Magazine article The Spectator

Arabian Nightmare

Magazine article The Spectator

Arabian Nightmare

Article excerpt

Talk of an 'Arab Spring' for democracy is dangerously premature. An Islamist takeover of the Middle East is just as likely

In Abdallah Guech Street, a few hundred metres from the main mosque in the heart of Tunis's old quarter, lies a red-light district which has thrived since the 19th century. Here the Ottomans legalised (and regulated) prostitution as they had in much of the rest of the Muslim world. Uniquely, though, in the Arab world, the tradition in Tunisia endured: every one of the country's historic quarters boasts bordellos - even, most remarkably, Kairouan, Islam's fourth holiest city after Mecca, Medina and Jerusa lem . In keep ing with Tunisia's deep-rooted secularism and unprecedented championing of Muslim women's rights, the prostitutes carry cards issued by the Interior Ministry, pay taxes like everyone else and enjoy - along with their clients - the full protection of the law Or at least they did until last month's Jasmine Revolution. But last week, faster than you could scream Allahu akbar , hundreds of Islamists raided Abdallah Guech Street armed with Molotov cocktails and knives - torching the brothels, yelling insults at the prostitutes and declaring that Tunisia was now an Islamist state. As soldiers fired into the air to disperse them, the Islamists won a promise from the interim government that the brothels would be permanently closed. In other cities brothels were targeted, too; and there have been demonstrations throughout the country (whose economy is heavily dependent on the vibrant tourism industry) against the sale of alcohol. Suspected Islamists otherwise preoccupied themselves with slitting the throat of a Polish Catholic priest, which if confirmed would be the first such sectarian murder in modern Tunisian history. And anti-Semitic slogans could be heard outside Tunisia's main synagogue-this in a country with no history of persecution of its Jewish minority.

When the Tunisian revolution started last month, it was hailed as a template for the rest of the Arab world. But if revolutions are judged by their outcomes, rather than their intentions, then the story of postrevolution Tunisia is equally instructive. The world's attention has quickly moved on - to Egypt, Bahrain, Libya or the next theatre of this extraordinary, fast-moving drama. The phrase 'Arab Spring' is being touted as if we were witnessing an unambiguous leap forward for ordinary Arabs: history marching towards democracy and pluralism. No one wishes to contemplate, let alone prepare for, the alternative - that this might end in the restoration of authoritarian rule or, worse, the triumph of a radical Islam.

When David Cameron visited Egypt this week, there were too few signs of the budding liberal democracy which he and other western leaders had envisioned. He could hardly congratulate his host, a former Air Force commander, for what was in effect another military coup. There was no Lech Walesa figure for him to meet, a secular democratic champion of the new Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood remains the only political group of any note. The key to being optimistic about Egypt's future - and the Arab world more generally - is not to look too closely at what is happening on the ground. And to pay as little attention as possible to the events in Tunisia.

For all its restrictions on direct political participation, for decades Tunisia was the most secular and progressive country the Islamic world has ever known. The regime was the least brutal in the region, its people the wealthiest and best educated. The poverty level was just 4 per cent when the revolution broke out, among the lowest in the world; 80 per cent of the population belonged to the middle class;

and the education system - allocated more funding than the army - ranked 17th globally in terms of quality.

The veil was banned in public institutions, polygamy was outlawed, mosques were shuttered outside prayer times and men needed permission from the local police to grow a beard. …

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