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Are secular forces being squeezed out of Arab Spring?

image captionSupporters of Egypt's Islamist groups were out in force on Friday 29 July

Secular and liberal elements in Arab countries made the running at the start of the Arab Spring, but in the post-revolutionary age, they have all the work to do if they are to capitalise on their success, says Middle East analyst Gerald Butt.

The huge rally organised by Islamists in Tahrir Square in Egypt on a Friday at the end of July and the growing influence of Islamic groups in Tunisia are evidence of this.

A very different state of affairs prevailed during the previous era of Arab revolutions in the 1950s. Syria, at this time, experienced a series of military coups; King Farouk of Egypt was ousted by a group of army officers in 1952; and the monarchy in Iraq was overthrown in a bloody revolution in 1958.

New confidence

The coups were in general inspired by a desire to remove heads of state or governments associated with former colonial powers, with a view to the Arab world achieving genuine independence and the unity that it was denied when Britain and France created nation states after World War I.

image captionNasser championed the dream of a pan-Arab union of states

Writing in the mid-1960s, American academic Malcolm Kerr observed that "increasingly after 1958 the attraction of Arab unity came to be accompanied by the idea of revolutionary socialism, which has tended to overshadow the anti-colonial spirit in ideological discourses and pronouncements".

With Islamists either dormant or - in the case of Egypt - jailed or exiled, the stage was set for secular Arab leaders to build a new region, guided by the principles of revolutionary socialism. Everything seemed possible.

"Egypt as a revolution," wrote Muhammad Hassanein Heikal while editor of Egypt's al-Ahram newspaper and an adviser to President Gamal Abdel Nasser, "should never halt at frontiers, but should carry her message across them."

Such declarations, broadcast by the hugely popular Voice of the Arabs radio station in Cairo, were warmly applauded in every corner of the region.

A new era of restored Arab self-esteem seemed to be beginning. The optimism lasted through much of the 1960s as well.

Islamist appeal

But signs that revolutionary socialism might not deliver all that was promised appeared long before that.

The much trumpeted union between Egypt and Syria to create the United Arab Republic in 1958 collapsed acrimoniously just three years later. One of the causes of the failure was Nasser's insistence on Egypt being the dominant force in the union.

This was a sign of things to come: Arab leaders sought more and more to shore up their positions of power and distance themselves from their people. Potential rivals were eliminated. Despotic rule became the order of the day.

Worse was to come. The disastrous defeat at the hands of Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War extinguished any hope of Arab unity. The pan-Arab secularism espoused by Nasser and others was exposed as an impotent force.

From then until the 2011 revolutions, secular politics has been in slow decline, associated with defeat, inaction and corruption.

At the same time, grass-roots Islamic groups have been thriving, despite the bans and repression. They have offered not only spiritual hope but also social services that inefficient state-run systems are unable to provide.

While many Islamist organisations were banned over recent decades, they still enjoyed considerable popular support. The social networks they established can now easily be exploited to attract political support at the ballot box.

Detested dictators

By contrast, secular political groups that were allowed to exist were crushed by whatever party represented the interests of the head of state.

New political parties have barely had time to find their feet and will be entering the new era of democracy - in Tunisia and Egypt - from a standing start.

Democracy is the key element that distinguishes the 2011 revolutions from those of the 1950s. But some other factors are remarkably similar.

Malcolm Kerr observed that in the 50s and 60s the "enemies of Arabism were held to be the 'reactionaries' - hereditary monarchs, oligarchic politicians, and wealthy landowners and businessmen".

Add 'hereditary presidential clans' to the list and you could be looking at a rundown of targets for activists involved in the Arab Spring.

The problem that secular Arab parties face today is that the secular and nationalist leaders already overthrown (in Tunisia and Egypt) and those under most threat (in Libya, Syria and Yemen) are rooted in a bygone era that has been largely discredited in the eyes of the public.

In their desperate attempts to cling to power, they became more repressive than ever, reluctant even to consider introducing democratic reforms.

Delicate balance

Just as in the post-revolutionary period in the 1950s and 60s, Arabs' self-esteem has been restored. But where does the region go from here, without a clear ideological roadmap?

To stand up and promote secular credentials will not be easy. Revolutionary socialism is no longer an ideology that might attract votes.

Parties representing the left as a whole have never enjoyed broad support among Arabs, and those associated with business will have little appeal, given the tarnished reputations of wealthy tycoons adopted by the ruling cliques in Cairo, Damascus and elsewhere.

But there appears to be at least one crumb of comfort for liberal and secular parties: the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Nahda in Tunisia insist they are not seeking to dominate political life and envisage being partners in coalition government.

The Brotherhood, for its part, plans to contest only half the seats in the Egyptian parliamentary elections. Perhaps these gestures reflect a genuine desire for political inclusivity. Or perhaps the Islamist groups fear the economic challenges ahead and want to duck exclusive blame for the expected hard times. Either way, it seems that secular parties are set to play a role of some kind in the immediate post-revolutionary period.

But in the longer term, if these parties are to hold their ground they will need formulate an ideology that espouses democratic and liberal ideals, while accommodating the undoubted yearning of millions of Arabs for Islam's role in society to be respected. Achieving such a balance will take time.

In the short term, therefore, it would be surprising if the first free and fair elections in the Arab world did not see Islamist groups cashing in on the revolutions that were galvanised by motives unconnected to religion.

Gerald Butt, a former BBC Middle East correspondent, is a Cyprus-based writer on the region.

More on this story

  • Arab Spring: Where it is now and where it may be going