x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Reality check cools the initial heat of the Arab Spring

Much has changed in six months, both politically and psychologically, as a new political consciousness has taken hold, sweeping away countless stereotypes of Arabs and the region as a whole.

Shiite Muslims chant slogans to free prisoners during a sermon  in Diraz, Bahrain, when Sheik Issa Qassem, Bahrai's top Shiite cleric, said Bahrain should free political prisoners and that the nation's reputation was being damaged by prosecuting doctors, teachers, youths, women, clerics and other professionals arrested during the crackdown on anti-government protesters.
Shiite Muslims chant slogans to free prisoners during a sermon in Diraz, Bahrain, when Sheik Issa Qassem, Bahrai's top Shiite cleric, said Bahrain should free political prisoners and that the nation's reputation was being damaged by prosecuting doctors, teachers, youths, women, clerics and other professionals arrested during the crackdown on anti-government protesters.

Six months ago today, an impoverished Tunisian fruit vendor set himself on fire after being publicly humiliated by a policewoman who tried to confiscate his unlicensed street cart. Mohammed Bouazizi, 26, probably did not intend to be a hero. But his cry for dignity and freedom, and the starkness of his self-immolation, electrified the region.

The Arab Spring, as it has come to be known, was born.

Much has changed in six months, both politically and psychologically, as a new political consciousness has taken hold, sweeping away countless stereotypes of Arabs and the region as a whole.

Yet the initial euphoria that swept the Arab world in January and February has since suffered a sharp reality check. The response to uprisings that followed in some other countries has ranged from violent repression in Syria to near civil war in Libya and Yemen: a chilling disincentive to potential protesters elsewhere. The ossified dictatorships in all three countries have proved their readiness to exploit latent sectarian, ethnic or tribal rivalries in cynical and reckless bids to divide and rule.

Protests in Bahrain were also met with force, inflaming sectarian tensions and fueling wider regional tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. And while most Arabs envisage the end of Muammar Qaddafi's four decades-old dictatorship, many see the continued stalemate and bombing the rebels' reliance on Nato-led air power as tarnishing Libya's revolution.

In Egypt and Tunisia, meanwhile, many complain that change is not coming fast enough, while crime and localised violence appear to be increasing. Worst of all, the Arab world is finally feeling the economic cost of the regional turmoil from Tunis to Manama.

"The revolution was the easy bit in those countries. The hard bit comes deciding how you're going to change the constitution and what form democracy will take," said Gerald Butt, author of several books on the Arab world.

The spontaneous and diverse nature of the mainly youth-driven uprisings was initially a boon: baffled police did not know who to throw behind bars. But this turned into a disadvantage when popular revolts met determined state opposition in several countries.

The Arab Spring "is a revolution without leaders, and that's a real problem", Mr Butt said. "The region will never be the same again, but it's impossible to tell what direction it's going in."

Sir Richard Dalton, a Middle East and North Africa expert at Chatham House, a British think tank, said: "This is a generational thing. The dominoes are unlikely all to fall in a short period, but fall they will over 20 years or so, with different countries moving at different paces. By then nearly all will have variously representative or accountable governments."

Dictators in countries such as Syria and Yemen could initially be replaced by like-minded strongmen, before they, in turn, are eventually ousted, said Sir Richard, who has served as a British diplomat in Libya, Iran, Oman, Palestine and Jordan. "It could take several goes to get rid of dictatorial regimes in some Arab countries."

Even where authoritarian regimes are toppled, the transformation to thriving democracies is likely to take a long time and with numerous setbacks. Egypt and Tunisia will be important testing grounds: the more successful their democratic experiments, the greater the chance for change elsewhere.

Both countries had civil society and trade union movements, which will prove useful. But dictators in countries such as Syria and Libya have long eradicated any possible institutions that could pose a challenge, making a transition to democracy more difficult if they are overthrown.

The fear factor that kept generations of Arabs quiescent has been smashed in several countries, along with it a common Western stereotype that Arab and Muslim culture is inherently incompatible with democracy.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Syria where the regime has confronted protesters with tanks and bullets, killing 1,400 civilians since March. Yet the uprising continues, as it does in Yemen where some 400 civilians have perished. The Syrian regime has a fearsome reputation for brutality: in 1982 it crushed a Sunni uprising in the city of Hama, massacring thousands.

Dr Omar Ashour, the director of the Middle East programme at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at Exeter University in England, said the 'persistence and courage" of protesters in Syria now is impressive.

He dismissed fears that well-organised Islamists will take control in Egypt, Tunisia or Libya. On a recent visit to Egypt and eastern Libya he spoke to people across a range of Islamic movements. Most, he said, regard Turkey's Muslim democracy under the ruling AKP party as "the model to follow".

The Economist Intelligence Unit outlined three main scenarios: scenario one, a 20 per cent probability of representative democracy taking root throughout region, with successful transitions in Egypt and Tunisia leading to other governments implementing meaningful reform; scenario two offers a 20 per cent probability of authoritarian rule remaining the norm after efforts to build democratic institutions are "derailed by internal contradictions and counter-revolutionary forces". Scenario three. the most likely one, with a 60 per cent probability, is a "meagre democratic harvest" in which reforms result in democratic structures in some countries, but most move to a form of "hybrid regime", somewhere between democracy and authoritarianism.

If so, political change would fail to deliver "genuine accountability or popular participation in government decision-making", the EIU report said.

 

mtheodoulou@thenational.ae