What a week it has been! Running street battles in Egypt between the military, minority Christian activists and Islamist groups have claimed scores of lives. The revolutions which promised to usher in democracy and which were led by secular and unorganised ‘Twitter’ youth across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region are now being remoulded to enable the takeover by religious extremists.
It’s going to be election season in Tunisia and Egypt in the coming few months and the Islamist parties- Ennahda and Islamic Brotherhood respectively- are poised to come to power through the ballot exercise. Both these entities are known to be pragmatic and moderate, but can they contain the violent zealots who are attacking churches and preparing for rule by Sharia?
The Egyptian military, the custodian of the revolution until Parliament and President are elected, appears to be fanning radical Islamists and anti-Israeli populaism as a diversionary tactic from its own inability to deliver justice against the former Mubarak regime. Terrorist outfits like Gamaa Islamiya have, of course, been banned from contesting the upcoming elections, but the mob justice and vigilantism that is rising in the name of democracy are enough to scare Egypt’s 10 percent Christian minorities. I wrote a column on this a few months ago (www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/MF14Ak01.html) and it was widely cited, including in a news article carrying quotes by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Now what? Is Libya also headed in the same drift after the fall of Qaddafi? NATO has helped hard core Islamist rebels such as Abdelhakim Belhadj, who is believed to be a close associate of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, to become a leading military player in the post-Qaddafi dispensation.
The dictators were indeed awful in all the abovementioned countries, but what is coming in their place? One vicious mob in Cairo during the recent clashes was found shouting, “The people want to bring down the Christians”. If such bigotry is not firmly tackled by the de facto military rulers, then history will be rewritten. Instead of Tahrir Square becoming the symbolic burial ground for Osama bin Laden, it may become a holy ground for his resurrection.
Robustly secular interim authorities are a must at this stage across the MENA. Those to dillay dally, like the Egyptian military, may open the pathway for Sunni versions of ‘Ayatollahcracies’ as we saw after 1979 in Iran. India would have gone down the same path as a theocratic and undemocratic state after 1947 if not for Nehru’s steadfast commitment to making our country a land where citizens of all faiths were equal under law and in the eyes of the law enforcers.
India has so much to share in nation building and management of multi-cultural diversity for those who want to learn in the MENA region. Our public diplomacy efforts have shown tremendous interest among Egyptian youth to learn from India’s success in keeping its diverse flock together. Unity and civic consciousness are the needs of the hour to save the Arab Spring. India can offer great lessons and models of coexistence that are replicable with some local contextual adjustments.
We have to mobilise some peace and conflict resolution movements who have maintained harmony within Indian states to also train and motivate Egyptian, Syrian, Libyan, Yemeni and Tunisian agents of change who are liberal and who want to avoid the Iranian fate. Our Ministry of External Affairs has to gather such civil society organisations and connect them to the revolutionaries fighting to steer their countries towards tolerance and freedom that enhances security for all citizens.
Since Swami Vivekananda’s time, we Indians have heard that there is a special mission our country can fulfill in the world. Now is the time to act upon it in MENA instead of waiting on the sidelines and letting the Arab Spring turn into a religious inferno.