After the spring: Which Way Forward for the Middle East

By Dr Mozammel Haque

One-day Conference entitled "After the Spring: Which Way Forward for the Middle East" organised by the Middle East Institute Students group of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), held at the Khalili Lecture Theatre, School of Oriental and African Studies, London on Saturday, 25th of February, 2012. A one-day conference was focusing on the opportunities and challenges shaping the future of the Middle East.

The conference has five Panels. The Second Panel is on "Gender and Sexuality in Revolutionary Politics" and the Panelists are Professor Nadje Al-Ali (Gender Studies), Brian Whitaker of The Guardian and Dina Wahba, activists from the Middle East. The Third Panel was on "Justice, Intervention and the Rule of Law in Transition. In this pnel the panellists were: Leslie Vinjamuri, Anthony Dworkin and Maryam Al-Khawaja. The Fourth Panel was on "Transforming Societies: Social Change Across the Region" and the panellists are Dr. Ruba Salih, Dr. Corinna Mullin and Dr. Kristian Coates Ulrichsan.

The Fifth Panel was on: "Which Way Forward for the Middle East?" The Panelists were Professor Charles Tripp from the School of Asian and African Studies (SOAS), his research interest is Islamic Political Thought; Professor Sami Zubaida of Middle East politics, History and Sociology, Birkback College, London University, his books include Islam: People and the State; Political Ideas and Movement in the Middle East; Beyond Islam: Understanding Middle East Politics, which was published recently and Mr. Roger Hardy, who was more than 20 years of Middle East Analyst with the BBC World Service. He turns his experience as a journalist into a Book, Muslims great u upheaval in Political Islam which was published in 2010: He is currently a visiting Fellow in the Centre of International Studies at the London School of Economics (LSE)

Professor Charles Tripp

While speaking about the mass movements, Professor Charles Tripp said, "One can argue one of the paradoxes of the mass movements of masses one seen obviously so visible last year is what they were protesting and what they were creating was in a sense notion that citizen’s rights was the rights, the rights of plurality, to be different and to have different interests; and so the challenge therefore is how do you realize that in institutional form; how do you, in other words, overcome ideological differences, overcoming social differences, and we heard very much in terms of prejudices of gender and so on and socio-economic differences; how do you recreate that, how do you recreate a set of institutions whereby the legitimacy of the process of changes re-established. The people feel that they are really represented."

After the electoral process in Egypt, Professor Tripp observed how the people feel in Egypt: "We have heard from Dina that feeling that despite the democratic elections that took place; the democratic process that took place in the last three months in Egypt – many people feel that they are not represented, so therefore in a sense what happen to that; where does that politics go; and in some senses it came out in other panel as well, whom do you trust to speak for you?"

Professor Tripp said, "Once you start to institutioinalize, you have to choose representatives and the representatives have to speak and you have to trust the representatives; and you have to trust the process of choice; And one of the features one saw of Tahriar was that decreasing the trusts the people put them forward as spoke-people for the people of Tahriar; the breakdown of that."

Speaking about inertia of institutions, Professor Tripp said, "There are two things of that which is clearly is going to be of huge importance, one is: is if mass uprising is about a protest against a form of control to which people were subjected so long. You have to be very careful of thinking about what kind of systems of control re-emerge in the kind of popular legitimacy and the second is the question of this system of control also have to deliver, that in a sense, people are not only protesting about rights, but they are protesting about unemployment, they are protesting about poverty; they are protesting against degradation of certain kind of lives. So again one can argue one of the problems is, in a sense, a lack of faith in the institutions."

Professor Sami Zubaida

Speaking about revolution, Professor Zubaida said, Many have remarked that this revolution has so far not succeeded, because leaderless revolution or very clear leadership; also very clear what happened in Tunisia and in Egypt and what started in Syria are what you might call the politics of citizenship of people who are calling for universal demands and values and so on livelihood, liberty and dignity; and so on."

Explaining why this revolution, especially in Egypt, leaderless, Professor Zubaida said, "I think if you look at the situation again in Egypt that the successive decades, the leadership; (Gamel Abdel) Nasser, (Anwar) Sadat, (Husni) Mubarak, in fact, Nasser banned political life; or rather monopolised political life; Sadat liberalised it but in a highly controlled in a manipulated way; which continued under Mubarak."

Mentioning about political parties, Professor Zubaida said, "So you have plurality of political parties; left and right and liberal; religious and what have you; but each one of them became a talking shop; they had a newspaper and they have meeting and many of them from old generation recruits; and the reason they failed to recruit new members because every time they tried to form a constituency on popular level they were prevented by repression and by police actions. They, in fact, left parties; activists tried to get involve in labour politics and soon not only labour politics they themselves violently suppressed."

Speaking about Muslim brotherhood and Salafi in Egypt, Professor Zubaida said, "People elected Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis. Now Muslim brotherhood is a mixed bag; there are all kinds of trends within but even take the case of gender; the successive dictatorship in Egypt liberalised Family Laws – Family Laws against very strong opposition at the popular level and against religious activists and conservative forces. And indeed reform to family Laws often labelled by the name of the wives of the dictators. So in fact many of the respected Islamic political leaders making noises say no no; many of the elements there were precisely in the Parliament strongly opposed the family laws and considered it an oppression of man. So in this respect then, we don’t know what to expect from the new democratically elected Parliament."

Professor Zubaida also mentioned, "Don’t forget that one of the main targets of many of the Islamists have been the cultural expressions; the censorship, the banning anything which may be opposed to religion, or insulting religion or the holistic regime that tries to impose in public places, in transport what have you the universities – so all these respects what you have so far in democracy is the democracy established is the representation of what I call the communal authoritarianism. After all these decades of dictatorships and also of the suppression of not only politics but also of civic associations, I say the eternal civil society; but is this civil society a civil; it is a authoritarianism of regime in side by side in the green force the authoritarianism of the communal authoritarianism."

Speaking about Sectarian element, Professor Zubaida said, "Then there is sectarian element you moved to Iraq which slipped out of news. In Iraq, what you have after the 2003 invasion and of course, Iraqi society had been pulverised much more thoroughly than Egyptian society; much more repressive and violent regime, reinforced by repeated wars throughout the 1980s until the time of American invasion in 2003. So this society any kind of civil associations, any form of politics will be thoroughly eradicated. So what you had when Americans invaded and installed democracy, elected leader who was insisted immediate action."

"So, in fact, you have representation of the fragmented and the pulverised society which has lost its citizenship element; what all it has left only was the communalism and the communalism was based only on locality, kinship, tribe and religion," said Professor Zubaida.

Speaking about religion and Shia community in Iraq, Professor Zubaida observed, "Even religion has not unified Shia. In Iraq, the Shiites are not one group, we know; they are many and they are represented in very fragmented ways in this parliament and they all have their share on their bargains and on their argue as to who can pledge to what ministry and group. So in fact, you have a situation in which essentially the Government and the leadership is supposedly the Shiite government and the leadership; and the great majority of the Shia population in Iraq lived in great poverty and the very oppressive economic and political conditions. So, in fact, in what way they are represented? They are represented in the sense that each one of them, each family is so dependent on networks of patronages, of handouts and of allegiance and of security which are given to them by the networks that come from this leaderships that, in fact, come from the elections. They vote for the leadership that are oppressing them and from the outside it looks this is a sectarian government representing particular."

While sounding a pessimistic note, Professor Zubaida said, "I am sorry to sound this pessimistic note but I think what we have to look at is not just the regimes and the revolutionary process and the displacement of regime but also got to look at the societies as they have been rendered by the many years of dictatorships and that propensity to communal authoritarianism."