The tumultuous tides of human protesters on the streets, bridges and squares of Cairo and Istanbul, speak of frustration with the world as it is and a yearning for a better life. A clear and precise vision of that better life as articulated in the Freedom Charter by our visionary Nelson Mandela is what contributed to the success of our aspirations for change. This vision was poignantly conveyed by Mandela in his Inaugural speech in 1994:

“Democracy is based on the majority principle. This is especially true in a country such as ours where the vast majority have been systematically denied their rights. At the same time, democracy also requires that the rights of political and other minorities be safeguarded. In the political order we have established there will be regular, open and free elections, at all levels of government — central, provincial and municipal. There shall also be a social order which respects completely the culture, language and religious rights of all sections of our society and the fundamental rights of the individual.”

While Mandela’s message resonated with the whole South African population and was founded on universalistic human-rights principles, the messages emanating from North Africa and the Middle East are particularistic and inherently discriminatory, out of sync with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Edmund Burke, the great British politician opposed the anarchy and bloodshed borne out of the French Revolution and the subsequent convulsion that spread and desolated Europe. He advocated renovating existing institutions and supported reformers that believed the future will be better than the past as long as the future would be sufficiently different to justify the excesses involved in the transition.

For this reason the “Arab Spring” is dead. The romantic notions that gripped the imagination of the west, of a “people’s revolution” sweeping away decades of dictatorial rule, now stand in stark contrast to the aftermath of death, destruction and doom. Only one year ago there existed real hope that a newly elected government in Egypt, the most populous Arab state and traditional leader of the Arab world, would chart a new course for all the other unstable states in the region.

A year ago another, non-Arab Muslim state, Turkey also appeared to be a contender to demonstrate that Islam and democracy could indeed coexist. Now Turkey too, is embroiled in harshly suppressing its own “people’s revolt”. While Turkey is prosperous and a regional economic superpower, Egypt is impoverished and a failed state — it cannot feed or educate its people. Its reserves and foreign direct investment have dried up and it is now largely dependent on foreign aid and assistance. So economic factors do not fully explain the roots of the revolutionary origins. The commonality of all these revolutions was a popular revolt against the arrogance of powerful leaders that had all overstayed their terms of office.

What these popular uprisings amply demonstrate is that while it is easy to oppose and demonstrate against corrupt leaders and governments, the vision of what is envisaged in the new order is tainted and flawed. While the west hastened in their naivety to embrace these revolts as positive shoots of Arab democracy and reformative processes, they have delivered neither democracy nor freedom. With the effluxion of time, only one year, it is apparent that the Islamic parties failed to deliver on any of the promises to improve the quality of life or freedoms enjoyed by Egyptians.

The Egyptian constitution drafted by President Mahamed Morsi, against the wishes of the Copts and the secularists, was constrained by sharia law, limiting all freedoms that did not conform to Islamic law. In this manner, because democracy and sharia are incompatible, women were not as free as men, Christians were not as free as Muslims and gays and lesbians had no rights. Essentially this is the contradiction that all Arab reformists will need to confront and as long as they insist on the incorporation of Islamic principles barring a reformation of Islam, as occurred in Europe with Christianity during the early 16th century, the inclusion or adoption of any sharia laws, will be problematic for human rights.

The west needs to realise and come to terms with the fact that the voices of liberal democracy in Egypt are in short supply and that they have no chance whatsoever of gaining power, today or for the foreseeable future. Moreover, their opponents are anti-western, particularly anti-American, with many aspiring to reclaim the fascist policies of Egypt’s greatest modern leader Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Being an enemy of the west, as Nasser was, or of seeking the destruction of Israel or the annihilation of the Jews, does not provide a solid foundation on which to build a positive vision. Unfortunately groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda and even the rebels fighting against Bashar al-Assad in Syria, are founded on what they oppose, rather than positive visions of what they wish to create.

Only when Arab leaders and societies are ready to grasp the principles enunciated by Mandela during his treason trial in 1963 will the revolutions sweeping across the region deliver the “spring” fruit that its people yearn for.

“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for. But, my Lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”


  • Ben studied at Wits, the Hebrew University, London School of Economics and University of Pretoria. He has two master’s degrees and has written four books on anthropology. He was the founding member of Jews for Justice, which took a stand against apartheid and provided assistance to victims of violence in Crossroads. He started Boston House College, a multiracial school in 1979. He currently serves as chairperson of the SA Zionist Federation in the Cape Council. He is married with four children.


Ben Levitas

Ben studied at Wits, the Hebrew University, London School of Economics and University of Pretoria. He has two master’s degrees and has written four books on anthropology. He was the founding member of...

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