|India holds Gandhi card for
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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