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Fall of the tyrants

Satyagraha: The West Asian democratic struggles gave the Arab world an alternative political path to terrorism - one of peaceful protest and non-violence. Michael Slackman & Mona El-Naggar write.

world Updated: Sep 10, 2011 23:29 IST

Shortly after Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was ousted, radical islamists joined in street protests in Cairo. This quickly stoked Western fears that for decades justified support for West Asian dictators: Democracy might allow radical Muslims to gain power. But that perception - still widely held in the West -missed a transformation that was taking place. These radical Islamists were now peacefully engaged with fellow citizenry.

"The revolution opened the door to peaceful change," said Gamal El Helali, 49, a member of a once-militant organisation, the Islamic Group.

For Arab West Asia, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the Arab Spring movement of 2011 clearly marked the end of one era and the start of another. Both helped define the image of Muslim Arabs. Both shook the nature of governance, politics and pluralism in the Arab world, and both created an unsettling uncertainty about the future. But that is where the similarities part.

The Sept. 11 attacks were in part inspired by a radical belief that problems of the Arab and Muslim people could be resolved by attacking foreign powers who prop up dictators, promote Western culture, oppress Islam and corrupt civilisation. The Arab Spring has negated these premises. Arab majorities, though resentful toward the West, are now blaming their own leaders for decades of decline.

There is a degree of societal introspection taking place. "9/11 is irrelevant right now," said Tamer Tantawi, 31, an oil company executive in Egypt. "I have much more important issues to be concerned about, like the developments in Egypt, the revolution, what the new constitution will look like, who the next president will be."

At the same time, the call for change is primarily peaceful. Though in Libya the uprising became a civil conflict and in Syria thousands have been killed by government forces, the successes in Egypt and Tunisia have convinced some radical Islamists to give democracy a chance. Western notions of stability and security could ultimately be disoriented if the revolutions lead to a more Islamist-oriented but less violent West Asia.

"There is a newfound conviction that protests, strikes and civil action are more effective than fighting and force," said Marwan Shehadeh, an expert on radical Islamist groups and ideology. Now, Shehadeh said, those who identify as jihadis are also peacefully participating in the political process. This he said, will force a contest of ideas between the moderates and the radicals.

In many ways, the Arab Spring has recast the Arab world from what emerged after 9/11. Paradoxically, al Qaeda's attacks reinforced the status quo they were aimed at overturning, giving breathing room to Arab strongmen who relied on repression to preserve their authority. The West continued to subjugate human rights and democracy to the fear of terrorism.

"We're talking about two different worlds - one has strengthened the regimes and secret systems and dictatorship and acted exactly contrary to the demands of democracy and freedom," said Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, a political science professor at United Arab Emirates University. "And the other has toppled dictatorships that have been around for decades and has brought the Arab freedom moment."

The Arab uprisings have had less tangible effects, too. Al Qaeda and 9/11 helped transform the Arab into the contemporary bogeyman and prototypical Hollywood villain. Terrorism cemented Arabs as violent, many experts said, and among many Arabs it fostered insecurity and a troubled self-image.

The Jasmine Revolution, which toppled the Tunisian dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and the movement that toppled President Mubarak have offered an alternative narrative. The popular uprisings burnished the self-esteem of people in the region, offering an antidote to their feelings of victimhood, many people said.

"I am not ashamed to say I'm Egyptian today," said Amgad Shebl, 35, a sound engineer from Cairo. "We were able to gain our respect as a nation."

And with that rise in self-respect, there are expectations that their governments must abide by their views; and the West must cast aside stereotypes says Alaa Al Aswany, a best-selling Egyptian author and social critic.

New York Times