Beards, bikinis and the politics of the new Arab world

When it comes to revolutions, it's the bullets, tear gas and chanting crowds that gets everyone excited, but it's what comes afterwards that ultimately decides the future.

Although, like many other Middle East new junkies, I get up in the morning and think, "put on the news! What's going on in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen?!", the future of the Middle East - whether it will become a stable, prosperous region or an unstable basketcase that makes the rest of the world nervous - is being decided by what is happening right now in Tunisia and Egypt.

The conversations taking place in most Western (and non-Arab Muslim) media fixates on a couple of labels; military rule, Islamists and democracy. In reality, the struggle playing out in Arab countries that have managed to overthrow an unpopular leader is about much more fundamental issues; namely, the relationship between the rulers and the ruled.

Samer Al-Atrush, a freelance journalist based in Cairo writing for AFP and the Telegraph, had a great story out yesterday illustrating the political, societal and cultural tussle taking place away from the cameras that will nonetheless decide whether we are looking at a stable and prosperous Arab world or a region at odds with itself and the rest of the world.

"On a barren hill in Sharm el-Sheikh, not far from the famous beach resorts with their bikini-clad patrons, Islamist activist Ahmed Saber ponders the fate of revealing swimwear if his party comes to power."

Now, Londonstani and Samer were partners in journalistic crime a few years ago, so Londonstani has some idea of just how much pleasure Samer will have taken in mentioning Islamists and bikinis in the same sentence. The only thing that is likely to give Samer more satisfaction is that he has Salafis in there too. A Canadian-Palestinian with fluent Arabic and deep local knowledge, Samer has gotten to the root of the post-revolution debate.

Following foreign rule and then often military dictatorships of one form or another, the Muslim world in general, but the Arab world in particular, has had little opportunity to come to a durable consensus as to what confers legitimacy on rulers, what is expected of them and what the process of interaction between those in power and those they govern should be. In the absence of a debate, force has prevailed, buttressed by a substantial degree of bribery ("government jobs for all graduates! woohoo"), and blackmail ("it's your duty as an Arab and Muslim to support your great leader as he stands opposed to the devious activities of Zionists and imperialists").

This approach, in essence, characterises practically all political groups in the Arab world regardless of whether they call themselves "secular", "liberal", "democratic", "Islamist" or anything else. With civil society and media curtailed or subverted and education systems used to inculcate blind acceptance of the ruling clique's hold on power, there has been little space - until recently - to independently grapple with the basic issues of governance, rights and responsibilities, problems and solutions.

Until, that is, the likes of Mubarak and Ben Ali were removed and the puritanical ideal of the Salafis clashed with the practical need to tolerate bikini-clad tourists in order to keep the economy functioning.

"With the Brotherhood, at least we can have a discussion," he said...But the Salafis are different. They are used to sitting in mosques saying: "God commanded this, and the Prophet commanded that. And now suddenly they are involved in politics. It won't work."

Of course, the idea of bikini and beards at loggerheads has picked up media attention, but the principle of balancing requirements and satisfying divergent interests is what's important here. Those who end up ruling the (hopefully) post-dictatorship countries of the Arab world will have to address the issue of keeping people employed, providing law and order, improving social justice and building an economy in the real world - one where there is no perfect solution mandated by scripture (religious or secular), just a least-worst option.

* If you are into your political philosophy, you might see a hint of the fundamental questions that seminal thinkers like John Rawls grapple with when trying to address some of the same issues.

** And if you are of the "Arabs/Muslims don't need to learn anything from an American" school of thought, you might want to look at Zakariya Qazwini's Awaj bin Anfaq, Al Farabi's al Madina al Fadila and Nizam al Tusi's Sayasatnama