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Contemporary Islam: Challenges and Opportunities >
The Arab Awakening: Between Authoritarianism and Pluralism

Throughout Muslim history, Muslim territories were governed by Muslim empires and sultanates, dynasties and authoritarian rulers, and in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by European colonial governments. By the mid-20th century, independence movements from North Africa to Southeast Asia brought about the end of the colonial period and the emergence of autonomous Muslim nation states. Leaders came to power (kings, military and ex-military), most unelected. Authoritarian systems of government, whose legitimacy and stability was rooted in strong military and security forces, emerged and there was limited to no significant political participation. Fearing that in the absence of repressive systems, a more threatening regime, one driven by a religious ideology, might come to power, Western governments extolled the values of liberal democracies but supported Arab autocrats like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Tunisia’s Zeine Abedin Ben Ali and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, to ostensibly secure their national interests and maintain stability in the region.

The second decade of the 21st century, however, was a period that proved ripe for change. The wave of violent and non-violent demonstrations that occurred in Cairo, Tunis, Rabat, Manama, Damascus, Tripoli, and Sana’a and percolated throughout North Africa and the Middle East was a clear indication that Arab and Muslim societies were no longer willing to accept the authoritarian bargain. They confirmed what many major polls (Gallup World Polls, PEW, Zogby and others) had reported previously: majorities throughout the Muslim world desire participatory politics and the freedoms and liberties associated with democratic government.

The “Arab Spring” or “Arab Awakening” as it has been called, marked a historic transition in the political makeup of countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria. A broad sector of society, eager for change and democratic reforms, made their voices heard, reclaiming their dignity and national pride and insisting that they would decide the direction and the future of their countries. Though initially not among the leadership, in post uprising elections Islamist candidates and parties swept into power in Egypt (the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and Salafi, especially the Noor Party) and Tunisia (Ennahda, the Renaissance, Party) although not in Libya. If many voted for Islamists, many others were dismayed and feared Islamist rule would lead to increased religiosity in politics. Some asked: “Can the Islamists lead?”

Indeed, many in countries like Egypt and Tunisia agreed that election results, while polarizing, were the product of a free and fair process. This process was also a beginning — a first step on a path towards a future that will hopefully consist of more free and fair elections, more political parties, more freedoms, and the evolution of democracy in a region where free and fair participation has been absent. Far from monolithic, Muslim Brotherhood and Ennahda and Salafis incorporate diverse currents, ideologically, politically, and socio-economically. Many in leadership positions were challenged to move beyond the elder-dominated hierarchical structure and authority of the past, and engage in greater power sharing by bringing in support from younger representatives and opposition members. American and European policymakers were equally challenged to work with Islamically oriented government leaders. The question of “How” will Islam and democracy be compatible became even more real and relevant now. New governments in both Egypt and Tunisia spoke of a civil state with an Islamic reference and equality of citizenship for all, what will that mean regarding implementation of shariah and the rights and freedoms of religious minorities, secularists and women. However, the challenges facing new governments needing to satisfy the expectations of diverse sectors of society, and in particular to jump start failed economies and address issues of high unemployment and now high expectations were formidable. At the same time, the Egyptian and Tunisian governments were challenged by the still powerful secular parties, including illiberal secularists, and especially the entrenched remnants of the Mubarak and Ben Ali regimes (military, police, judiciary, and a vast bureaucracy), often referred to as “the deep state”.

By 2013, the Arab Spring with its uprisings signaling a desire for a new way forward, the overthrow of the established authoritarian governments in many Arab countries, and the struggles to establish a new kind of democracy, began to look like an Arab Winter. In Syria, the death toll in the fight to oust the regime of Bashir Al-Assad and his opposition saw the death toll rise to 100,000, vast destruction of the country, more than 1.75 refugees in Turkey, Jordan and North Africa, a fractured anti-Assad opposition and the influx of foreign militant militias.

Both the governments of Egypt and Tunisia struggled to govern and to deal with opposition critics and movements. The most hard hit was Egypt where a nationwide anti-Morsi and anti-Brotherhood protest movement galvanized on June 30, around the anniversary of Morsi's troubled first year in power. On July 3, Morsi was ousted by General Army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in a military-led coup.

The Morsi government made many mistakes, and mishandled multiple opportunities. The anti-Morsi opposition included many (liberals, marginalized revolutionary Arab youth, secularists and leftists, marginalized revolutionary Arab youth, and Copts) with genuine concerns and grievances: failure to reach out more effectively and build a more representative coalition government; to turn around Egypt’s failed economy with its unemployment, poverty, and cost of living. However, the backbone of the opposition movement consisted of individuals and institutions representing the deep state legacy of the Mubarak regime (the military, the judges of the state constitutional court, the interior ministry, police, and state media as well as a strong contingent of illiberal secularists (intellectuals, businessmen, TV and media personalities. While some called for a second revolution and others warned of a civil war, still others feared an end to the promises of Tahrir Square and democracy in Egypt. Politics became polarized into a growing "culture war" between the opposition and the Morsi government and its supporters with charges, counter charges and mutual demonization. An opposition of millions in large scale demonstrations across Egypt moved from demands for major reforms to violent clashes and a demand that Morsi resign or be driven from office, providing an excuse for a military-backed coup and a return to authoritarianism.

Three weeks after the removal of President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) from power, the interim government appointed19 generals as the governors of Egypt's provinces. The interim government systematically shut down television stations and blocked satellite channels, imprisoning and killing Egyptian and Western journalists and initiated a policy to suppress and eradicate the Brotherhood.

Faced with large non-violent sit-ins by the Muslim Brotherhood at al-Nahda Square and Rabaa al-Adawiya Square in Cairo, on 14 August 2013 Egyptian security forces, using lethal force and snipers, launched an operation, to clear and expel Muslim Brothers and other supporters of the ousted President, the vast majority of whom were unarmed. The raids were described, by Human Rights Watch and other experts, as the most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in modern Egyptian history. According to post coup interim government statistics, 638 people were killed, 595 civilians and 43 police officers, and some 3,994 injured at Rabaa Square. However, other estimates ranged from 2600 upwards dead and more than 4500 injured in what came to be called the Massacre at Rabia Square.

The Rabaa killings sparked serious sectarian violence and attacks on Christian churches and Christians, across Egypt by militant extremists, reportedly incensed by the Coptic Pope Tawadros II’s public backing of the military-led coup and support for security forces crackdown at Rabaa. While the Brotherhood leadership publically counseled against violence, some outraged followers as well as non-Muslim Brotherhood Islamic militant groups and thugs destroyed at least 32 churches and attacked and robbed Christian-owned shops, businesses and schools, leading a senior official for HRW to comment, ”Security forces did little or nothing to protect churches, despite the high likelihood of such attacks…. Egyptian security officials bear responsibility not only for what they did in breaking up the protests but for their failure to protect churches and Christian communities against predictable reprisal attacks.”

On Dec 25, 2013 Egypt's military-backed interim government on Wednesday declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group, intensifying its campaign to eradicate the Brotherhood through repression, mass arrests, imprisonment and torture and two controversial trials which grew out of the confrontations and violence at the Rabba Square.

On March 24, 2014, an Egyptian court tried and subsequently condemned 529 people to death after only one session – a one-hour hearing in which defense lawyers were prevented from presenting arguments, and the prosecution offered no evidence, according to human rights groups.

A month later on April 28, 2014, in one of the biggest death-sentence round ups in modern history, 683 peoplewere sentenced to death. As with the first trial, many world leaders and human rights organizations criticized or denounced the verdict.

By mid- 2014, more than 21,000 people had been arrested and imprisoned since the July 3, 2013 coup. While the majority were members or supporters of the Brotherhood, many others were critics, including those who initially had supported the ouster of Morsi, but soon became opposed to what they saw as a return to authoritarian rule. The interim military backed government’s growing intolerance of any and all dissent was signaled when a court in Cairo banned the pro-democracy April 6 movement that had played a critical role in the 2011 uprisings that led to the toppling of Hosni Mubarak.

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