Bill Bonnar looks at the current situation in North Africa’s diverse states in the wake of the momentous events of the Arab Spring.
When we talk about the impact of the Arab Spring, this has impacted most in the Arab states of North Africa. This covers the vast Saharan region and comprises Morocco, Western Sahara, Mauritania, Mali, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Sudan. Although all these states have marked differences they also have much in common. They share much in the way of a common history and culture shaped by the desert nature of their environment. Predominantly Arab and Muslim they have all been shaped by the impact of colonialism and the post-colonial settlements. They are also societies where modernism and tradition can conflict in dramatic ways. The Arab Spring began in Tunisia and the following is a brief account of its impact on the above countries.
Tunisia – as stated earlier the Arab Spring officially began in Tunisia with the protest against police corruption and lawlessness sparked a nationwide movement for change. This movement forced the removal of the president and his immediate entourage and the holding of democratic elections. The resulting government, although Islamic in character, has pledged to protect Tunisia’s secular system.
Egypt – Mass protests led to the removal of the Mubarak dictatorship and the holding of elections. This has revealed a deeply divided society split between Islamic fundamentalist groups and an alliance of liberal, secular and non – Muslim forces.
Libya – an uprising in the east of the country supported by Nato led to the violent overthrow of the Gadhafi regime. The country is now government by a weak dependent regime while large parts of the country are effectively ruled by local militias.
Mali – An armed uprising in the north of the country supported by various Islamic fundamentalist groups led to the collapse of the central government and the military intervention of French forces primarily to protect French economic and strategic interests in the region.
Morocco – mass demonstrations led to the resignation of the government and forced the king to produce a new constitution agreeing some democratic reforms.
Western Sahara – controlled by Morocco there has been a dramatic increase in pro-independence activity and for the main opposition force; Polisario.
Mauritania – the country has witnessed significant pro-democracy demonstrations.
Algeria – mass protests led to the lifting of a 19 year state of emergency and the introduction of a reform programme.
Sudan – the long running conflict between the north and south of the country led to the south breaking away to form the new state of South Sudan.
In the case of Libya, Egypt and Tunisia three of the most entrenched regimes in the region were overthrown while the process of change is still very much under way. Few would have predicted the above just two years ago; what the next two years will bring is open to speculation.
At the heart of all the current conflicts is the fault line that runs through all Arab Muslim societies; the conflict between Islamic fundamentalism and secularism. Within this there is the conflict between conservatism and modernity, between progress and reaction, between democracy and authoritarianism, between Left and Right and around the issue of women’s rights and the rights of minorities.
Since all the above countries came into existence as modern states two broad visions of how society should be have emerged. The first is a society shaped by the values and institutions of an Islamic state. An Islamic state is not and can never be a democracy. Democracy implies that power rests with the people and that people will be responsible for how society is organised. In an Islamic state power rests with God and it is God who ‘orders the affairs of men’ usually through his chosen representatives; the Mullahs and Imams. The creation of an Islamic state is not just about how society is organised it also imposes a moral order on each individual sanctioned by law. The experience of Islamic states in the modern world is that they tend to be socially conservative, defend existing wealth and power, are authoritarian, intolerant towards minorities and institutionalise discrimination against women. The Left sometimes fall into the trap of mistaking the often anti-western radicalism of Islamic fundamentalist groups as something they can ally themselves to. Yet the reality is that the aims of such groups are entirely reactionary and lead to the creation of a society that the Left could never reconcile itself with.