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    South Asia
     Oct 19, 2011


India holds Gandhi card for Tahrir Square
By Sreeram Chaulia

The running street battles in Egypt between security forces, minority Christian activists and Islamist groups have claimed scores of lives over the past weeks and pose a severe challenge to the Arab Spring. Revolutions that were led by secular "Twitterati" youth and promised to usher in democracy across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are now threatened with takeover by religious extremists.

Cynics dismissed the prospect of liberal democracies arising in the Middle East at the movement's birth, and the latest violence in Cairo seems to fulfill those dark prophecies. While street power and vandalism are no barometers of popular support for hard core Islamists, majoritarian and sectarian sentiments are likely to peak as election seasons arrive in Tunisia and Egypt.

The largest Islamist parties, Ennahda in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, are poised to come to power through the ballot. Both are known to be compromise-driven, but do both also contain the violent zealots who are attacking churches and preparing for rule by sharia? Will they absorb the religious rightists only to keep as "shock troops" ready for deployment should challenges to their governance arise?

Turkey's Justice and Development Party (AKP) remains an ideal evolutionary model for Ennahda and the Brotherhood, but the AKP only came to the helm after decades of military dictatorship and coups d'etat. In the interregnum, will the newly liberated post-revolutionary countries of MENA fall into the hands of more militant Islamists such as Hamas (a branch of the Brotherhood) in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in Lebanon?

The Egyptian military, the custodian of the revolution until a parliament and a president are elected over the next year, appears to be fanning radical Islamism and anti-Israeli populism to divert from its own inability to deliver justice against the former Hosni Mubarak regime and meet the wild expectations of a post-revolutionary society.

Far right terrorist outfits like al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya have been banned from contesting the upcoming elections, but the mob justice and vigilantism running amok in the name of Egyptian democracy are no less cancerous to the Arab Spring.

Is Libya headed the same way after the fall of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi? The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has backed frightful Islamist rebels such as Abdelhakim Belhadj, who was a close associate of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, to assume top military positions in the post-Gaddafi order.

From the outset, a huge question mark hung over the intentions and ideologies of the disparate rebel groups which ousted Gaddafi while openly flying French and British flags on armored vehicles. Fresh evidence from advocacy organizations shows that Britain, France and the United States armed and financed serious abusers of human rights in the war to unseat Gaddafi.

Has the West created Libyan warlords with Islamist convictions and connections? The manner in which characters like Belhadj, who earned his spurs fighting the Soviets in the Afghan jihad, have suddenly pronounced themselves commanders of Tripoli has nothing democratic or farsighted about it.

The dictators overthrown in MENA were indeed awful, but what is coming in their place? It is not chaos as with post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, but it is likely a repressive order based on suppression of moderate voices from all religious communities.

One vicious mob in Cairo during the recent clashes was found chanting, "The people want to bring down the Christians," a civilizational conflict pun on the original demand: "The people want to bring down the regime."

If such bigotry is not firmly marginalized by the de facto military rulers, then the way ahead portends a descent into illiberal democracy that could be crueler than authoritarianism. Instead of Tahrir Square becoming the symbolic burial ground for Osama bin Laden, it could turn into a holy ground for his resurrection.

Those who wrote off al-Qaeda as yesterday's menace when Tunisia's "Jasmine" revolution shocked the world, did not foresee a more grinding, though less international Islamism that would pulverize societies through state-sanctioned social conservatism and terrorize non-conformists with the "will of the majority".

Robustly secular interim authorities are a must at this stage across the MENA if the Arab Spring is to be saved. Caretaker governments such as that of the Egyptian military, which dilly dally or play the same old divide-and-rule games of erstwhile dictators, may open the pathway for Sunni versions of "Ayatollahcracies", where fundamentalist militias and paramilitaries are nurtured by state elites to secure a hold on power.

Post-partition India would have gone down the same path after 1947 as a theocratic and illiberal state, if not for the steadfast commitment of its first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, to a vision where citizens of all faiths were equal under law and enjoyed protections against discrimination.

When religious hatred was boiling among Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, Nehru toured the country without the heavy security trappings prevalent in today's India. He personally intervened, often at risk to his own life in open-top jeeps, to protect communities of different religions that were being intimidated and massacred.

The tragedy in MENA today is that it has no such outstanding leader committed to a secular vision of nation-building. Dictatorships permitted only the mosque and fundamentalist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood to function, leaving them with enough social space in which to amass networks and mass bases for decades.

The "web 2.0" generation which toppled the autocrats would prefer a Nehru-like democrat to steer the revolutions towards peace and justice, but rulers like Mubarak, Gaddafi and Ben Ali left no room for such figures. After an initial burst of publicity, liberal politicians like Mohamed ElBaradei have already been sidelined.

In the absence of democratic secular champions to lead the masses towards a tolerant and pluralistic order, what alternative do young Arab activists have? It's likely they will need to re-mobilize from below and learn from examples of successful transitions to secular democracy.

It is here that India has much to share in management of multi-cultural diversity and inter-communal tensions.

Earlier this year, public diplomacy efforts offered by the Indian government over the Internet found tremendous interest among Egyptian youth to learn from India about keeping its diverse flock together. Broad unity and civic consciousness are the needs of the hour to salvage the Arab Spring from the fires of religious rancor, concepts on which India can offer more than a few lessons.

Small-scale models of religious coexistence that are replicable, with some local contextual adjustments, have been practiced by Mahatma Gandhi's followers in parts of India. Peace and conflict resolution projects based on principles of local stakeholders and construction of inter-religious institutions have maintained communal and sectarian harmony in some Indian cities, as demonstrated by the political scientist Ashutosh Varshney in his seminal book, Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India.

India is the only country with a deep civil society tradition centered on non-violence which can train and motivate liberal Egyptian, Syrian, Libyan, Yemeni and Tunisian agents of change searching for means to avoid the fate of Iran after 1979.

The Indian state, which has thus far played a lackadaisical role in the Arab Spring, can cluster some of its stellar civil society organizations involved in grassroots peace work in the domestic sphere, and connect them to the Arab revolutionaries struggling to spread security to all their fellow citizens. If enacted, this would be a remarkable instance of transnational solidarity.

Inspired by the spiritual seer Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), Indians believe that their country has a special mission to fulfill in the world. As the Swami's much-awaited 150th anniversary celebrations are being kickstarted, the time to act upon India's strengths in MENA is nigh.

Waiting on the sidelines and allowing the Arab Spring turn into a religious inferno is not an option for a seeker of "soft power" like India, which has the capacity to supplant Bin Laden with Gandhi in Tahrir Square.

Sreeram Chaulia is a professor and Vice Dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat, India, and the first ever B Raman Fellow for Geopolitical Analysis at the Takshashila Institution. He is the author of the recent book, International Organizations and Civilian Protection: Power, Ideas and Humanitarian Aid in Conflict Zones (IB Tauris, London).

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