By Roy, Olivier
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 140, No. 5040
In Europe, the popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East have been interpreted using a model that is more than 30 years old: the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. Commentators have been expecting to see Islamist groups--the Muslim Brotherhood and their local equivalents--either at the head of the movement or lying in wait, ready to seize power. But the discretion of the Muslim Brotherhood has surprised and disconcerted them: where have the Islamists gone?
Look at those involved in the uprisings, and it is clear that we are dealing with a post-Islamist generation. For them, the great revolutionary movements of the 1970s and 1980s are ancient history, their parents' affair. The members of this young generation aren't interested in ideology: their slogans are pragmatic and concrete--"Erhal!" or "Go now!". Unlike their predecessors in Algeria in the 1980s, they make no appeal to Islam; rather, they are rejecting corrupt dictatorships and calling for democracy. This is not to say that the demonstrators are secular; but they are operating in a secular political space, and they do not see in Islam an ideology capable of creating a better world.
The same goes for other ideologies: they are nationalist (look at all the flag-waving) without advocating nationalism. Particularly striking is the abandonment of conspiracy theories. The United States and Israel--or France, in the case of Tunisia--are no longer identified as the cause of all the misery in the Arab world. The slogans of pan-Arabism have been largely absent, too, even if the copycat effect that brought Egyptians and Yemenis into the streets following the events in Tunis shows that the "Arab world" is a political reality.
This generation is pluralist, undoubtedly because it is also individualist. Sociological studies show that it is better educated than previous generations, better informed, often with access to modern means of communication that allow individuals to connect with one another without the mediation of political parties--which in any case are banned. These young people know that Islamist regimes have become dictatorships; neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia holds any fascination for them. Indeed, those who have been demonstrating in Egypt are the same kinds of people as those who poured on to the streets to oppose Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009. (For propaganda reasons, the regime in Tehran has declared its support for the opposition movement in Egypt, though this is little more than a settling of scores with Hosni Mubarak.) Many of them are religious believers, but they keep their faith separate from their political demands. In this sense, the movement is "secular". Religious observance has been individualised.
A bove all, people have been demonstrating for dignity and "respect", a watchword that emerged in Algeria in the late 1990s. And the values to which they are laying claim are universal. But the "democracy" that is being called for is not foreign, and therein lies the difference from the Bush administration's attempt to promote democracy in Iraq in 2003. That did not work, because it lacked political legitimacy and was associated with a military intervention. Today, paradoxically, it is the waning of US influence in the Middle East, together with the pragmatism of the Obama administration, that has allowed a native and fully legitimate demand for democracy to be expressed.
That said, a revolt is not a revolution. The new popular movement has no leaders, no structure and no political parties, which will make the task of anchoring democracy in these former dictatorships difficult. It is unlikely that the collapse of the old regimes will automatically lead to the establishment in their place of liberal democracies, as Washington once hoped would happen in Iraq.
What of the Islamists, those who see in Islam a political ideology capable of solving all of society's problems? …