Arab Spring: What Went Wrong?

Islamic leaders not ready to exercise power
Developing Just Leadership

Yusuf Dhia-Allah

Rabi' al-Thani 04, 1441 2019-12-01

Special Reports

by Yusuf Dhia-Allah (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 48, No. 10, Rabi' al-Thani, 1441)

This month (December 2019) marks nine years since Islamic Awakening movements in Arabian countries erupted in the public square. Even though the demonstrations were spontaneous and organic, in the early stages they were mainly led and organized by Islamic organizations. Seeing these uprisings as a threat to neo-colonial interests, the Western corporate media and NATO regimes cunningly branded the uprisings as the “Arab Spring.” Unfortunately, it was not just the tag that was co-opted by Western powers but also the legitimate grievances of the oppressed people that had rebelled against Western-backed autocracies.

Last year, Crescent International had analyzed whether the process of the Islamic Awakening movement was worth it. Our analysis concluded that “it was absolutely necessary and it is a great blessing even in places where events went completely off-track… Post-2011 events, no regional dictator can afford to disregard the popular backlash. Violence is no longer the monopoly of corrupt and oppressive regimes. Of course, the elimination of monopoly on force by illegitimate regimes created its own problems, like ISIS and others, but these are short-term problems that are slowly but surely being eliminated.”

In this article, we would like to focus on the other side of the issue: where did the Islamic Awakening process go wrong? Naturally, there are numerous local reasons for each country where the popular uprising was co-opted and went off-track. Nevertheless, there are certain common denominators that can be observed in most places where the autocrats and their NATO backers managed to hijack the popular uprisings and subdue the masses.

During the uprisings, most of the Muslim world had big expectations of the Egyptian people finally taking their destiny into their own hands. However, within two years, Egypt was back in the clutches of the NATO backed autocratic system.

In a widely read column, ICIT’s director Zafar Bangash had looked at why one of the oldest Islamic socio-political movements — the Muslim Brotherhood — lasted in power for only one year, while the Islamic system in Iran has governed for 40 years and is only getting stronger. In the column titled, “Egypt and Iran: why different outcomes?” the ICIT Director stated, “The Ikhwan made the mistake of working within the system while Imam Khomeini understood that the existing system had to be demolished.” This author would add that the Ikhwan tried to work not only within the system, they tried to mold themselves into the system’s strategic architecture. Nothing manifested this better than the Ikhwan-backed government’s decision to shut down the Syrian embassy while keeping the Israeli embassy open, which is much more than an embassy. It is a state within a state in Egypt.

In August 2013, Foreign Affairs magazine pointed out that “security and intelligence cooperation between Israel and Egypt actually thrived during Mursi’s presidency.” During his short-lived presidency, as reported by Al-Monitor and others, “He [Mursi] appointed a new ambassador to Israel and sent a letter to President Shimon Peres, whom he addressed as, ‘My great and good friend.’ At the time, Peres said to me, ‘I would understand if he wrote, ‘Your Honor, my dear Mr. President,’ or something like that, but to write ‘My great and good friend,’ when he never actually met me is a bit over the top.’ In the letter, Mursi affirmed his commitment to maintaining good relations between Egypt and Israel.”

These missteps clearly reflect lack of clear thinking as well as self-confidence. Through such simplistic policies, the Ikhwan tried to show “pragmatism” but what it did was send a signal to the old guard that the movement lacks confidence to pursue its vision and can be confronted.

Another key malfunction of mass protest movements in the Arab world was the lack of God-consciousness among the leadership. To replace a corrupt governing system, one must possess competent and courageous human cadre. Since the protests were spontaneous and were not initially backed by any organized socio-political movement, it is understandable that in the initial stages, the masses would be leaderless. However, once the protests took off, the lack of cadre was evident. Even one of Arab world’s leading Islamic figures, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, was not able to see through the fog.

There are two fundamental reasons for the lack of identifiable leadership of the protest movements. It may even be a blessing in disguise. For, as soon as the leaders are known, the autocratic regimes would immediately go after them and throw them in prison. For decades, Western backed autocratic regimes have purged their societies of potential leaders to remain in power. Second, and this is the downside of it, most of the leaders of Islamic movements compromised themselves by latching on to Saudi sponsored or linked institutions.

The “Arab Spring” protests started with a lot of promise but ended up with promises of more of the same. One of the fatal mistakes was that the protest leaders failed to recognize the magnitude of the power they had in their hands. The power of the street was enough to overturn the whole system of corruption and abuse; however they chose to use their power to work through the corrupt system with the objective of reforming it — and at that moment, the system defeated them. The same thing happened with the Occupy Wall Street movement in the US.

While the first weakness is not in the hands of the leaders and local socio-political organizations in the Arab world, the second weakness is entirely of their own making. The primary reason for the second flaw — indeed a fatal weakness — is the absence of independent financial resources. Riyadh and other US allies masterfully utilize money to subtly subordinate Islamic leaders, often without their realization, to promote the policies of these regimes.

One of the primary reasons the Islamic movement in Iran succeeded in toppling the Western backed tyranny of the Shah was that the Islamic leadership in Iran had access to independent financing through the khums tax. This has not received adequate attention in contemporary Sunni Islamic jurisprudence even though it is also part and parcel of it. Perhaps it is time for Sunni scholars to broaden the definition of khums. Lack of ijtihad among Sunni ‘ulama’ on this crucial aspect has created practical weaknesses for Sunni Islamic organizations. It has forced many to ally themselves with wealthy monarchies of the Persian Gulf region compromising their position.

Another key weakness of Islamic Awakening was the media. Activists and socio-political organizations involved in mobilizing the masses analyzed the process through the prism of Western media. They did not create their own indigenous narrative of events.

The current ground reality is that in all locales where people staged uprisings against the Western backed autocrats there has been no change in governance except in Yemen. In Tunisia, the protest movement achieved some progress, albeit limited, primarily because the eruption of protests caught the imperialists by total surprise. Thus, they could not make adequate preparations to save the regime in its entirety. However, the main Islamic opposition force in Tunisia, al-Nahdah, has accepted to play within the rules set by remnants of the old guard. Thus, Tunisia remains within the French sphere of neo-colonial influence.

In Libya and Syria, NATO regimes completely manipulated the protest movements and utilized them as sledgehammers for their geopolitical objectives. However, the US-Israeli project in Syria was aborted due to Iran, Hizbullah, and Russia’s steadfast position. Another reason why NATO’s plans in Syria did not materialize is that they became victims of their own propaganda. They swallowed the fictitious narrative of the sectarian nature of the Syrian government.

Proof of how NATO regimes manipulated the legitimate grievances of the Islamic Awakening process is the fact that the unrests did not affect any of the regional monarchies. The Persian Gulf regimes are the primary pillars of NATO’s hard and soft influence in the Muslim world. American propaganda outlets even tried to sell this phenomenon as a model of governance for the Muslim world. Why wouldn’t they? When Washington says jump, these regimes say, “How high, sir!”

Overall, the Islamic Awakening process has been stalled. It is alive on the societal level and can reignite at any moment, but the process failed to topple the Western backed regimes. The nature of the problems in the Muslim world is such that societal problems can only be resolved when one possesses power and authority. NGOs and civil activist movements in the Muslim world will have limited effect without power.

People of the region must take control of their destiny by establishing governments that represent their aspirations and are accountable to Allah (swt). Such a government automatically means some form of Islamic governance. This is not a slogan but a societal demand. Although Islamic movements were frustrated in their desire to establish an alternative model of governance, all is not lost. In August 2017, the Muslim Brotherhood’s National Alliance for Reform in Jordan won most seats in municipal elections. This highlights the fact that Muslims generally rely on Islamic socio-political movements for solutions and there is nothing the NATO regimes can do about it. Their only recourse is to derail this phenomenon for a limited period of time.

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