x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The long winter before the Arab Spring

Before Mohamed Bouazizi's tragic gesture, the future of the Arab world looked very different.

Syrian President Bashar Assad, centre, has responded harshly to anti-regime protesters. AP Photo
Syrian President Bashar Assad, centre, has responded harshly to anti-regime protesters. AP Photo

Crystal-ball gazing can be a tricky business. Today marks the anniversary of Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation; a year since the street vendor from Tunisia's interior set himself on fire - and set off a wave of protests that changed the Middle East.

None of this was predicted. The immense importance of the Middle East's strategic position and abundance of resources meant that Arab leaders and external powers conspired to keep the region calm - indeed stagnant - for many, many years.

The official view, as reflected in the pontifications of journalists, political analysts and academics, was that the combination of political atrophy and economic stagnation would eventually mean that huge numbers of young people across the Arab world would rise up.

Yet this didn't happen. The Iraq invasion came and went, and still the Arab dictators held firm. The Americans pushed Syria to change direction and prodded Egypt to reform, but little changed.

Looking back to that day in 2010, here is the establishment view of what was predicted to happen over the next months and years in the Middle East. They offer a representative view of the kind of thinking prevalent in policy circles in London and Washington on this day one year ago, before an unexpected change turned the carefully managed stability - and consensus predictions - of the region upside down.

In the end, what sparked a mass change across the Middle East was an unexpected and at first almost unremarked upon act, a cri de coeur born of frustration. Mohamed Bouazizi was a seller of fruit and vegetables in a small town in Tunisia's hardscrabble interior. His story, of leaving school to support an unwell family, of working a series of uncertain jobs to make ends meet, of fighting daily the frustrations of petty bureaucracy was not unusual, replicated across so many of the Arab republics.

On the morning of December 17 last year, a series of disputed events took place, resulting in Bouazizi's small cart of vegetables being confiscated due to a lack of a permit. Humiliated, Bouazizi went to the governor of the town to seek redress but was rebuffed.

As the sole breadwinner for his family, Bouazizi was desperate to have his small possessions returned. So angry, so frustrated was he with such humiliation over something so small, he stood outside the governor's office, doused himself with kerosene and lit a match. The whole region felt the flames.

Bouazizi didn't die immediately. For weeks he remained in a coma. Outside, Tunisia was burning. Protests rocked first the towns and then the cities. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets and as the state responded with brutality, the protests spread and the demands increased. On January 4 this year, Bouazizi succumbed to his injuries and died. Within 10 days, the president of Tunisia had fled for Saudi Arabia.

As much as the departure of Ben Ali was shocking, it was merely the beginning. The wave of protests that began in Tunisia surged across the Arab republics, engulfing Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria.


Hazy search for Ben Ali's successor

Name of leader: Zine El Abidine Ben Ali
Years in power: 24
Expected successor: Unknown

Background Ben Ali had been interior minister, and then prime minister, under Tunisia's previous president Habib Bourghiba. In 1987, he became president after Bourghiba was assessed as medically unfit to remain in office. Since then, he consolidated his hold over the country, overwhelmingly winning presidential elections in which he was the only candidate. He did not name a successor.

Political analysis In a US embassy cable written in 2006, and leaked by Wikileaks this year, the US ambassador discussed the possibility of a successor to Ben Ali.

"In a country that has had only one president for over 18 years, suddenly and unusually, talk of the post-Ben Ali era is growing. Several senior and well-connected individuals have recently raised Ben Ali's intentions for the future with the ambassador and other embassy officials … None of the options suggest Tunisia will become more democratic, but the US-Tunisian bilateral relationship is likely to remain unaffected by the departure of Ben Ali.

"In recent months, however, increasingly concrete speculation has been voiced by well-placed contacts (and more casual observers) that Ben Ali does not plan to run again and may even step down before his term expires in 2009."

The cable showed how difficult it was considered to be for a successor to Ben Ali to be found.

"[Ben Ali] is an expert at shuffling his advisers and cabinet members to prevent any one individual from gaining sufficient political support to become a threat to the president's rule, it is unclear who this successor might be. Given the legal framework of the presidency, it is expected that the successor would come from the RCD [Constitutional Democratic Rally] politburo - whether hand-picked by Ben Ali or following his death."

Showing how far removed from the Tunisian reality the political analysis was, even Ben Ali's wife was considered as a possible successor - this despite the immense anger that ordinary Tunisians long had for the First Lady. Indeed far from being a possible successor, the First Lady was something of a lightning rod for protesters.

What happened next? After Ben Ali and some of his family fled Tunisia, the security apparatus was disbanded and Ben Ali and his wife were tried in absentia. They were sentenced to 35 years in jail for their theft of Tunisia's wealth.


Mubarak's stranglehold on power

Name of leader: Hosni Mubarak
Years in power: 30
Expected successor: Gamal Mubarak (son)

Background Mr Mubarak had been vice president of Egypt under Anwar Sadat. When Sadat was assassinated in 1981, Mubarak became president, presiding over three tumultuous decades in the Middle East. He showed no signs of leaving office and it was suggested that most Egyptians were resigned to the rule for life of the "Pharaoh".

Political analysis This time last year, no leader's hold on power in the Arab world seemed more stable than Hosni Mubarak. Egypt's immense strategic importance to the US meant Mubarak's regime benefited from billions of dollars of aid and immense political support. The US held on to Henry Kissinger's doctrine that there could be no war in the Middle East without Egypt and as a consequence it seemed the least likely republic that would change internally.

A US diplomatic cable from 2009, leaked by Wikileaks, showed how central the status quo was to the US:

"President Mubarak and military leaders view our military assistance programme as the cornerstone of our mil-mil [military to military] relationship and consider the $1.3 billion in annual FMF as 'untouchable compensation' for making and maintaining peace with Israel. The tangible benefits to our mil-mil relationship are clear: Egypt remains at peace with Israel, and the US military enjoys priority access to the Suez Canal and Egyptian airspace."

Another cable showed what assessment the US diplomatic corps made of Egypt's future.

"The next presidential elections are scheduled for 2011, and if Mubarak is still alive it is likely he will run again, and, inevitably, win … Despite incessant whispered discussions, no one in Egypt has any certainty about who will eventually succeed Mubarak nor under what circumstances. The most likely contender is presidential son Gamal Mubarak … "

Despite noting that there was widespread poverty (affecting 35 to 40 per cent of the population) and there had been food riots in 2008, the cable still maintained the dominant assessment that the military establishment had clear control over the population.

What happened next? As protests gripped the capital and most of the major cities, Egypt's president tried to hold on. He first offered concessions that his son Gamal would not follow him as president. But the curfew imposed by the army was ignored by the demonstrators in Tahrir Square calling for the end of Mubarak's rule, and it was clear that the government was no longer able to maintain order. The Egyptian people had forced Mr Mubarak to do what no war, assassination attempt or foreign pressure had done - and he left office on February 11 this year.


Balance of power in Qaddafi's favour

Name of leader: Muammar Qaddafi
Years in power: 42
Expected successor: One of three sons: Saif Al Islam, Mutassim, Khamis.

Background Libya had been ruled by Qaddafi since he led a coup against King Idris in 1969. Recent history of relations with the West was dominated by the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. UN sanctions were imposed and Libya spent most of the 1990s as a pariah state.

After Libya accepted responsibility for the bombing and agreed to pay reparations, relations with the West, especially Britain and the US, were normalised, particularly after 2003. Western politicians lined up to meet Qaddafi and his sons. The talk was about the future of Libya and its economic potential. The six million people who lived under his dictatorship were barely mentioned.

Political analysis The consensus was that Libya had "come in from the cold". Articles in western newspapers focused on the development that was coming to Libya after sanctions against the country had been lifted.

A glowing article in the Christian Science Monitor in 2010 was typical. It began: "From shiny new Hyundais cruising the capital's wide palm-lined boulevards to cranes dotting the Mediterranean skyline, the long-time pariah is getting a modern face … Seven years after the international community formally lifted the stringent sanctions it had imposed for state-sponsored terrorism, Libya has not only found its feet but is attracting international investment as well."

The article quoted Afrin Canbolat, field engineer manager on one of the glitzy new projects, as saying: "They have bowling alleys. They will also enjoy [life] like the rest of the free world."

How utterly different from what was printed just a few months later.

Even Benghazi, the city that started the fierce uprising against Qaddafi, was described in glowing terms: "In Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city, two government-funded housing projects consisting of 20,000 units, costing approximately $4.8 billion, are half way to completion. At the Ghanfuda New Town site, eight miles south of the centre of the city, row upon row of apartment block frames jut out of the desert."

A US cable leaked by Wikileaks noted: "While it is tempting to dismiss his many eccentricities as signs of instability, Qaddafi is a complicated individual who has managed to stay in power for 40 years through a skillful balancing of interests and realpolitik methods."

What happened next? Protests and an armed uprising spread across Libya from February 2011, culminating in military support by Nato. Qaddafi was captured and killed by rebel forces in October. Of the sons talked of as his successors, Mutassim is dead, Khamis is suspected dead, and Saif Al Islam, is in Libyan custody.


Saleh prepares for three more years

Name of leader: Ali Abdullah Saleh
Years in power: 33 (first as president of Yemen Arab Republic, then as president of a united Yemen)
Expected successor: Ahmed Saleh (son)

Background Mr Saleh had ruled a unified Yemen since 1990. He had repeatedly suggested he would step down before running again for power. Mr Saleh said he would not run for president in the 2006 elections but eventually changed his mind. Before the uprising began in 2011, Mr Saleh was expected to rule until 2013 at least.

Political analysis In 2005, a US embassy cable, leaked in 2011 by Wikileaks, discussed the question of who might succeed Mr Saleh.

"There is widespread scepticism about Mr Saleh's intentions not to run especially as there are few, if any, viable candidates. Mr Saleh has given little indication of how he would transfer power, begging the question as to how and when such a transition might take place. "… In the case of Mr Saleh's death or retirement before 2013, his successor would almost certainly be a military officer and likely a member of the president's Sanhan tribe. Mr Saleh's son, Ahmed Ali, is the most obvious choice, but there are considerable doubts as to his fitness for the job. … As a result, any succession scenario is fraught with uncertainty. Although the Yemeni public complains about corruption and lack of the democratic institutions necessary to establish rule of law, Yemenis generally agree that for the time being no one but Mr Saleh can maintain the nation's unity and stability.

"… Assuming Mr Saleh wins the next election [a pretty safe assumption], his last constitutional seven-year term would expire in 2013 … Considering his age … most Yemenis believe that they will have a new president by 2013 at the latest."

The 2005 cable considered five scenarios for the end of Mr Saleh's rule: the defeat of Mr Saleh in elections; a new president taking power in 2013; a coup; the sudden death of Saleh, or a popular revolt. A popular revolt was considered unlikely.

"The next few years may well bring increased upheaval around the country … The Yemeni public, however, lacks the organisation, education and motivation at this point in time to topple the Saleh regime."

What happened next? Contrary to the pundits, the Yemeni public was so organised they managed to maintain one of the longest-running protest movements in the region. From January, protesters occupied the main square in Sanaa, calling for Saleh to go. Several times, he agreed to go, backing out at the last minute. Hundreds were killed, shot by the army. Still the protests continued. Saleh was wounded in an assassination attempt. Protests continued during his convalescence in Saudi Arabia, and after his return. People power eventually made his position impossible. On November 23, he signed a power-transfer agreement, ending his years in power.


An iron leader with a grip of steel

Name of leader: Bashar Al Assad
Years in power: 11
Expected successor: Unknown - Bashar succeeded his own father, who had ruled Syria for 30 years before his death

Background Assad's father Hafez Al Assad ruled Syria for 29 years until his death in 2000. After Bashar Al Assad took over as president, there was a brief window of promised reform, known as the Damascus Spring, that was quickly shut. Economic reforms have been gradual since then, but political reforms have been non-existent. The state of emergency has remained in force since 1963.

Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, there was enormous pressure on Syria from the Bush administration and rumours that the administration would try to topple Assad. But he emerged stronger from the debacle in Iraq and, by mid-2010, his position looked secure.

Political analysis A report from the Economist Intelligence Unit, part of the respected Economist magazine group, about the country's political outlook in 2009-2010 is typical of the country's expected future:

"The president, Bashar Al Assad, is expected to remain in power in 2009-10 and there is no significant threat to his rule."

Despite warnings about tensions in the country, no one expected the revolt to come from the ground up.

"Mr Assad and his ruling Baath party are expected to retain a secure grip on the country, supported by key elements in the security services, but significant challenges will nevertheless arise in 2009-10. The core of the elite is largely drawn from Mr Assad's Alawi sect, who are acutely conscious that any move against him would risk endangering their hold on power. However, there are still tensions within the regime, accentuated by external pressures such as the UN investigation into the killing of Rafiq Al Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister, and the International Atomic Energy Agency investigation of allegations that a Syrian building bombed by Israel in 2007 was part of a secret nuclear programme."

A similar report in 2008 from Oxford Analytica concluded: "Syria has returned to the limelight and will be the focus of intensive diplomatic activity for the foreseeable future … After all, the experience of recent years has taught Assad that it was precisely his stubborn adherence to his positions that extricated him from isolation and consolidated his power. Therefore, there is no reason for him to alter or abandon the stances he has taken, especially now that there are no obvious threats or constraints on Syria compelling him to do so."

What happened next? Syria's uprising is the only one of the revolts in Arab republics to yet resolve itself. Since March there have been large-scale demonstrations against the regime. As the months have passed, the demonstrations have grown into the most potent threat to the rule of the Assads for 40 years. The Arab League has suspended Syria's membership and threatened sanctions if the violence does not stop.