As a major conference of Egyptian democrats discussed strategies for advancing the Jasmine revolution, the latest outbreak of sectarian violence demonstrates a striking difference between the current Arab spring and earlier transitions – the malign role of both domestic and external anti-democratic forces.
“The continuation of the revolution is the only guarantee of its success,” law professor Hossam Issa told the meeting.
The conference established a National Council of 60 representatives of varying orientations, comprising three members for each established party, two seats for emerging parties and one seat for each civil society group, syndicates and other actors. While politically diverse, the council is largely secular, as the Muslim Brotherhood refused to participate in the convention.
The initiative is the first significant sign of democrats establishing a degree of political and organization coherence, but recent events suggest that emerging democratic groups are being outflanked and outmaneuvered by illiberal forces – and their foreign supporters.
During the Third Wave of democracy through to the post-Communist transitions of 1989, external actors played a positive and largely uncontested role in supporting democratization. Anti-democratic forces were largely bankrupt – both financially and ideologically – and consequently unable to act as countervailing powers to the democratizing thrust of local actors and external democracy assistance.
In contrast, the democratic potential of the Arab awakening is in danger of being aborted by the active intervention of powerful, well-resourced and ideologically militant authoritarian forces well-placed to exercise their influence covertly – by funding proxy forces – or more blatantly, through military intervention in support of beleaguered autocrats.
The U.S. is still assessing appropriate economic measures to help Egypt’s transition to democracy, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo said today, while the European Union faces criticism for failing to support democratization along its southern periphery.
But the region’s autocrats have been far less hesitant in defending and reinforcing the status quo. Saudi Arabia not only came to the rescue of Bahrain’s monarchy by initiating the GCC military intervention, Riyadh is also supporting Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and funding anti-democratic groups across the region which are primed to exploit democratic openings for illiberal ends.
The hard-line Salafi groups provoking Egypt’s sectarian violence are a case in point, observers claim.
“There are many signs that they are being funded from Saudi Arabia, which played an active role in the founding of religious extremism and Salafists,” said analyst Hani Shukrallah.
The Saudis’ support for the Salafis represents a deliberate attempt to distort the political agenda and undermine democratic reform, he believes.
“This sectarian violence aims to draw people’s attention away from the more important principles of the revolution, such as economic and social justice, and to incite instability and a return to the old regime,” he said.
Egypt’s democratic and civil society activists fear that extremist groups are taking advantage of lax security to stoke sectarian tensions and intimidate Christians and any political rivals.
“There is a sense of shock,” says Hossam Bahgat, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a Cairo-based NGO which has monitored sectarian violence for several years. “There is generally a sense of increased boldness of extremist elements in society that are attempting to intimidate Christians.”
“They know that the police officers will not rush to use violence against them because of the hostility that the people on the streets generally feel towards the police,” he says.
That is exactly right, says one Salafi activist.
Egypt’s democratic revolution has given several Salafi political parties a “chance and now we’re taking advantage of this chance and seizing it,” said Kamal Habib, a “modern Salafi” and former jihadist with Al Jamaa Al Islamiya.