Winds of change in the Middle East

22 March 2011

Tunisia's Jasmin revolution and Egypt's Lotus revolution led, respectively, to the fall of the regime of former president Ben Ali, which began in November 1987, and the expulsion of Hosni Mubarak, in office since October 1981. Above all, both have triggered a domino effect in other countries, not only in North Africa, but all over the Middle Eastern region.


In Algeria, riots and demonstrations against high prices and unemployment erupted almost simultaneously with those in Tunisia, which led to the immolation of Mohammed Bouaziz, who later became the symbol of the Jasmin revolution. After the sudden fall of Ben Ali's regime, whole populations, but especially young people in the Arab world, have started demanding more rights in countries such as Morocco, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Iran, Syria, Jordan as well as Saudi Arabia and Oman.

A movement launched in the name of freedom and democracy began in Tunisia, one of the smallest states with a Muslim majority. The surge in democratic sentiment seen since January means that people right across the region who until a few months ago seemed paralyzed have rediscovered the strength and desire to assert their rights as citizens and human beings. For this reason I believe that 2011 is going to be a true historical turning point for the Islamic world in general and the southern shores of the Mediterranean in particular. It is interesting and important to point out that whilst having a common cause, each country mentioned above is also experiencing events in their own unique way.

Tunisia and Egypt:

Constitutional starting points

Let us start by analyzing the two nations that have now entered the very delicate phase of transition, often overlooked by the media: Tunisia and Egypt.

Although the outcomes of both revolutions were very similar, if not identical, we should not forget the profound differences in the two countries' starting points. The main distinction between Tunisia and Egypt concerns their constitutions and in particular the relationship between state and religion in each country. Article 1 of the Tunisian Constitution, of 1 June 1959, states that "Tunisia is a free, independent and sovereign country: its religion is Islam, its language is Arabic and its government is a republic." The position of Islam is also clarified in the Preamble which emphasizes that the country "¦remains faithful to the precepts of Islam." Since Habib Bourguiba's 1956 arrival in power, the country has had both strong links to Islam and a strain of deep secularism. In the same year, Bourguiba promulgated the Code of Personal Status which represents, even today, a unique case in the Arab-Islamic world. The Code prohibited polygamy and stated that divorce could be bilateral, that is it could be requested by both husband and wife, and not only by men as depicted in sharia law. But already a full century earlier in Tunisia, in 1857, Muhammad Bey had promulgated the "Fundamental Pact" with three basic ideas: freedom, security and equality for all citizens. Secularism is in the DNA of Tunisians and religion is viewed as separate from temporal power. The situation is different in Egypt, where Article 2 of the constitution states that "¦sharia is the main source of law". Thus Islam is not only part of the cultural heritage of the country, but is also predominant in lawmaking.

Education, culture and economic status of the middle classes

Another difference between the two countries lies in the education, culture and the economic status of the countries' middle classes. Whilst Tunisia's middle classes have existed for longer and are closer to European standards regarding education, Egypt's middle classes are heavily marked by both a conservative culture and conservative religious points of view. Education of the Tunisian middle classes is more marked by progress and less influenced by traditional and conservative values that have paralyzed large segments of the Egyptian middle classes. In addition, the economic situation of the middle classes in Tunisia is better than that of Egypt. It is necessary to reiterate two fundamental truths: the first is that just under half of all Egyptians live below the poverty line. The second is that around 40% of Egyptians are illiterate and that 60% of literate people are the direct product of a poor education system. Most of those who were educated in the last half century are marked by what I would describe as "cultural illiteracy" because of the fact that most were not exposed to other cultures, including literature, meaning ideas were never questioned.

Islamic extremism

It is mainly this last point which has caused Islamic extremists, such as The Muslim Brotherhood, to become deeply rooted anywhere the government demonstrated an inability to act. The group also gained support amongst the lower middle classes which, especially in remote areas, handed the education of their children to the mosque. Hence the greater influence of The Muslim Brotherhood during the transitional period. The situation is different in Tunisia, where after years of exile in Britain the Islamist leader Rached al-Ghannouchi returned. Whilst being welcomed by some supporters, he was also criticized by a good portion of the population, especially by women's NGOs. On the other hand, Egypt has seen the return, after fifty years, of the Muslim Brotherhood's spiritual leader Yusuf Qaradawi who on 18th February even led the Friday prayer in Tahrir Square, the square of the demonstrators.


Since the Jasmin revolution, The Muslim Brotherhood has sought to take control of a movement that has nothing to do with religion or radicalism. Even in the case of Libya's rebellion against Muammar Gaddafi, the Brotherhood issued proclamations and declarations of support for the opposition that has rebelled for very different reasons than those in Egypt. In fact, the Cyrenaica region is at the heart of Libya's insurgency, an area which has always been hostile to the Colonel. Some forty miles from al-Bayda the "Lion of the Desert", the legendary rebel leader Omar al-Mukhtar, was hanged on 15 September 1931 in an Italian concentration camp. In addition, it was also the same place where the late King Idris Senussi was deposed by Colonel Gaddafi's coup on September 1st 1969. It is patently clear that even here people do not want an "Islamic state".


In the pro-democracy movements launched in the Middle East and North Africa, the only country that is experiencing real religious clashes between minorities is the tiny Gulf state of Bahrain. Strong discontent among the majority Shi'ite population towards the Sunni dynasty in power has existed in Bahrain for some time. Of its one million three hundred thousand inhabitants, half are immigrants from Pakistan, Syria, Yemen and Jordan. Seventy percent of them are Shi'ite, yet the royal family has been Sunni since the eighteenth century. Protesters have been calling for the removal of incumbent Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman who has been in power since 1971, the year of the country's independence from Britain. They are also demanding the release of political prisoners in addition to the establishment of a genuine constitutional monarchy with a parliament holding real power and fully representing various groups. In 2001, at the initiative of Sheikh Hamad, a new Charter for National Action was voted in, but the following year's elections were boycotted by the opposition because the new assembly would have had the same powers as the Upper House, appointed directly by the sovereign. Many Shi'ites also complain of discrimination and continue to accuse the government of encouraging Sunni Muslim immigration to the kingdom for demographic reasons. Even in this case the conflict is not limited to the Sunni-Shia dichotomy, because if that were the case it would be more easily solved. As a matter of fact, the two groups have even marched together through Pearl Square in Manama, shouting a simple but revolutionary slogan: "Neither Sunnis nor Shi'ites, but citizens of Bahrain." Here young people are utilizing the web, like Tunisian and Egyptian protestors.


Even recent occurrences in Kuwait demonstrate that this revolutionary spirit has now triggered a domino effect whereby every minority and each segment of society being discriminated against is claiming its fundamental rights. Kuwait is home to the so-called "bidoon", a stateless people belonging to the tribes from the country's centre, who lack the necessary documentation for Kuwaiti citizenship. Possessing neither passport nor ID they cannot leave the country but more disturbingly they are treated as if they do not exist. The government, which has been avoiding the problem for many years, now insists that it will find a solution. It is reiterating in many press releases that there is no difference between sedentary and Bedouin peoples in Kuwait and that, in order not to provide citizenship to illegal immigrants, citizenship will be granted on a case by case basis.

The last word

To conclude, governments of the Arab world and the Middle East have come to realize that they can no longer procrastinate, that they must listen to their citizens, that they must respect fundamental rights because finally the wall of fear has been broken. Citizens, especially younger ones have realized that an amazing driving force is coming not only from Facebook and Twitter but also deep from within themselves. From Morocco to Egypt, Yemen to Syria and Jordan to Iran nothing will be like it was in the past. The West must help this area of the world to avoid the trap of Islamic extremism that is eager to take advantage of the drive for democracy to gain power and establish Islamic states wherever it can. Islamic extremism has to realize that democracy has its rules and that fundamental rights and values are universal and cannot be interpreted according to a radical vision of Islam.