With people still reeling from shock following the sequence of criminal attacks perpetrated by Islamist terrorists in Paris on Friday night that left over 120 dead and 250 injured, the third day of the Gibunco Gibraltar Literary Festival got under way, as fate would have it, with a three way conference on the Arab Spring and the rise of ISIS (Islamic State). A minute’s silence was respectfully observed in memory of all the victims of the massacre.
The discussion chaired by historian Charles Powell, director of the Madrid-based think tank Elcano Royal Institute in Madrid brought together two experts of the Arab world, writer Anthony Sattin and journalist James Harkin. Their knowledge of the subject shed light on some aspects of what are often perceived in the west as the intractable problems of the Arab world.
The ‘Arab Spring’ was put under the spotlight and the various interpretations it has given rise to. For some it had echoes of the ‘Prague Spring’ in 1968 and even earlier revolutionary manifestations in the west. For others it is a completely misguided term, which had led to an ‘Islamist Winter.’
The role and impact of social media as a decisive factor in the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings was examined, very much a western idea, contested by the reality on the ground ofmillions of starving people boiling over with frustration, as had occurred during the French Revolution, and suffering brutal repression at the hands of a despotic regime.
The origins of ISIS were analysed with general agreement that their aim was to plunge Syria and the surrounding region into chaos, and for the population to believe that matters will go from bad to worse. In those situations, people are tempted to go for the stabilizing hand of puritanical belief.
The whole complex dynamic of failed states and the impossibility of having democracy in Arab countries without a component of political Islam provided other elements for reflection.
A political solution to the Syrian and refugee crisis was favoured over any military actions from the west, and much emphasis was placed on the value of education as the only viable long term answer to the Gordian Knot of the Middle East.