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‘The Arab Spring has Yet to Begin’

An interview with Boualem Sansal.

3:15 PM, Oct 20, 2011 • By JOHN ROSENTHAL
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Secondly, the ancien régime is still there, embedded in all the state institutions, and the representatives of the ancien régime are going to fight. One should not think that these people are going to give up power just because they are confronted by protestors who, in the last analysis, have only one demand: namely, that the dictator leaves. They are going to say: Okay, very well, we’ll sacrifice the dictator and we’ll put in place another one, who maybe does not seem quite so “dictatorial.”

So, I’m rather pessimistic, because what I’m seeing is a sort of repetition of the Algerian experience. We were not vigilant enough. We allowed the Islamists to get organized and take up their positions. We even helped – that is the worst thing about it – because we said to ourselves, “well, that is democracy. They have the right to express themselves too.” At the same time, the ancien régime was still there. It was going about its business discreetly, out of the public eye: reconstituting a new clientele, forging new alliances, making alliances with foreign powers favorable to its aims, using the Islamists to intimidate this or that section of the population. The same thing is happening now in the countries in question.

TWS: In our last discussion, you criticized the West for courting Muslim intellectuals who often turn out to be, more precisely, Islamist intellectuals. You mentioned the example of Tariq Ramadan. Perhaps now we have another example in Tawakkul Karman: the Yemeni activist who just won the Nobel Peace Prize. The party of which Karman is a member is the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and its most prominent leader (Abdul Majeed al-Zindani) has even been linked to Osama bin Laden. Why is it that when the West goes looking for partners in the Arab world it seems so often to come up with Islamists?

Sansal: The West has a basic problem for at least fifty years, maybe more: The West does not know how to deal with Islam. Before independence, the Arab world was under colonial rule – either by the British or the French – so there was a sort of direct “management.” Each of the western powers found their own solutions taking into account the local conditions. But it was a matter of colonial domination, so to that extent it was relatively simple: policy was imposed. Under these conditions, Islam was contained [i.e. within the colonial empires]: militarily, but also culturally.

When the Arab countries gained their independence, Islam was emancipated. At this point, it becomes a factor on the global stage. It is dominant in fifteen or so Arab countries, and via immigration, as well as conversions, it also acquires a presence in Europe. But western governments have no idea how to manage their relationship to Islam, and the problem is all the more difficult inasmuch as there is no Muslim “church”: which is to say that there are no established authorities with whom governments could enter into dialogue.

They have never known how to proceed, and when states are at a loss how to proceed, they engage in realpolitik. Nowadays, in France or Great Britain, for instance, they say: “well, the Islamists are going to win anyway, so we’ll play the card of the so-called moderate Islamists.”

TWS: Why is there this constant search for the “moderate Muslim” or now even the “moderate Islamist”?

Sansal: I think it’s a terrible mistake! It’s again a matter of realpolitik [on the part of Western policymakers]. They ask, what are the forces present in these countries? On the one hand, there is the army with its clientele, the civil service, etc. And then: there are the Islamists. The Islamists represent a kind of hard core of activists, but their roots extend throughout Arab society.

There is also a “third force”: the democrats. But the democrats consist of thousands of little parties, each with two members, which are concentrated in the big cities: for the most part, just in the capital. They have no contact with ordinary people. Their ties are rather with international organizations, like Amnesty International or the Socialist International. They have no influence whatsoever on the broader society.

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