Now that the pattern is clear – dictatorships of decades are crumbling day in and day out – the Arab world faces at least three major challenges, which are equally hard to live up to. With their liberation an undisputed fact, Arab peoples have to deal with how to establish lasting and thriving democracies, how to integrate women into a society that is overwhelmingly Muslim and how to dissociate themselves from what has been too often associated with Islam – brute violence.
What Arab tyrants of many decades left behind is largely a political void. In a system of political oppression, where dissenting voices were squashed methodically, no viable opposition parties survived. At present, the only real political alternative is the religious parties, of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood kin.
Indeed, those parties have two clear advantages over any potential challenger – they are the first out of the gate and they have the infrastructure of existing religious institutions. The head start of organized parties is invaluable in the political contest – they already possess the capacity to campaign and potentially rule. Conversely, the mere existence of their potential contenders is largely in question; it is not at all clear how many and what type of parties will emerge from the political rubble left behind Mubarak, Gaddafi and Ben-Ali.
As for infrastructure, the religious parties enjoy the support of a network of institutions with an agenda related to their own – these are the mosques, religious leaders and the religious communities around them, which practice Islam as a way of life. Those religious parties, however, will not suffice. A plurality of parties is a necessary condition for the thriving of democracy of the type demonstrators in squares from Cairo to Tripoli and from Manama to Tunis demand.
The masses that took to the street to oust despots will have to make this point loud and clear. A system with several viable political parties is the only way to build a democratic system with a vibrant civil society and government institutions that provide both stability and political representation.
Status of women
Inextricably linked to the democratic nature of the political system is the status of women in it. The presence of women among demonstrators all over the Arab world was a conspicuous feature of the mass movements in Tahrir, Pearl and other squares in Arab national capitals. Young women, interviewed on foreign television channels, had in their eyes the same hopes and aspirations as their men counterparts. They articulated as eloquently as their male brothers their expectation to be free and the hope to redeem their honor after years of humiliation and frustration.
However, incorporation of women has proven a pernicious issue in the Arab world. Political participation and equal rights for women have been unattainable in most Middle Eastern and North African nations. With the overwhelming majority of the citizens being Muslims, once the revolution is complete, the real challenge would be to allow women equal participation in the political sphere.
Women made a significant contribution to revolutions, the fruits of which they have equal interest in. The big question now is whether they will be granted the rights to fully benefit from those fruits. A real democratic system should not be limited to the procedural and the institutional – it should not only create a multi-party system and democratic institutions of government – but should also have democratic substance, for which women’s rights are crucial.
Sky is the limitFinally, the acts of (often mass) violence launched in recent decades in the name of Islam were often attributed to poverty, ignorance and poor education in the Arab world. In the eyes of many, Islam as a religion is associated as a result of these acts with aggression and bloodshed. Al-Qaeda and other equally lethal terrorist groups were breeding, it was said, on the fertile grounds of the disenfranchised Arab populace.
Such horrific acts as suicide attacks were the result of the success of recruiters of terrorist groups to capitalize on the aggravation of those striving to, but unable to attain, a life worth living. Violence was the result, it was argued, of unqualified American support for dictators operating in total detachment from the needs of their peoples.
With the oppression gone and the winds of change potentially bringing modernity, education and economic growth in their wings, the onus of proof is now on the Arab nations. It is for them to show that unlike what many in the West believe – openly or in their heart of hearts – violence is not part and parcel of the religion of Islam and is not inextricably linked to the “Arab mentality.”
The nonviolent nature of the revolutions and the restraint of antigovernment demonstrators even in the face of brutal provocations by government militia, such as we saw in Tahrir Square, are a first important step in this direction.
Will the Arab world live up to those challenges? Even the revolutionary cascade we have witnessed in Arab capitals all over the Middle East and North Africa was considered unthinkable just two months ago. It is now up to Arab nations to show that the sky is the limit; that the will of their peoples is able to go way beyond the ousting of tyrants and can bring democracy, equality and peace to a region fraught with tyranny, oppression and war.
Dr. Udi Sommer is lecturer of political science at Tel Aviv University
- Follow Ynetnews on Facebook