by the removal of Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Muammar Gaddafi of Lybia, and Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen. It also triggered what was seen as a revolution in Syria.
It seemed the democracy the West had been prescribing for the Middle East was on its way. Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was elected President of Egypt and TV cameras brought us images of debates in parliaments and elections that appeared to be fair and free.
Wind forward to 2015 and apart from Tunisia, the Arab Spring states are in turmoil. Libya is a complete basket case that is out of control. Yemen has just witnessed a coup. Egypt has still to heal after Morsi was deposed and Cairo witnessed horrific scenes in the lead up to the election of Sisi. The Sinai is witnessing terrible violence and has seen almost unprecedented cooperation between Egypt and Israel to eradicate extremism.
Iraq has lost swathes of territory to the new kid on the block, Islamic State and Syria’s regime is fighting a multitude of military groups, including the notorious Islamic State. Lebanon teeters on the brink and Palestine remains under military occupation by Israel.
But why is this happening? Why did the Arab Spring turn into the Arab nightmare? Are Arabs simply incapable of developing functioning democracies? Are Arab lives so cheap that the past four years have seen a few hundred thousand Arabs lose their lives?
The situation is of course very complicated and it is not feasible for one short blog to untangle it but I have some thoughts on this.
I believe that Arabs who have endured non-democratic rule for decades and leaders that have suppressed the development of individuals and free thought need time to shed away fear from ‘the state’ and to develop infrastructure for free thought, free expression and acceptance of differing view points. We lack the patience to listen, to argue our point of view, to build support for it and then to win in a fair and open environment. We also allow individualism to trump collectivism. We invest so much and expect so much from a leader that sets him (normally) up for failure as he could never meet our expectations. We need to develop belief in roles rather than individuals.
Critics will say that the above generalisation is too crude and some may say it borders on racism. That is certainly not my intention but in this free space I feel able to express my views honestly.
I was born and brought up in Saudi Arabia. The curriculum up to and including secondary school included five separate subjects under the religious education part. This accounted for a third of the curriculum. I learnt to recite parts of the Quran from memory and learnt about the dos and don’ts. Jihad was explained as part of the curriculum including the various types. I was brought up in Riyadh, Najd, the heart of Wahbism. I have to say that I do not re ally at any point being introduced to what is now considered radical teaching. At no point was I or my friends encouraged to adopt a completely strict interpretation of Islamabad nad I am not aware that any of my fir ends form school every developed any such leanings.
Most of the friends I have kept in touch with have gone on to achieve a high level of education and have led normal ‘extremism-free’ lives.
This phenomena of extremism is a recent development. I believe that it originated in the fight to eject the Soviets from Afghanistan and that management of those that took part from various Arab countries upon their return failed. This also coincided with greater Western interference in the region which was seen as simply an attempt to exert control on sources of energy rather than to help with the de elopement of societies.
The double standards were also there for all to see. The Iraqi occupation of Kuwait was not allowed to stand and lots of feet on the ground were deployed to end it, but the longstanding Israeli military occupation of Palestine was not only tolerated but supported. In fact the Palestinians legitimate residence to it was labeled terrorism and the occupier’s right to self defence was supported without question.
Alqaeda, the original Islamist ideology (save perhaps for the Muslim Brotherhood) has created lots of off shoots but there is little doubt now that the most organised and most violent is Islamic State. Palestinain journalist Abdul Bari Atwan estimates that its fighters now number 70,000. They come from several countries, continents and backgrounds, drawn to a cause which non of us can understand. I wonder if they really know what the cause is?
It is truly astonishing that this group has grown so quickly and has taken on the army of Iraq and won. But most shocking of its short life have been the assassinations of western and then Japanese civilians. This has been done without mercy and their horrible deaths have been professionally stage managed for maximum impact.
It is of grave concern that there appears to be no real plan either by neighbouring countries or indeed the coalition to eradicate them as a force, even if their torrid ideology won’t be so easily defeated. Perhaps the lead Jordan is now taking to avenge the horrific murder of its pilot will bring some greater urgency to end IS’s growth before the rest of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
It seems the state that is currently safest from this evil is ironically Israel, the one state that normally unites the Arab street in wanting it. To be pressurised toned it’s illegal occupation of Palestine.
The Arab Spring has been unkind to Palestinians. Palestinian refugees in Syria have once again been dispossessed and displaced and many have faced starvation and siege in refugee camps. The degradation in the capability of of Arab armies in Iraq and Syria has removed the military deterrent to Israel, such as it existed. The changing political scene in Egypt has also hurt Palestinians, with Gaza scene as a problem and Hamas as terrorist organisation.
Looking ahead then, the nightmare continues and can only end in my view with some exceptional leadership both religious and political.
The Arab Spring which morphed into the Arab Nightmare needs to move quickly to an Arab awakening.