Arab revolution: Democracy or Islamic theocracy in the making

The wave of revolt sweeping the Arab world has divided commentators and political pundits alike. Some speculate that this will lead to the democratization of the Arab world and are eager to make comparisons with the demise of the Iron curtain in 1989. Indeed, such commentators cite parallels between the Arab world and the collapse of the communist rule in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Romania, the Baltic republics of the Soviet Union etc to bolster their arguments. They also point to the chants of democracy and freedom amongst the protestors to augment their case. Then there are those analysts that find similarities between the Arab revolution and the Iranian revolution of 1979. They portend that the Arab world is on a path towards an Iranian style system of government and a threat to the West and Israel. Such analysts buttress their views by signalling out anti-western slogans and calls for the implementation of Shari’ah. Both assessments in many ways are misleading–”at best they are simply fictitious.

In the fall of the Iron Curtain, nations abandoned ‘godless socialism’ and embraced free market capitalism. Eastern European countries shifted from Russia’s sphere of influence to American colonization. The super power struggle between the Soviets and the Americans ended with Russia’s defeat and the ascendency of the lone super power America. Charles Krauthammer a famous American columnist coined the term ‘the unipolar moment’ to describe America’s newfound position in the world.

In contrast, the domino effect that is toppling autocratic leaders across the Arab world has not ended free market capitalism, nor has it ousted the world’s lone super power. Tunisia, Libya and Egypt remain staunchly secular, its solutions are capitalistic in nature and the countries are firmly in the grip of Britain and America. Furthermore, the geopolitical struggle is confined between Europe and America over who controls the hydrocarbons and other riches of the Arab world. If change does materialize, then this will merely be the elimination of European hegemony–”especially British control–”over countries like Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and the Gulf countries. Additionally, the face of the ruling system and apparatus will undergo some modifications to make America’s rule more palatable to the people and stymie further uprisings.

On closer examination, equating the Arab revolution with the Iranian one is flawed. The fall of the Shah and the arrival of Khomeini only switched the rule in Iran from British hands to America hands. Capitalism still flourishes and is peppered with Islamic dressing which to most observers is misconstrued as a form of theocracy. The bottom line is that Iran is a secular regime with some facets of democracy and staunchly operates within ambit of American foreign policy. Again, the bouts of uprisings in Iran is not to seek an end to capitalism, American hegemony or for that matter an end to Western patronage. This is the only similarity between the present rebellions in the Arab world and the Iranian revolution.

If valuable lessons have to be learnt then there are two noteworthy observations. First, the slogans of freedom and democracy amongst the Arab populace, which the Western media is keen to portray in a favourable light, do not necessarily equate to the West’s understanding of freedom and democracy. Rather to the vast majority of protestors, freedom is associated with freedom from tyranny and not freedom from the laws of Islam. Likewise, democracy is likened to the right of the people to elect their own rulers and is not equated with law making and legislation.

Second, it is quite evident that almost all revolutions in societies that covet change – irrespective of ideological orientations – require domestic partners that can tangibly deliver change and ensure genuine independence from Western interference. These partners are the powerful armies of the Arab and Muslim countries. General Rachid Ammar of Tunisia and General Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Sami Hafiz of Egypt could have easily catapulted the revolutions towards real and meaningful change. Instead, they betrayed the pure feelings of their people and chose to stand by the West. Therefore in such cases, the regimes that were responsible for years of despotism and aggression are still in place and are ever more perceived to be safeguarding the interests of the West.

In fact, it is the last point that is attracting the attention of many Arabs to liken their situation today with the establishment of the first Islamic state in Madina. Then, the Arab Muslims sought the help of powerful Arab tribes of Madina to establish the Islamic state, and today more and more are seeking to emulate this. Hence the real danger for the West is that the Arab revolution may neither produce democracy nor an Iranian style government, but a system of Islamic ruling based on the Islamic state of Madina that later transformed and engulfed three continents.