“Revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia have not yet been lost”

Islamic scholars: all political forces need to make compromises – maintaining the unifying impetus – otherwise civil war might be imminent

Islamic scholar Dr. Jörn Thielmann, section head at the 32nd German Oriental Studies Conference

From the point of view of Islamic studies, the Arab revolutions have not yet been lost, despite setbacks in Egypt and Tunisia. “Those who are talking of failures or an ‘Arab winter’ now, some two years after the upheavals began, misjudge the complexity of the situation”, says Islamic studies scholar Dr. Jörn Thielmann, section head at the 32nd German Oriental Studies Conference (Deutscher Orientalistentag, DOT) at the University of Münster, which more than 1,000 researchers in Oriental Studies are expected to attend. According to the researcher from the “Erlangen Centre for Islam and Law in Europe”, such processes take years; even in East Germany, more than twenty years after the German reunification, the development has not been completed yet. The current outbreaks of violence in Egypt and Tunisia are setbacks but not signs of an ultimate failure.

“The crucial point in stabilising the situation now is to assume civil-political control of the military and to include the moderate forces of the Muslim Brothers in the democratic processes”, says Thielmann. A constitutional revision to stop the current autonomy of Egypt’s army is critical in this respect. “The minister of defence should be a civilian with a clear authority, instead of simultaneously being Chief of the General Staff.” After the latest clashes of the military and supporters of the ousted president Mohammed Mursi, the different political and social powers in Egypt are strongly recommended to seek compromises. “The United States should utilise their significant military aid for the Egyptian military to exert pressure along these lines.”

Moreover, as the talks of EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton with the ousted president Mursi – who is being detained at an unknown place – show, the EU is in a position to offer neutral mediation, according to the Islamic studies scholar. “All groups will have to lower their expectations,” or else a civil war might be imminent which could set off a chain reaction in the Arab world. “Egypt is on the brink of a civil war, and Tunisia is also walking a fine line. Because of the dominance of the Islamic Ennahda Party, goon squads and militias there feel encouraged to enforce certain moral values.”

“The revolution’s spark is still alive”

“At the same time, the events of the past weeks show that the revolutionary spark is still alive in these countries”, as the DOT section head emphasises. “People should not forfeit this unifying impetus of the revolution.” In the beginning, young and old, secular and religious people fought for one goal: to overthrow the tyrant. After the goal had been quickly accomplished in Egypt and Tunisia, and also in Yemen and Libya, the diverse political forces should now agree on one road. The international community should convince the provisional government and the military to quickly urge a democratic constitution in accordance with the rule of law. “It is also important to make clear to the population that the deeper reasons for their revolutions – unemployment, poverty and lack of prospects – cannot be done away with from one day to the next.”

People in the Middle East are ready for a liberal system and want to participate politically, according to Thielmann. This also holds true for supporters of a state influenced by religion. The German Constitution, which describes a “religion-affirming neutrality” of the state, might well serve as an example for the integration of Islam in a democratic state. In the past two years, representatives of Islamic parties from Egypt approached the German Christian parties for talks.



According to what the researcher says, religion is also an important factor in the outcome of the revolutions. However, the Middle East expert warns that the West should avoid misconceptions and snap judgements about the role of Islam. “We show little understanding for expressing political beliefs in a religious language and tend to imagine a bearded man in long robes proclaiming a theocracy. But democracy and Islam are not contradictory per se.” Generally, Islam does not make any political normative provisions, even if some Muslims claim that it does. The declaration that “Islam is religion and the state” was as such not coined before the 19th century.

In the Islamic studies scholar’s view, the European Union (EU) should be more supportive of the Arab regions despite its own economic and financial crisis. It would have a positive effect on the entire Middle East and the Arabian Peninsula if the EU invested money in education and infrastructure, stimulated tourism and opened the European market for agri-imports like early vegetables and early fruits. “If Egypt, Tunisia and Libya achieve the pathway to success, it will be more difficult for the other authoritarian regimes to cling to their system”, according to the DOT section head. “In addition, this will contribute to the regional security at the southern European border.”

Arab revolutions in research

At the 32nd German Oriental Studies Conference, several hundred researchers from all over the world will deal with current developments in North Africa and the Middle East, including Islamic studies scholar, cultural and political scientists as well as Iranologists, Turkologists and geographers. Topics will be, for example, the transformational process in the Arab world and the European Mediterranean policy after the Arab Spring. Jörn Thielmann will head the section “Politics, Economy and Society”. The topicality of the events presents research with a particular scientific challenge, according to Thielmann. “In the case of current processes, it is not as easy to operate with the established scientific criteria. Every minute and every hour may change events in such a way that previous assessments need to be reviewed.” (ska/vvm)