Four Arab Summers: Diagnoses, Prognoses, and Prescriptions


[This is the first in a series of my notes on the 2013 International Institute of Islamic Thought conference on Islamic Reform Movements After the Arab Spring held in Herndon, VA. It sets the stage for the other papers the presentations and discussions of which will be summarized in the remainder of this series. The official proceedings will be published by IIIT at a later time.]

Four Arab Summers: Diagnoses, Prognoses, and Prescriptions

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D., Minaret of Freedom Institute

In recent years scientific polling has confirmed what knowledgeable scholars have been arguing for decades, that the Muslim people passionately desire democratic reforms and that the resistance to such reform in the Arab world was not rooted in any attachment to their dictators, who were seen as puppets of Western imperialism, but due to a suspicion that Western reforms were aimed more at replacing indigenous culture with a shoddy imitation of Western culture and fostering an increased dependency on the West rather instituting self-government and securing the blessings of liberty.

The abrupt deposition of Ben Ali from Tunisia unleashed a string of rebellions lumped together as the “Arab spring,” the significance of which, and the future of which is hotly debated. Speculation rages as to whether the “Arab spring” has initiated a gradual and irreversible trend towards democratization and liberalization, or forged an opportunity for religious troglodytes to seize power, or simply left the participating societies in a state of chaos from which they cannot emerge without reverting to some supposed historical Oriental despotism.

We examine the turns taken in four cases of the “Arab Spring,” namely, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, and Libya. Despite very different circumstances in place at their outsets, all four cases started as diverse coalitions against the ruling regimes in place. All four provided opportunities for Islamists of varying colors. All have hit bumps in the road of varying severity, from disappointment and assassination in Tunisia to fragmentation and street violence in Egypt, to full blown civil war in Syria, to an overflow of instability to neighboring countries in Libya. We outline the transitions and likely explanations and consider the lessons Islamic movements around the world can draw from them.


Tunisia was the sparkplug that began the movements. It is important to understand the reasons that Tunisia lead the way, as well as the reason for the facility of the deposition of its dictator, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and the relative smoothness of the aftermath in the transitional phase as compared to the other Arab spring countries.

The spark that lit the revolution in Tunisia was the self-immolation of Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi in protest over the corruption that left educated people like himself not merely excluded from appropriate employment, but excluded from any employment whatever unless saddled with humiliating and crippling confiscation of his goods by Municipal officials. The crony capitalism that allowed Westerners to boast that Tunisia was a successful example of modern development was such a great burden on the majority of the nation that it could drive a man like Bouazizi to suicidal act of civil protest.

The explosion of that single act of resistance into a revolution was accelerated by the brutality of the police and security forces against sympathetic demonstrations that ensued. In Tunisia, however, the armed forces were separate from the security forces and the corrupt regime that the latter defended. The Tunisian army saw itself not as protectors of the regime, but of the country from external violence. Nor did they have any powerful place in the economic or political affairs of the nation. Thus, they had no motives to preserve Ben Ali’s grip on power and could honestly advise him to flee the country.

Further, the leadership of the military included an unusually high percentage of officers trained by the U.S.,[1] bequeathing it with a secularity more akin to the American than the French kind, more tolerant of religion in public space. This combined with the sophistication of the Islamist resistance to enable a smooth opportunity for Ennahda to take power in a non-threatening way. Tunisia’s Prime Minister Mohammad Ghanouchi, although an ally of Ben Ali, sought to defuse opposition to the ruling party’s participation in the interim government by promising that he would permanently leave Tunisian politics after organizing free and fair elections within six months.[2] The ploy failed and he resigned days later, and Ennahda was legalized on March 1, 2011. A Constituent Assembly was elected in Tunisia’s first free election since independence in 1956, on October 23, 2011, to provide for a new constitution and to arrange for the interim government until the promised, but now postponed, general elections. Ennahda achieved a plurality of the vote winning 89 of the 217 seats.[3]

Ennahda has shown a willingness to share power, allowing members of two other parties to hold two of the three top positions. The assembly adopted a provisional constitution on December 10, 2011, under which a member of the Congress for the Republic Party was appointed president and Ennahda’s Hamadi Jebali was appointed prime minister.[4] The actual drafting of the constitution began in February 2012, with Ennahda pushing for a parliamentary system and the majority of opposition parties favoring a “semi-presidential” system in which a president and prime minister share power.[5] The draft was recently completed. Rachid Ghannouchi, during his recent visit to the United States repeatedly emphasized that the goal was to achieve consensus constitution, not one that 51% of the electorate would impose on the other 49%.

The transition, still ongoing, has not been without problems, despite its ethnic, linguistic, and religious homogeneity. The rate of unemployment has not improved, for example, and some critics say it has gotten worse.[6] The slow recovery in the economy is not unique to Tunisia, however, as we in the U.S. can attest. More disturbing was the “assassination of leftist, secular politician Chokri Belaid” in February of 2013, which highlighted persistent security problems arising “from three quarters: simple criminal gangs, unruly neighborhood militias, and militant Salafi fundamentalists who act as Ku Klux Klan-style vigilantes against secularists” in the wake of the disbanding of Ben Ali’s secret police.[7] The regular police lack the background and training to effectively deal with the “Salafi” vigilantes “who go around physically assaulting people and disrupting cultural events” of which they do not approve. Ennahda’s tendency to blame the violence on secular “provocation” feeds opposition accusations that Ennahda is complicit in the attacks.[8] Despite the seriousness of problems Tunisia faces, however, they are mild compared to those in the other cases we shall consider. Despite all the problems, a peaceful turnover of power o a transition technocracy in January 2014 pending a vote on a new constitution still leaves the door open for a functioning democratic polity in the future.


Egypt is the most influential of the players and the rebellion there was the most surprising. I readily admit that I did not see it coming, not this soon, anyway. What has become apparent with the benefit of hindsight, however, is that the resignation to Egyptian authoritarianism was restricted to the older generation. The revolutionary divide in Egypt is not between religious and secular, not between left and right, nor Christian and Muslim, but between the young and the old.

The deposition of Mubarak in Egypt does not mean, as it did in Tunisia, that the military is now a benign or at least neutral force in the post-deposition struggle. The Egyptian army is less liberal than Tunisia’s, as well as more deeply entrenched in the political and economic structure of the nation. Egypt suffered from the same crony capitalism as Tunisia, but in the case of Egypt the military was a major beneficiary of the corruption, controlling 40% of the wealth. It could not be trusted to be a neutral force in the contention for power. This left the Muslim Brotherhood, the most effectively organized social force outside the army, in the awkward position of either playing ball with the army, leaving itself open to accusation of counter-revolutionary collusion, or of taking a strong stand against the army and leaving itself wide open to its wrath. The Muslim Brotherhood lacks the sophistication of Ennahda, dividing itself not only from the secular, liberal, leftist, and “Salafi” elements, but most importantly from the Egyptian youth, even those within its own ranks who are leaving it in large numbers, antagonized by the “hear and obey” doctrine of the movement that marginalizes what is not only its most dynamic constituency, but the very ones who have the ability to connect with the young people in the other camps.

Among the mistakes that the MB (and for convenience I include the Freedom and Justice Party under that rubric), committed, leaving itself open to the military coup:

  • Initially electing to refuse to participate in the presidential elections and threatening expulsion of anyone who did run
  • Changing their mind about running a candidate and then rather than apologize to Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh for expelling him, choosing to nominate yet another candidate
  • Backing the incompetent but obedient Muhammad Morsi when their first choice Khairat al-Shater was predictably disqualified by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF)
  • Holding general elections before appointing a constitutional assembly leaving the door open for the dismissal of the parliament by SCAF
  • Being less than generous in the power-sharing of the committee to write the constitution, making the opposition feel disenfranchised
  • Rushing a constitution through with no bill of rights in order to avoid SCAF from using oppositional dissatisfaction as an excuse to void the process

Although the constitution was better than the one it replaced, the absence of a bill of rights insured continued alienation of the opposition. The weakness of the secular, liberal, and leftist strains of the opposition is not a source of strength for the Muslim Brotherhood. To the contrary, the fact that their weakness leaves them vulnerable to the “Salafi” right has left the population confused as to how to correct the problem and they returned to the streets as if no progress had been made. Since this paper was delivered, my fears were vindicated by the removal of the elected government and  proposed replacement of the constitution with one even granting the military even more power than its predecessor.


The Arab spring in Syria began much the same as in Egypt, peaceful on the side of the demonstrators, but quickly turning violent on the side of the regime. This one-sided violence provoked the kind of reaction that nonviolent resistance usually provokes, a gradual erosion of support for the regime with defections from prominent supporters and the emergence of an independent civil society. However, before there could be a critical mass of defections that would force Assad to leave the country, the resistance, apparently with outside encouragement, turned violent. The violence diminished popular support and provided opportunities for terrorist groups, more skilled in violent resistance, to move into the front lines of the opposition. As intelligence support from the West and military aid from the Gulf states became manifest, any incentive for the Russians to pressure the regime in a meaningful way evaporated. With the rise of anti-Shia violence, Iran was pressured to reinforce its support for the regime, despite Shia contempt for the Alawis. The regime played up the role of terrorists and making a show of arms transfer to Hezbollah, crossing an Israeli red line and thus inviting Israeli military action which it no doubt hoped would reinforce Palestinian and leftist support.  Most recently, Hezbollah has actually put “boots on the ground.” Use of tiny quantities of Sarin gas, too small to materially aid whichever side did it, but noticeable enough to provoke the U.S. to assert that its red line has been crossed, has been planted on the battlefield by someone. The U.N. says it cannot identify the perpetrators, but with the U.S. now threatening to arm the rebels if they will fight against their allies with alleged links to al-Qaeda,[9] the old saw “Who benefits?” suggests it was not the regime.

The cumulative effect has been to undermine any hopes of a change of allegiance by the army as had occurred in Tunisia or Egypt. The vast emigration of refugees and the spillover of violence into neighboring states, and the presence of foreign troops are threatening the economy of Jordan, the stability of Lebanon, and the security of Turkey, and providing Israel with the opportunity for military intervention. The open intention of the Gulf states to take advantage of the situation to pressure Iran cements Iranian support for the regime threatening to turn the civil war into a regional war. Because Syria is Russia’s only remaining client in the region, there is a risk that it could turn into a world war.


The reluctance of the United States to repeat the model it used to intervene in the overthrow of Muammar Ghadhafi in the case of Syria is understandable when one observes the consequences in Libya. In Libya, the Western powers armed the rebels and provided air cover on the same pretext of the regime’s violence against civilians. The Libyan dictator was overthrown, albeit in a most lawless and barbaric manner.[10] The Libyan case differs from all the others because Ghadhafi had deliberately avoided any kind of structured central government, allowing local gangs who idolized him to rule under his inspiration. Thus the victors must now build a modern state from scratch rather than simply take over the handles of power. The society’s divisions among various fault lines (“tensions between the youth movement and the National Transitional Council; between local Libyans and returning members of the Libyan diaspora; between secular groups and religious ones, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood; within militia groups that did the fighting; and among Libya’s tribes and ethnic groups”) have become apparent.[11] Despite a U.S. commitment to take advantage of the current situation to create a Libya friendly to its foreign policy objectives, the 9/11/2012 attacks on its CIA operation in Benghazi is only one example of “[a]ttacks on U.S. personnel and facilities [that] have disrupted U.S. aid programs temporarily.”[12]

Despite a general consensus on the desirability of democratic governance under Islamic principles, Libya has endured violent flare-ups with each (mis)step along the path. After successfully electing a General National Congress (GNC), a vote of no-confidence removed the GNC’s prime minister designate was removed last May “after his proposed cabinet was rejected.”[13] The constitution remains stalled as the GNC elected yet another new head after the most recent assembly president was forced to resign by a law prohibiting senior officials under Gaddafi from holding government positions, even if they participated in his deposition.[14]

The struggles, political and military, reflect a struggle between the would-be central government and “a marginalized ‘periphery’ that can challenge the center’s legitimacy via its use of force and appeal to local loyalties” whose “strength stems from the unique events of the eight-month revolution.”[15] Gulf states that assisted in the revolution “have established spheres of influence in the new Libya” that now strengthen the periphery’s resistance to the center. For example, the “Qataris have funded Islamist militias that are challenging the NTC by resisting steps to co-opt their fighters into an institutionalized army.”[16] A constitution still remains to be written.

The violence is not restricted to within Libya. The spillover into nearby states can be seen in Algeria and Mali (where it has justified a French invasion) and threatens to impact other parts of Africa as well.

Recommendations for Islamic Movements

I see three categories of problems in bringing an “Arab spring” to a successful transition into a liberal Islamic democracy. Some problems are historical. Some have to do with the consequences of excessive foreign intervention into the revolutions themselves. Some have to do with a failure of vision and strategic planning in the transition itself.

The historical problems are the most difficult to deal with, since history cannot be changed and since Arabs have notoriously long memories. I believe that “truth and reconciliation” process modeled on South Africa’s is the only means of dealing with that problem. I realize this will be a hard sell, but truth and reconciliation are both Islamic values.

The excessive foreign intervention is a problem for the diaspora Muslim community to address. We must develop a coherent and intelligent influence within the countries in which we reside to encourage moral leadership while discouraging military intervention.

As for vision and strategic planning, Muslims who wish to effectuate a liberal Islamic democracy must attend carefully to proper procedure and make a deliberate effort of inclusion through locally appropriate methods of checks and balances and guarantees of the autonomy of sub-national collectivities and the rights of all parties even to the level of the individual.[17]

How can Islamic movements can benefit from these lessons? Surely, we already have a model in the sunnah of the Prophet (saws). Truth and reconciliation was what was effected between the tribes of Yathrib. At no time did the Prophet require forgiveness between the parties (although he did encourage it). Each party could still believe that it had been in the right in the past, but they must put the past behind them as they forged the new community for the future. “Speak the truth even against yourselves or nearest of kin” and at the same time “Allah has put affection into your hearts…” Muslims in Egypt cannot reconcile with Christians without admitting to the injustices they have done to them in the past. Ditto for the Alawis as regards other groups in Syria, etc. In South Africa, too, no contrition was required of the former perpetrators of the apartheid system; only that they told the truth.

As far as we Muslims in America are concerned, we should recognize that sixty years ago the Jewish community in this country was where we are now. There is nothing to stop us from uniting and organizing as they have to become an effective political force. The only difference is that as far as foreign policy is concerned (as opposed to civil rights, where our struggle is the same as theirs) we should unite to struggle for justice and peace rather than for special benefits to a favored foreign state.

As to the need for vision and strategy, we American Muslims can help our brothers and sisters in the Arab spring states by taking our show on the road to them and providing their intellectuals with guidance on how good government stems from Islamic values and precedents. These topics have been intelligently dealt with at previous summer institutes here at IIIT. Those lessons need to be shared with the policymakers and activists, especially the young ones, in the Arab world. On behalf of the Minaret of Freedom Institute I declare our eagerness to collaborate on workshops on liberty, markets, civil society, good governance, the importance of inclusion (especially of youth) and truth and reconciliation with anyone who agrees with the conclusions of this paper. That is how can make it through this long hot Arab summer to create prosperous, pious, and free Arab states whose relationship with the West shall be one of friendly independence among equals. I realize some may deem such an end state a fantasy, but I believe Allah has the power to effectuate what he wills, and that He has promised victory to those who join together in truth and in patient perseverance.

[1] C.M. Henry and R. Springbord, “The Tunisian Army: Defending the Beachhead of Democracy in the Arab World,” Huffington Post (1/26/2011) Accessed 5/13/13.

[2] “Tunisian PM Pledges To Quit Politics After Elections,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (1/22/2011) Accessed 5/13/13.

[3] “Tunisian Constituent Assembly election, 2011” Wikipedia (5/13/2013),_2011. Accesse 5/13/2013.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] S. Khalil, “Tunisia struggles years after the Arab Spring” BBC (1/15/2013). Accessed 5/13/13.

[7] J. Cole, “Why Tunisia’s Arab Spring is in Turmoil” (2/9/2013). . Accessed 5/13/2013.

[8] Ibid.

[9] P. Sands, “America’s Hidden Agenda in Syria’s War,” The National (5/9/2013) Accessed 5/15/2013.

[10] P. Bouckaert , “Death of a Dictator: Bloody Vengeance in Sirte,” Human Rights Watch (2012) Accessed 5/15/2013.

[11] S. T. Tempelhof and M. Omar, “Stakeholders of Libya’s February 17 Revolution,” USIP (2012) Accessed 5/15/2013.

[12] Ibid.

[13] C.M. Blanchard, “Libya: Transition and U.S. Policy,” Congressional Research Service (10/18/2012). Accessed 5/15/2013).

[14] Ghaith Shennib, “Libya Assembly Votes in First Berber as New Chief,” Reuters (6/25/2013). Accessed 6/26/2013).

[15] J. Pack and B. Barfi, “In War’s Wake: The Struggle for Post-Qadhafi Libya,” WINEP Policy Focus #118 (Feb. 2012) Accessed 5/15/2013.

[16] Ibid.

[17] See I. Ahmad, The Islamic Rules of Order (Beltsville, MD: amana, 2008).






2 responses to “Four Arab Summers: Diagnoses, Prognoses, and Prescriptions”

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  2. Daikon Avatar

    Although the Soviet Union was dissolved December 1991 alsomt 20 years have passed and Democracy as we have has not taken hold . it is evolving . so it is unrealistic to think it will suddenly come to the oppressed peoples in the Middle East (or anywhere else) but it could begin in that direction and its success will likely be in proportion to the people doing it from within and the amount of outside interference.

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