First published on Gulfnews.com on 20th of May 2012
The post-Arab Spring political scene has exposed the frailty of the ‘marriage of convenience’ between free-thinkers and conservatives. Liberals, the pioneers of the revolutions, have seen their influence dwindle due to their lack of organisation, with parties like the Muslim Brotherhood filling the vacuum. But swayed by electoral success, Islamists are alienating the people by going after plum political posts and seeking to impose curbs on personal freedom
In the business world it is said that there is no such thing as a merger, there is only a takeover: the stronger party amongst the two ultimately ends up in power. The same can be applied to the world of politics. Islamists, traditionally the most organised group in the region, ally themselves with liberals or any change seekers to demand political reform; once these demands are met, they use their newly won political influence to implement their own goals without regard for their former allies.
We have seen this scenario play out time and again across the region. I highlighted in an article for Gulf News last year the marriage of convenience that took place between the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Egyptian liberals at the initial stages of the 2011 uprising. Since then, liberal thinkers, including Ala’a Al Aswany, have been critical of the Muslim Brotherhood for “abandoning” the youth activists “as usual”.
Closer to the UAE, Islamists in Bahrain, both Sunni and Shiite, also initially allied themselves with liberals to demand political reform. Once in power they demanded the introduction of Sharia as was evident in their attempts to ban alcohol in 2010 and the public spat this year between Bahrain’s Culture Ministry and Islamist MPs, who alleged that a ministry-organised festival was “sexually provocative” and “promoted homosexuality” and demanded that it be scrapped.
Similarly, Kuwait’s modern history is peppered with examples of liberals working with Islamists who jointly demanded reforms from their government, such as in 1986, 1989-90 and the spring of 1992, only to see the Islamists turn their backs on the liberals once they achieved power. Today, Kuwaiti political Islamists have an extended list of demands they want to implement including banning “flirtatious behaviour”, “indecent attire” and women judges. On the other hand we find that the political Islamists, who have reached power in Tunisia and Egypt, have given initial assurances that they will not clamp down on alcohol and beach swimwear although conflicting messages have appeared.
In present day UAE, as in the rest of the region, political Islamists are the most organised group and are quite willing to work with liberals or non-politicised citizens to attain their goals. Amongst the issues highlighted by one of the most prominent UAE Islamists is what the late Anthony Shadid called “the intangibles” such as “entering a mall where virtually everyone is a foreigner, beaches populated by swimmers in dress he considers immodest, and wine-tasting parties at luxury hotels”.
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