Arab Spring or Arab fall? Just watch Egypt

By Robin Shepherd, November 3, 2011
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It's crunch time for the Arab Spring. Later this month, Egypt, the largest country in the Arab world and possibly its most strategically important (Saudi rivals it due to oil), will go to the polls.

The parliamentary elections will give us the clearest indication yet of the relative strengths of the country's liberal-democratic forces on the one hand, and Islamist and other anti-Western forces on the other.

There have already been some worrying signs. Polls in recent years have shown near ubiquitous hostility to Jews, and that and the recent slaughter of Christian Copts by security forces suggest that the path to democracy will be difficult to say the least.

There have also been some worrying developments in other countries across the region. The brutalisation and lynching of Colonel Gaddafi in Libya is one. The leader of that country's National Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, provided a second in calling for a rolling back of women's rights and a ban on usury in line with Islamic custom.

Yet another from Libya concerns the fate of David Gerbi, the Libyan-born Jew who went back to the land of his birth only to be met with death threats, demonstrations and placards, as this paper reported, emblazoned with messages such as "There is no place for the Jews in Libya."

Nato may have helped win the war, but winning the democratic peace may be quite another matter.

A fourth notable example came from Tunisia (also the scene of antisemitic outbreaks) where clashes with security forces followed victory for the Islamist Ennahda party at recent elections. The party's leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, has given conflicting signals of the direction he will take, sometimes seeming to suggest Islamic law will be restored to a position of prominence in the country's legal code and at others adopting a much more liberal line, promising to respect the rights of all, secular and non-secular alike, "because Tunisia is for everyone".

We shall see. The broader issue is that wherever it is attempted the transition to democracy is always problematic.

For those whose thinking on such matters is dominated by the collapse of Communism (1989-1991), it is worth noting that two decades later, most of the people who once lived in the Soviet orbit still do not live in countries that Freedom House designates as fully free in its benchmark annual surveys of global freedom. Put another way, if Russia couldn't make it to democracy, why do we think Egypt can? It's a sobering thought.

Robin Shepherd is owner/publisher of www.thecommentator.com

    Last updated: 2:22pm, November 3 2011