The metaphor of ‘spring’ works well in the context of revolutions and mass uprisings. Winter is a time of suffering and need for some and a period of hibernation for others. Spring marks an awakening. And so it was a year-and-half ago, with a number of nations in the Arab world.
Across the sands of North Africa and Asia, dictators well past their ‘use-by’ dates were deserted by those who had once used them. In most places, the West cheered the newly awakened masses, lending voice and money. In Libya, they flew in the warplanes.
Regimes are like the weather: they can change in a day. But the concept of nationalism has the lasting, cyclical nature of ‘climate’ — and it doesn’t take very kindly to tinkering. The Arab Spring is behind us, as is most of the violent ‘summer’ that followed it. What we can reasonably expect now is the arrival of an Arab autumn — a time when all the ornaments of Arab nationalism will fall away like leaves, laying bare the branches that held it together. Not everybody will like what they see.
The constitutional crisis in Egypt isn’t what the urban revolutionaries of Tahrir Square expected from their uprising. It has come about because a majority of Egyptians voted for a party created by the Muslim Brotherhood — an organisation Hosni Mubarak did everything to crush — which the protesters didn’t think Egypt would actually elect.
President Mohamed Morsi’s public positions are moderate, but his leadership is built on a radical base. His campaign was launched by a prominent cleric, who held out the hope that President Morsi’s election would “liberate Gaza tomorrow” and that it would restore the “United States of the Arabs” with its capital not in Cairo, Mecca or Medina, but in Jerusalem.
President Morsi and his party won Egypt’s first democratic election fair and square. And the Arab Spring was also an awakening of the Muslim Brotherhood, banned for 84 years in Egypt. It is a little late to express discomfort over the Brotherhood’s motto — ‘Islam is the solution’ — or have apprehensions about the kind of constitution Egypt may get under the new president.
In Libya, the intervention was direct. Military action was short and sharp but has had consequences in a much larger swathe of land than intended. Muammar Gaddafi’s brutal murder by his own people, a democratic election and the fact that Libya hasn’t been splintered by the civil war might be seen as victories. But what about neighbouring Mali?
The Tuaregs, scattered across North Africa and in perpetual rebellion in Libya’s south have sympathy for al Qaeda and ambitions of nationhood. The weapons from the Libyan War provided them an opportunity to carve a country out of northern Mali.
Mali’s small army — disgruntled by the weakness shown by the democratically elected government in the capital Bamako — headed south and mounted a coup. Now, Mali is split between a junta and an Islamist regime. The West wouldn’t have wanted either outcome in Libya. They have got both in Mali.
Mali doesn’t matter. It doesn’t have oil. Though once, its rulers are said to have had so much gold that they would exchange gold dust for equal quantities of salt. Today, its wealth lies in things like the wonderful Saharan blues music that comes out of Bamako. But Mali also has a special place in Islamic history. Its other great city, Timbuktu, was, by some distance, the greatest seat of Islamic scholarship in Africa many springs ago.
One of the most repeated lines from Percy Shelley’s “Ode to The West Wind” is its final optimistic assertion: ‘if winter comes, can spring be far behind?’ But the first lines of the poem describe the West wind as the “breath of autumn’s being” that carries “pestilence-stricken multitudes” to their graves. Once Spring and summer are over, the less salubrious seasons kick in. The length of that period of strife is fixed in nature — not in the politics of nations. Hence, the Arab autumn promises to be a season of self-discovery among the Arabs.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 13th, 2012.
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