THE SATURDAY INTERVIEW
Satuday, May 19, 2012
THE SATURDAY INTERVIEW
‘India risks facing its own spring’
Azzedine Layachi is professor of government and politics at St John’s University, New York. He is the author of several books including The United States and North Africa: A Cognitive Approach to Foreign Policy; Economic Crisis and Political Change in North Africa; State, Society and Liberalization in Morocco: The Limits of Associative Life; and Global Studies: The Middle East. He has contributed a number of articles to Arab Studies Quarterly, Middle East Quarterly, the Journal of North African Studies, The Middle East Report and Information Project, Mediterranean Politics, Middle East Insight and Foreign Affairs. He is member of the Executive Board of the American Institute of Maghribi Studies (AIMS) and of the advisory board of the Maghreb Center (Washington DC). He was recently in Jamia Millia Islamia to attend a seminar titled Arab Spring: Region and India and spoke to MOINUDDIN AHMAD
There are quite a few definitions of Arab Spring. How do you see it?
In fact, very few people have taken a moment to define “Arab Spring” beyond meaning “successful popular revolt against authoritarian rulers”. I have personally been limiting my use of this expression because the phenomenon has been misconstrued, misunderstood and, at times, manipulated. I prefer the expressions “popular revolts”, “mass protests”, and “social upheavals”. Also, the word “Arab” in the expression tends to exclude those who have rebelled but do not necessarily share the Arab identity, such as the Berbers of North Africa. In any case, if I were to use this expression, I would then use it with a working definition, which is: the “Arab Spring” refers to a mass protest (peaceful or violent) against existing political and economic systems, rulers and policies in the Arab region, demanding a fundamental change; such protest is persistent, vocal, and challenging or ending the status quo.
More than a year has passed since the Arab Spring and even after regime changes in Tunisia and Egypt, the storm has not blown over. Do you think that tyranny has just taken another form and not really been trounced?
Indeed, in most cases, it may take years for the dust to settle. The overthrow of the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen is an important act of rejection of the perennial rule of mediocre autocrats who were in power for decades. In the cases of Libya and Tunisia, the answer to your question will have to wait for a while since what were termed “revolutions” are at their early stage. In the case of Egypt, it is very clear that the old regime is still in place. The military council in charge has made some concessions to the resilient protesters, but without necessarily changing the fundamentals of the regime.
What kind of role, according to you, have the Arab intellectuals played during the uprising? Do you think they were able to come out with some concrete solutions to the problem?
The short answer is that the Arab intellectuals played no role in the uprising and they have yet to offer a plan for the future. As noted by others, the Arab intellectuals seem to have been almost totally absent during the first year of generalised uprising across the Arab world. Almost no intellectual stood out as an active participant in the uprising by way of intellectual production, articulation of views and strategies for the protests, and actual participation in the organisation and leadership of the protests. This can be explained by several complex reasons, including the long-standing governmental repression of independent and critical thinking in most Arab countries; life in exile for many intellectuals who dared challenge the existing systems ~ the exiles, forced or voluntary ~ made many Arab intellectuals lose touch with the realities and mutations of their home societies; the new age of social media and of the fast bloggers and superfast tweeters catering to a new internet-savvy generation with almost no interest in, or patience for, lengthy ideological or “intellectual” exhortations. Also, the rise of political Islam (of Islamism) marginalised further the Arab intellectuals in countries like Algeria and Egypt of the 1990s.
Where do you place religion in Arab society? What kind of role can religion play in shaping the constitutions of these countries?
Just like any other society in the world, the Arab societies give a lot of importance to religion. At times in history, faith played a conservative role and in its name people and movements shunned change; at other time, that same faith inspired upheavals and revolutions such as the 1979 Iranian one. From the late 1970s to the mid 1990s, several Islamist movements tried to bring about regime changes in various countries and the Islamic states ruled according to a given interpretation of the Quran and of Islamic teachings and traditions. These movements failed in their frontal confrontation with various Arab states and societies. However, today, we see the return of several Islamist groups with a new attitude (and attire) in the political sphere from which they had been either banned or in which their activism was severely restricted and controlled.
It was feared that post-spring regimes might have a strong religious outlook. Muslim Brotherhood (Al Ikhwan al Muslimeen) has done well in the recent Egyptian elections. Do you think that such parties would make the countries theocratic?
The question that is on everyone’s mind today, is what would be the extent of religious influence on the constitutional order being elaborated nowadays in places like Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and even Algeria that did not experience the so-called Arab Spring. The answer to this question will depend on the outcome of the struggle between secular and religious forces that is taking place now. The upheavals of 2011 were not generated by religious slogans and the imagined future does not necessarily include an absolute rule of imams and other religious authorities.
The Turkish model is touted as one of the best options for the Arabs. What do you think?
The “universalisation of a particular type” of regime is always uncertain and full of dangers. See for example the “universalising of the Western European model of secular democracy (that is, if there is a unique model, which is not really the case). The “Turkish model” is brandished these days only as far as the co-existence ~ not to say the merging ~ of Islam and democracy. The accomplishments of Turkey with regard to democratisation in the last 15 to 20 years may serve as an inspiration, but the “Turkish Model” as such cannot be transplanted, just like all other models simply because there is a unique history behind it and much of it is not necessarily enviable such as military rule, repression of dissenters and extreme secularist fervour, among other things.
Do you think the USA and Europe failed to anticipate the Arab Spring? Some of the regimes were favourable to them, were there any efforts to save them?
I think that the United States and Europe, just like everybody else, were surprised by the popular upheavals, their extent and dramatic effects. These revolts toppled regimes that were propped up and maintained by these Western powers. For them, these Arab regimes were moderate, ‘strong’, stable and not an obstacle to the pursuit of Western interest in the region. Except for Gaddafi ~ who excelled in the art of creating enemies for himself, even among Arab rulers ~ the West did not support outright the upheavals in the Arab world.
In what ways can India be an influence in restoring democracy in the region? Are there any lessons people can learn from India?
India has important interest in the MENA (Middle East and north Africa) region, mostly economic. It imports most of its energy needs from that region and close to six million of its expatriates live and work there. Of course, India could have played ~ and still could play ~ a much bigger role by helping the various Arab countries where the masses are challenging their rulers. However, it has not done so probably out of fear of jeopardising its interests in the region and of concern for the potential negative fate of its expatriate labour force, and the possible impact of a proactive policy on its own internal political balance. This does not mean of course that it cannot serve as a passive example of a country of many challenges that been able to establish a working democratic setting in a country of numerous political, economic, religious, ethnic and linguistic groups. Beyond this, India, unfortunately, cannot claim to be a good example of how the federal and state governments have dealt with the issues of economic inequality and disparities, large-scale poverty, entrenched corruption and the social caste system; these problems still constitute serious challenges in India and they have yet to be adequately addressed and resolved. They, in fact, prevent India from being both an advocate of change and an example of successful management of these problems. In fact, these problems are part of many reasons why India risks facing its own spring in the near future.