x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

A year of protests ends with fear and new uncertainties

The promise felt by so many in this year of Arab uprisings has given way to uncertainty and undemocratic groups.

As this year draws to a close, we should look back on the last 12 months to determine whether the unprecedented and unexpected events of the "Arab Spring" have made the region as a whole a better place. Sadly, despite the hopes that I had in January and February, hopes that were widely shared, I am far from confident of such an outcome.

It's been an interesting year, certainly - more so than any other in the 45 years since I first became involved in the Middle East. In previous years, there had been major events affecting particular areas of the region, such as the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars, the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the removal of Saddam Hussein.

Although all of those events were important, to some extent they were relatively limited in terms of their geographical effects. It's early days yet in the Arab uprisings, but it seems that the fallout may well be much more widespread and much more long-lasting. I fear that many of those who, with extraordinary courage, have risked so much and in many cases have sacrificed so much in pursuit of change may come to look back and wonder whether it was all worthwhile.

Tunisia, where it all started, is thus far the only country where the collapse of the ancien regime has been followed by relatively peaceful progress towards the emergence of a new government that promises to be more responsive to the desires of its people.

In Egypt, while the ageing Pharaoh has been removed, the old-guard politicians and military officers from whose ranks he came show no desire to relinquish their power, although through the electoral process they may come to share it - with, apparently, religious groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists. Among these are forces that believe the freethinking crowds who filled Tahrir Square are anathema to their values, and the different religious views of many millions of their fellow Egyptians are something to be circumscribed, or worse.

In Libya, it took months, foreign intervention and much bloodshed before that country's erratic leader was removed, but there has been little sign so far that there is any real agreement between those who now share power on what exactly they plan to do with it.

In Yemen, months of protests have led not to the removal of a discredited leadership, but to a sharing of power between rival blocs, with those who sought real change being excluded. In the absence of an effective government for much of the year, the Al Houthi rebellion and Al Qaeda-related militants have grown stronger.

In Syria, hopes for modest change have been brutally repressed by a government seemingly bent on pursuing the self-fulfilling prophecy that unless it retains power, the country will descend into civil war and sectarian strife.

In Iraq, the withdrawal of American forces - however welcome that may have been - appears to have removed the last restraints on a descent into sectarian politics that threaten the country's very existence and, at the same time, the balance of power between the other countries of the region.

Only in the Gulf, in my view, have we been relatively fortunate. In the UAE and in neighbouring Oman, swift moves to address the real concerns of citizens in terms of issues such as development, jobs and the broader economy have satisfied all but a tiny, unrepresentative, minority.

In Bahrain, with its much greater challenges, the government's acceptance that its response to protests earlier in the year went well beyond what was justified has provided a window of opportunity to try to get things right. One hopes that all those with good intentions will make the best of that opportunity.

In the rest of the region, though, I see little grounds for optimism. Economies have ground to a standstill, with millions being driven into unemployment and poverty.

Thousands have been killed, with more dying every day. There is a worrying rise in the activities, and in the strength, of those whose extremist views challenge the legitimacy and the identity of minority communities, whether religious or otherwise. Those communities have for many centuries been an integral part of the mosaic of the peoples of the region.

And then there is Iran, which appears either directly or through its allies and proxies to be engaging in its own agenda, thereby adding to the turmoil.

I hope that my gloom is misplaced, but I fear that for many countries in the region, albeit God willing not for the UAE, there is a very tough year ahead.


Peter Hellyer is a commentator on the UAE's culture and heritage and current affairs