The Arab Spring
When the Arab Spring started, there seemed to be a striking similarity between the events in Tunis and Cairo and those in Central and Eastern Europe in 1989. Thousands of people rallied in peaceful movements during public prayers – then the dictators quit. But after just a few weeks a totally different picture is developing before our eyes. Although the situation in Tunisia has now calmed down, there is violence in many other Arab countries and in Libya it has turned into downright civil war. As for Egypt, even though changes to the constitution have been agreed, its Article 2 – limiting the civil rights of non-Muslim believers – remains untouched.
Does this similarity stand up to examination? In my view there are at least two points of difference that commentators cannot overlook. Firstly, this is a region which supplies one third of the world’s production of liquid fuels. Libya owns the largest proven oil reserves in Africa. Nearly 85% of Libya’s oil exports go to Europe, principally to Italy, France, Germany and Spain. The same is true for natural gas. Last February the troubles in Libya caused a 90% drop in gas production and a complete stoppage of its exports to Italy by Greenstream at the end of February. Secondly, the people praying in the marketplace were turning their eyes not towards Rome but towards Mecca.
In his studies on the role played by religion in the process of transformation in Central and Eastern Europe, Edmund Wnuk-Lipiński concludes that in the post-communist States where western Christianity is predominant, the situation always developed in the direction of liberty and democracy. In the States where mostly eastern Christianity predominated, this process was more complicated. Among these countries we can cite Ukraine, Serbia, Russia and Belarus with their hybrid regimes, by contrast with Bulgaria and Romania which are today fully committed members of the European Union and NATO. Finally, all the post-Communist States with Islam as their main religion have drifted into non-democratic regimes. This means not only that religion itself plays no small part in politics (although it is not a decisive factor), but the type of religion is also important because not every religion plays the same role.
We are not saying there is no hope for democracy in States where Islam is the dominant faith. In the studies carried out by the American Freedom House organisation, on the list of countries where civil liberties are guaranteed there always figure two or three countries where Islam is the main faith. This makes up almost 4% of all the States in the world. This confirms the fact that States that are officially Islamic can indeed become democratic countries – it is possible, but the figure shows that it’s difficult to achieve. Great care should also be taken when mentioning Turkey as a model of transformation. At the time one hundred years ago when that country was embarking upon secularism, Christians formed nearly 30% of the population. Today they number fewer than 0.3%. By strange coincidence, it was mainly the Christians who followed the process of forceful secularisation in Turkey.
When observing this Arab Spring, one should be on one’s guard against coming to conclusions that are too simplistic. To avoid this pitfall, the EU should request institutions to carry out studies, systematically and without secular prejudices, on the role of religion in political evolution.
Translated from the original French