Will the Arab spring turn into an Islamist winter?

May 23rd 2012 in Publications

By Willem Smeets, (ret.) Dutch Diplomat

To the surprise of many an expert and connoisseur, the Arab spring began in Tunisia, a country that was known for its calm if not docile people. During the days I served as a diplomat at the Dutch embassy- some 15 years ago- there was an outspoken group of dissidents, struggling for human rights and freedom of expression. Each of them spent some time behind bars, but they kept  their spirit high and they never used any kind of violence.

They were accused by then-President Ben Ali of being associated with the Islamist movement el-Nahda, being in exile in Britain. They strongly  denied any link with el-Nahda, which they rightly considered a terrorist movement.

It is therefore the more amazing that these people, or their followers, under-estimated the role el-Nahda could get in a new Tunisia. When Ben Ali was ousted last year, they were unable to close their ranks and they entered the October 2011 elections with a hotchpotch of movements and parties, enabling el-Nahda to “hijack” the revolt.

A well-organized el-Nahda played its part professionally. When the insurgency broke out, its position was not at the front-line of the barricades but it bided its time while pampering the population with social support.

At the same time, it presented itself as a moderate Islamic movement.  Its leader Rached Ghannouchi has close contacts with the Turkish Prime Minster Recep Erdoğan, leader of the Islamist AKP party. The latter portrays the AKP as a party like the German (or Dutch) Christen-Democrats that maintain their traditions and values rooted in their religion, but respecting secularism. Turkish policies on the world stage such as cooling down of relations with Israel, growing close with Hamas and Hizbollah and dodging its responsibilities as member of NATO, have proven the portray of such image to be  incorrect.

I recently visited Tunisia and I was torn apart by two impressions. On one hand the country seemed full of economic drive with plenty of  building and constructing activities. It did not show poverty or  backwardness, which are usually the breeding-ground for social unrest that movements like el-Nahda skillfully exploit.

The other side of the coin was a visible presence of Islamization. One sign was the broadcasting of the entire Friday sermon by roaring loudspeakers from the mosques – not just the usual call for prayers. According to my Tunisian friends, this never happened before in the country’s history.

I was also told that shopkeepers could benefit from special facilities if they would announce prayer-times in their shops. Another new phenomenon was the ban on serving alcoholic drinks in some hotels that were constructed by Saudi Arabian companies, demanding this as a quid pro quo for their investments.

These are all more or less serious examples of the trend of Islamization.

Some are comparable to developments in Egypt where the same scenario of well-organized Islamist movements as the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafist al-Nour and a scattered mass of non-Islamic insurgents was the outcome of the ‘Intifadha’.

Whatever the future will bring, one thing is clear so far. The uprising was not a revolution, but a revolt. A revolution brings not only new leaders, but a new governmental system. The French and Russian revolutions are the most shining examples.

The uprising was a call for new leaders and more transparency as the people were unhappy with the authoritarian regimes and its leaders. It was not a call for democracy- for the simple reason that democracy, as we in the West know it , is a political system with which the Arab world is not familiar.

Generally speaking, an Arab is not used make decisions independently. Throughout his life, he follows orders from his father, the schoolteacher, the Imam and what his (Muslim) society expects from him. This explains why both in Tunisia and Egypt a call for a strong leader resounds again. It is a feeling shared by many.

In Tunisia, as a result of rising crime and non-functioning of the police, some groups of people are tempted to favour a come-back of leaders with links to the former regime. My contacts reassured me that neither Tunisia nor Egypt will follow the path of Iran and become theocracies.  It is however by no means unlikely that they will get regimes inspired by the Turkish AKP.

That would be bad news.

It would mean that the Arab Spring has given a voice to those who want their countries return to the Middle Ages, when politics and daily life were steered by religion and that it has not fulfilled the promise of introducing democracy and transparency into the Arab world.

Finally, a remark on democratic elections and political parties.

It is a common mistake to assume that a political party or movement that has been elected democratically, is democratic by nature. Party programmes and policies of movements like Hamas and Hizbollah (both democratically elected) have demonstrated otherwise.

NB – This article was written days before the Presidential elections in Egypt


Mr. Willem Smeets, is a retired Dutch Diplomat who served the Netherlands Foreign Service in Addis Ababa, MFA UN Department, Kuwait (co-accredited to Bahrain and Qatar), Sofia, Berne, Tunis, MFA Security Policy Department (NATO Enlargement, NATO / Mediterranean Dialogue, NATO / Russia). In 2003, Mr. Smeets was the Senior Political Adviser to the Commander of NATO Headquarters Naples, Italy. Mr. Smeets is an International Advisor at Ideas That Shape (ITS). His areas of academic focus are  Diplomacy, International Organizations and Security, as well as Arab and Islamic Affairs. Mr. Smeets is currently a Lecturer at the Hague University of Applied Sciences on International Law and Diplomacy.