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Violent dissent and the dream of democracy

Democracy was a word that appeared on banners held high by young revolutionaries in Arab Spring countries, but it seems that word is destined to remain on paper

Image Credit: Luis Vazquez/©Gulf News
Gulf News

Millions of people in Arab Spring nations are painfully realising that the fruits of revolution are not all they were cracked up to be. January 25 was meant to be a joyous occasion in Egypt, but instead of fireworks, there were Molotov cocktails and smoke from burning tyres and torched buildings. No major Egyptian city escaped violent protests resulting in hundreds of injuries and at least ten fatalities. Demonstrators were angry that their revolution had been hijacked by Islamists. Those interviewed by Arab networks were increasingly breaking a taboo. Life was better under Hosni Mubarak, they said. In terms of security, stability, jobs and cash in people’s pockets, it indisputably was.

The anti-government crowd calling for freedom, dignity and social justice accuses President Mohammad Mursi of failing to deliver on his promises and pushing through an Islamist-weighted constitution.

The Muslim Brotherhood blames “thugs”, “opposition parties” and a“misleading media” for inciting civil unrest. Mursi has declared a state of emergency in Port Said, Suez and Esmailiya where anger was further unleashed when football hooligans from the region were sentenced to death for killing visiting Al Ahly supporters. There are no winners.

The optimists advocate patience, saying any transition to democracy requires time. However, havoc partnered with deprivation is hardening opinions and spawning extremist groups such as Black Bloc, an anarchist militia responsible for many of last Friday’s attacks on public buildings and Muslim Brotherhood offices. Its members wear black, carry black flags adorned with anarchist symbols and cover their faces with bandanas or ski-masks.

A sinister video filmed in Alexandria shows Black Bloc members marching, their right fists ominously clenched; another sends the message “We fight for you” and touts for recruits. This group is viewed with suspicion by the opposition which fears Black Bloc’s aggressive posture can tar peaceful demonstrators with the same brush.

At the other end of the spectrum is a video, widely aired on privately-owned Egyptian channels, of armed men dressed as Bedouins amid a mountainous desert landscape, threatening to kill Copts and anyone else standing in the way of Egypt becoming an Islamic state.

Since Mubarak’s overthrow, Sinai has become a lawless magnet for terrorist groups. The pipeline that transports natural gas to Jordan has been sabotaged more than a dozen times within the last two years and there have been numerous attacks on police and security forces, including an ambush by suspected Al Qaida-linked terrorists on a police patrol close to the Egypt-Israel border earlier this month.

Violent dissent is crippling the nation’s economic recovery and unless the president reaches out to the opposition, starting with a re-drafting of the constitution, the short-term future looks bleak. Egypt’s neighbours haven’t fared very well either.

The civil uprising in Syria against the Bashar Al Assad dynasty has morphed into a bloody civil war that has robbed more than 60,000 of their lives, according to the UN. Foreign and local jihadists are multiplying in the country. One in particular, the Nusra Front, is gaining in popularity partly due to its humanitarian efforts, but makes no pretence that it seeks democracy.

A senior commander told BBC that Syrians were fed-up with socialist and secular regimes and were looking forward to an Islamist state. “It’s impossible there could be anything else in Syria,” he added. Speaking in Davos, Jordan’s King Abdullah warned that Al Qaida was established in Syria and subsequent to Al Assad’s departure it would take years to cleanse the country of jihadists. “The new Taliban we are going to have to deal with are in Syria,” he said.

Since the ouster of the Muammar Gaddafi regime in Libya, jihadists have not only proliferated, but are fanning out with weapons gifted by western powers to disturb bordering countries. Russian officials are saying “We told you so”. “Those whom the French and Africans are fighting now in Mali are the same people who ... our Western partners had armed so that they would overthrow the Gaddafi regime,” said Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov. Algeria believes terrorists who held workers hostage at an oil field with tragic consequences had shopped for their weapons in Tripoli.

It is ironic that the UK, France and Germany are advising their nationals to quit Libya because of an unspecified threat when those countries were at the forefront of the Libyan people’s liberation and that ‘Made-in-USA’ weapons are falling into the hands of extremists in Sinai, Gaza, Syria and Mali. Libyan fighters who helped vanquish Gaddafi’s troops have refused to hand over their weapons to the government, which has little authority outside the capital and like Syrian rebels are demanding an Islamist constitution and the introduction of Sharia.

Democracy was a word that appeared on banners held high by young revolutionaries in Arab Spring countries, but it seems that word is destined to remain on paper. Those championing theocracies are drowning out voices for freedom and are prepared to go to any lengths to achieve their goal. Sad to say, but moderates in Egypt, Syria, Libya are being out-manoeuvred by fanatics — and, yes, there may come a day when in retrospect, dictatorship will not seem so bad after all.

Linda S. Heard is a specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She can be contacted at