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The Arab Revolutions: which way now?

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The Arab Revolutions: which way now?

Country/Region: Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Jordan, Bahrain, Morocco

Article Index

The Arab Revolutions: which wa...

The role of Islam

Variety in the Arab world

The role of the West

What of the churches?

Footnotes

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Revolutions are dangerous, unpredictable events[1]

The protests sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa are shaking the established order and reverberating throughout the Muslim world. Arabs have been suffering greatly from the region's economic, social and political failings, which include oppression, injustice, corruption and discrimination. Authoritarian police states with all-powerful and unaccountable security services, large-scale unemployment, massive gaps between rich and poor, callous and corrupt autocracies, bureaucracies that treat citizens with indignity and contempt - all these have fuelled popular grievances, anger and frustration.

The modern electronic media revolution has deprived governments of their monopoly over the news and has empowered many ordinary citizens. The Arab masses are now expressing their yearnings for individual freedoms, justice and accountability, democracy, the rule of law and civil liberties. For the first time they have breached and broken the barrier of fear imposed by their rulers, and many are exhilarated by the resulting freedom and empowerment. Established leaders such as Zine Ben Ali of Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, Ali Abdallah Saleh of Yemen and Bashar al-Assad of Syria have faced, and some are still facing, demands for their removal from power. The Western media have hailed the protests as an "Arab Spring".

Tunisia revolution protest
Demonstrators face police lines on Aveunue Bourguiba, Central Tunis
CC BY 2.0 by cjb22
Yet several of the revolutions have faltered and stalled. The two states that first experienced mass protests, Tunisia and Egypt, have entered an ambiguous transition phase as the forces of change confront the old ruling classes, who are intent on clinging to power and privilege. Elsewhere, in Yemen, Syria, Bahrain and Libya, the leadership is hanging on (at the time of writing), through violent suppression of protest coupled with offers of reform. Getting rid of dictators does not necessarily produce democracy. Old leaders have left, but the underlying political systems have not been overthrown.

The protest waves are also increasing the dangers posed by other destructive social forces in the area: regionalism, tribalism, sectarianism and radical Islamism. The divisions between Sunni and Shia Muslims, and between Muslims and Christians, are particularly severe and have the potential to generate serious disorder and violence. The old regimes have largely succeeded in separating religion and the state and in countering the threat posed by political Islam. Their fall may dissolve the boundary between the religious and the secular altogether and lead to the establishing of Islamic states.

Even the Western media, which at first attributed the revolutions only to a popular desire for secular and democratic states, have quietly admitted their mistake. The New York Times says:

In post-revolutionary Egypt, where hope and confusion collide in the daily struggle to build a new nation, religion has emerged as a powerful political force, following an uprising that was based on secular ideals. The Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group once banned by the state, is at the forefront, transformed into a tacit partner with the military government that many fear will thwart fundamental changes. It is also clear that the young, educated secular activists who initially propelled the nonideological revolution are no longer the driving political force - at least not at the moment.[2]

The consequences for Christians of the current upheavals are hard to predict in detail, but they are likely to be serious and possibly harmful. Perhaps the worst scenario is that Islamism seizes control of the various revolutions, imposes a much stricter Islamic character on politics and society in each country, and suppresses the local Christian minorities. Were this to happen, the very survival of Christianity across the entire region would be in jeopardy.

In this article we consider the general role of Islam in the Arab revolutions, and how this is worked out in the very different conditions of the various countries involved, including the place of the churches. We also look at the ambiguous and sometimes unhelpful involvement of the West in the movements for change, and the possible future for the churches.

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