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Will Buds from the Arab Spring Continue to Blossom?

Something began during the Arab Spring that is irreversible, contends Wilson Center Scholar Roberto Toscano. The Arab masses feel empowered and have set the stage for economic and social transformation.

Will Buds from the Arab Spring Continue to Blossom?

Sometimes spring comes prematurely, and the tender buds that were promising to blossom can be frozen and destroyed by a resilient winter. Will this be the case for the Arab Spring?

Yes and no. In spite of the blowback in Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain, there is something that is irreversible, not so much the political results in Tunisia and Egypt, but the feeling of empowerment of the Arab masses, and the revelation that the autocrats, once thought of as formidable, are substantially weakened. This knowledge will not be lost, and will produce results—some earlier, some later. "Yes we can" is something the Arab masses, especially the younger generations, will not forget and will not give up.

The basic issue, however, is power. How will that demand, that consciousness, be able to prevail against violent and merciless structures of power? There is no successful insurrection against determined and united armed forces. And if the armed forces split, then civil war erupts. The first case spells Iran, the second Libya.

The roots of the protest are similar throughout the region: indignation (for stolen votes, stolen lives, stolen rights); the demand for respect; the anger at corruption. Yet every country is different and will have different paths to change. But change will come.
The time has come for political elites to listen to the people instead of trying to impose ideological platforms—Islamism, Western-style liberalism, late Marxism. We should now think in terms of a space for different options within one single political-constitutional framework. But isn't that what democracy is all about?

The very concept of democracy should be examined more carefully. It should be made clear when we say democracy, we do not mean just majority rule. In that case, political Islam, even of the radical kind, could be defined as "democratic." Hezbollah and Hamas win elections and the Muslim Brotherhood will run in democratic elections, probably with significant results. It is doubtful whether radical political Islam is liberal, i.e. respectful of pluralism and of the rights of minorities.

The only hope for the Middle East is the "liberalization" of Muslim masses and the "democratization" of Western elites. This is a long and difficult process, but it will be made inevitable, and sustainable, by the social and economic transformations affecting the way people live throughout the region.

We should stop wondering (and worrying) about the influence of religion on society, and focus instead on the influence of a changing society on religion, in this case, Islam. After all, the history of Christianity shows us exactly that.

About the Author

Roberto Toscano

Former Public Policy Scholar, Wilson Center; Senior Research Associate, Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB); and former Ambassador to Iran (2003-2008) and India (2008-2010)
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Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform US foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more