x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Summer: Libya, Syria and Yemen leaders take desperate measures

Seasons of Change When their people rose up against them, Muammar Qaddafi, Bashar Al Assad and Ali Abdullah Saleh used every tactic in the book to maintain their grip on power.

Libyan rebels take cover as a bomb dropped by a fighter jet explodes near a checkpoint on the outskirts of Ras Lanuf in March. Marco Longari / AFP
Libyan rebels take cover as a bomb dropped by a fighter jet explodes near a checkpoint on the outskirts of Ras Lanuf in March. Marco Longari / AFP

As spring turned to summer, the dominoes began to fight back. Tunisia's president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, had been in power for 23 years and nobody expected him to go just because the people demanded it. Yet he did - and when, barely a month later, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak stepped down in response to massive public protests, it signalled a sea-change in the Middle East.

Mubarak was the leader of the Arab world's biggest country, a leader backed politically, economically and militarily by the West. If he could be toppled by his own people, it meant anyone in the region could go. The domino theory began to gain currency.

Within days, protests erupted across the region - in Algeria and Libya, in Yemen, in Lebanon and in Palestine, all seeking to emulate what had been achieved in Tunisia and Egypt.

On February 25, the Middle East's day of rage, tens of thousands of people took to the streets across the Arab world. There was a feeling of momentum, a belief that anything could happen, that the old rules didn't apply any more. The fear had gone.

But the regimes fought back. The rulers of Libya, Syria and Yemen had been in power a collective 86 years, and with the addition of the three decades Bashar Al Assad's father had ruled Syria, these leaders had the collective wisdom of more than 100 years of repressive rule. Over the course of 2011, they would use every tactic they knew to stay in power.

Protests in Yemen began even before Mubarak stepped down, triggered by the arrest of several opposition activists, including Tawwakol Karman, the woman who would later win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Throughout January and February protests continued, thousands, then tens of thousands taking to the streets across the country. Yemen's president Ali Abdullah Saleh offered several concessions, but none but his removal would satisfy demonstrators.

Weeks turned to months and by May, hundreds of thousands were assembling for demonstrations. Despite facing live fire from the army, these actions did not stop. But Saleh refused to leave. When, on June 3, an explosion ripped through his presidential compound, killing his aides and seriously injuring Saleh, the president left for treatment in Saudi Arabia. It looked like another Arab leader had been ousted by the people.

Yemen's uprising burnt slowly, but Libya's raged swiftly. Within days of Mubarak's departure in February, huge protests began. They escalated so rapidly that by February 20 - just nine days after Mubarak left, the situation was so serious in Libya that Saif Al Islam Qaddafi gave his now infamous finger-wagging public address.

Qaddafi's army used deadly force against civilians. A cycle was rapidly established, the same pattern that would later occur in Yemen and Syria: protesters would be killed, leading to huge crowds and demonstrations over the following days at their funeral, during which more protesters would be killed, leading to a further cycle of funerals and protests.

By February 23, Benghazi, the country's second city in the east, had fallen to the rebels. By the end of the month, the rebels were 45 kilometres from the capital. A regime and a leader that had seemed immovable for four decades was swaying. The next domino was about to be toppled.

Yet Qaddafi's forces fought back hard. By air and by land, they fought back against the rebels, retaking lost towns and speeding east towards Benghazi. The Libyan rebels, fearing they were about to be massacred, reached out to the international community. On March 18, the UN Security Council declared a no-fly zone and Operation Odyssey Dawn began over Libya.

At almost the same time as Nato planes were readying, protests began in earnest in Syria, sparked by the arrest of a group of children in a southern city for writing revolutionary slogans.

A country that had seemed likely to weather the Arab Spring was rapidly plunged into dissent. By the start of April, barely days after protests began, demonstrations reached the capital Damascus.

Yet no civilian population faced the full weight of their army's weapons as the Syrians. Tanks, helicopters, gunships and snipers were used against innocent people. Syria was rapidly becoming a slaughter-ground as the last domino fought hard to survive.

As the year progressed, none of the uprisings reached a conclusion. Violence raged in Yemen, in Syria and in Libya for months, claiming hundreds of lives. It would be five long hot months of blood before the situation changed.


At its core, the long hot summer of fighting in Libya, in Yemen and in Syria was an attempt to re-establish a principle of power, a principle that had held true for many Arab republics for decades, the principle that, in the face of force, the people would back down.

For so many years, that principle held true. States like Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Syria placed enormous resources at the service of their surveillance agents. The intelligence apparatus, spying on citizens, watching their movements in order to guard against political change, and the security apparatus of the police and the military added up to an enormous apparatus of coercion, formed to keep citizens from dissenting.

The history of this creation is long, an integral part of the stagnation that gripped the Middle East for decades, but its outcome was to maintain order, to keep people cowed. And for a long time, it worked. Unsurprisingly, because few will dissent when the price is imprisonment or torture. Even the lesser costs to career, to the education of their children, to the well-being of their family, are high prices for most people to bear. That was why, although it was clear the system was unsustainable, it appeared stable. Below the surface, there was impatience, anger, fear, but nothing had yet sparked a conflagration. Like a volcano, it was merely bubbling - everyone predicted an explosion, but since no one could say when or how, the status quo was maintained.

But over a few days in January, that principle was overturned, first in Tunisia and then, most dramatically, in Tahrir Square in Egypt. First, the Egyptian army issued a curfew - and was ignored. Attacks were carried out against unarmed protesters - and still the protesters stayed and still more came. Once the people had defied the curfew, and then remained in the face of assault, there was nothing left for the state to do except use deadly force. But when the Egyptian army issued a statement pledging not to attack the protesters, the die was cast. The regime of Hosni Mubarak had no further coercive force. Devoid of any legitimacy and lacking the ability to enforce obedience, the president had to leave. The basis of the repression that held the republics together began to unravel.

The armies of Libya, Yemen and Syria attempted to sew it back again, to use such force against their own people that the protesters would be forced to retreat.


The Libyan and Yemeni uprisings outlasted their targets. On August 22, Libya's capital Tripoli fell and Muammar Qaddafi vanished. Two months later, he reappeared in grainy footage after he was captured, filmed first alive and confused, and later dead and on display. The Qaddafi era had come to an end.

In Yemen, the uprising took a unique twist, when, at the end of September, three months after he was taken to Saudi Arabia, Saleh returned to Yemen. The target of the uprisings had re-emerged. His return galvanised those who had, throughout the long months, often appeared on the verge of splitting into smaller groups. Mass rallies returned to the capital. By the end of November, having backed out of signing a power transfer agreement several times, Saleh was finally brought to the table and signed his presidency away.

What comes next for those two countries - one small and oil-rich, the other populous and fractured - is unclear. Without a figurehead to coalesce around, the protesters have started arguing among themselves.

In both countries, outside actors are heavily involved, with strong stakes in stability rather than change. But having thrown off the yoke of leaders who ruled for decades, at the least a different future is possible for those two countries.

The outcome in Syria is not assured. President Bashar Al Assad is still counting on turning back the tide of protests. He may yet, despite everything, despite international sanctions, despite being expelled from the Arab League, despite daily protests and daily deaths, cling to power for a few more months or even a few more years. There is no inevitability in politics. The power of force is persuasive.

But as 2012 opens, the principle of force has been all but forgotten and, more importantly, the fear of force has gone. Libyans faced up to an army, at first with no training and only small arms. Yemenis came out in their millions, even as they were shot to death. In Syria, as the state piled on force, the people have returned to the streets the following day.

If the unravelling of the fear of force is the one thing that comes out of 12 months of protests and violence, it will be one idea that will change the Middle East as it enters a new year and a new era.

Faisal Al Yafai is a columnist for The National.