Eight lessons of the Arab spring

Dismantling decades of autocratic rule in the Middle East is proving difficult
Image of Roula Khalaf

Discussing an expected surge in pro-democracy protests during Ramadan, one Syrian activist declares trenchantly: “Every day will be a Friday.”

As the Muslim month of fasting gets under way next week, the young protesters waging the battle to destroy the autocratic Arab order – who have become accustomed to staging their biggest demonstrations on Fridays – are gearing up for an escalation. Their aim: to break the will of the regimes that are fighting back the revolutionary spirit.

More than six months after Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s long-ruling president, fled to Saudi Arabia, unleashing the “Arab spring”, the region has been transformed. Most dramatically – and crucially – the region’s largest nation, Egypt, swept aside its leader of 30 years with extraordinary speed. Ousted as president in February, Hosni Mubarak is to go on trial as early as next week over the killing of some 850 demonstrators.

Tens of millions have been emancipated in a matter of months, says Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a professor at Emirates University in Dubai. “That’s a huge gain for the Arabs and the positive energy unleashed is incredible for the Arab world,” he says.

Yet, as observers lament that spring has turned into a long hot summer, the price of dismantling decades of autocratic rule is proving enormously high. Other young Arabs who have sought to emulate their brethren in north Africa have found themselves locked in much longer, bloodier fights with the ruling establishments.

Bahrain’s revolt was all but crushed by force, Libya and Yemen are stuck in a stubborn stalemate and Syria’s regime is on a relentless military campaign to put down the protest movement. Thousands of lives have already been lost; more could die before the year’s end.

The political transitions in both Egypt and Tunisia are, moreover, proving messy, with popular expectations far exceeding what transitional governments can deliver, particularly when it comes to economic benefits.

Yet the awakening of Arab youth – perhaps a more appropriate description of the momentous change in the region – is undoubtedly a powerful new force and its ability to bring about a more democratic future will be profound.

From Cairo to Manama, young people say that the days when their aspirations are ignored and their future is decided by rulers they never chose are gone for ever. They speak of their willingness to sacrifice, of the new-found power of peaceful civil action as more potent than the resort to weapons, and of their use of the media and the internet to bolster their cause.

But the youth movements’ battle will be measured in years, not months. It is bound to be uneven, with advances and setbacks, moments of exhilaration and periods of frustration. Libya’s protesters quickly took up arms, turning into rebels, and a similar evolution could be imposing itself in Syria.

Are the outcomes assured? Certainly not. Nor will every attempt at change proceed in a predictable fashion – some new democracies will emerge, some states may collapse while others suffer long-term violence or civil war on the way towards a transition. “Arabs are paying a high price for freedom – but throughout history, freedom doesn’t come at no expense,” says Prof Abdulla.

As a new Arab order emerges, what are the patterns that have emerged and the conclusions that can already be drawn? Below, a look at eight distinctive aspects.

Young and fearless

The thread that runs through all the rebellions in the region is that they have been driven by nascent and often disorganised youth movements, with traditional political groups – whether Islamist or secular – jumping on the bandwagon.

But while in some cases economic frustrations have driven the outcry – most notably in Tunisia where the lack of jobs for the youth was the first slogan raised, and in Syria where the uprising is being seen as the revenge of the provinces long ignored by the regime in Damascus – political demands for freedom and democracy and a clamour for accountable government have been dominant.

Youth movements have advantages: they comprise people on their first political adventure and who therefore are difficult for the security services to track. They are technologically savvy and media-aware.

But they are also more uncompromising than politicians. Once uprisings gather momentum, attempts to douse them with economic hand-outs and promises or changes in the faces of those in government are futile, with demands becoming ever more entrenched.

The end of republican dynasties

Arab rulers most forcefully challenged have been those who were the greediest for power, concentrating decision-making in the hands of their own families and hoping to extend their rule through their children. From the Ben Ali family of Tunisia to the Mubaraks of Egypt, from Libya’s Gaddafi clan to Yemen’s Salehs and Syria’s Assads, the youth revolts have targeted long-resented monopoly rule.

This family power extended into business, deepening the alienation of the middle class but also losing support for leaders among the elite. Former regime officials in Egypt now argue that it was Gamal Mubarak, the leader’s son, and his mother Suzanne who were responsible for the demise of the president. It was they who argued incessantly for Gamal to assume a greater political role in the ruling party, marginalising other political forces, and helped to stage a rigged parliamentary election last year that infuriated other political forces.

One former Egyptian regime insider says the irony is that Hosni Mubarak himself was never convinced that his ambitious son should succeed him as president, yet could not stand in his way.

The army steps in

However passionate and resolute the youth movements have been, those who have swept aside rulers achieved their objective with the help of the military establishment.

The army’s refusal to fire on protesters sealed the fate of the Tunisian and Egyptian presidents. Divisions in the military, with parts of it remaining loyal to existing leaders in Yemen and Libya, have meanwhile prolonged regimes’ political lives. In Syria, military and security agencies are led by officers from the minority Alawite community to which the ruling Assad family belongs, and they have so far remained loyally engaged in the repression of the five-month uprising.

The involvement of the military is, however, a double-edged sword. A source of stability during a transition, not least because it protects a state from collapse, the military is also an integral part of the old regime and could develop a taste for power.

The military council now ruling Egypt shows every sign it wants to return to the barracks. But the way it is handling the transition frustrates parts of the youth movement, which have turned against it.

Beware of sectarianism

The most dangerous development in the Arab world’s transformation has been the exacerbation of sectarian tensions.

The downfall of the Tunisian and the Egyptian regimes was helped by the fact that those societies are largely homogenous.

In contrast, minority regimes – the Alawites in Syria and the Sunni ruling al-Khalifa family in Bahrain – have been able to exploit sectarian fears, with segments of the population backing repression out of fear of civil war.

Pro-democracy activists complain that talk of sectarianism is exaggerated. But there is no doubt that the Sunni minority in Bahrain has turned more fiercely against the Shia majority who rose against the ruling family and today is even less willing than before to address long-held Shia complaints of discrimination.

In Syria, the army is dominated by top Alawite officers who have so far seen their fate as closely tied to the survival of the Assad family. So have the minority Christians who fear a backlash from the largely conservative Sunni majority.

The Islamists’ moment

As the most organised opposition forces during autocratic rule, Islamist parties are big beneficiaries of a political opening. Though they do not constitute a majority of the electorate, their advantage lies in heightening the polarisation in societies where Islamists were long held up as a menace.

Both the long-exiled Nahda of Tunisia and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood are preparing for elections with more confidence than liberal parties, many of which are only now being formed. Some pragmatic liberal politicians as well as western diplomats in the region argue that transitions must be judged over a five-year horizon, however, not in the context of the first elections, and say Islamists will face greater competition as the democratic process evolves.

Islamist parties themselves are going through turmoil, with splits and challenges to the leadership emerging from the younger guard. But in Cairo, Abdulmoneim Abulfutuh, a reformist leader in the Muslim Brotherhood, says the Islamists’ very integration into the political system will drive moderation as society imposes more progressive views on them.

Monarchies strike back

Monarchies are not immune to youth uprisings, as evidenced by protests in Oman and the revolt of the Shia in Bahrain. Broadly, however, royal families have proved more resilient than republics, partly because they enjoy a certain level of legitimacy.

In the monarchies of the oil-rich Gulf, vast financial resources have helped stem the tide of disenchantment by spreading the wealth, with Saudi Arabia unveiling more than $100bn in social spending.

A crucial advantage for monarchies is that power is diffused, argues Robert Danin at the US-based Council on Foreign Relations, noting that Jordan’s King Abdullah sacked his prime minister and Oman’s Sultan Qaboos dismissed his ministers soon after crowds took to the streets. “In contrast, power is so highly centralised in many of the republics that the state and the leader have become synonymous,” he says.

In Morocco, the diffusion of power has allowed King Mohammed to announce reforms that strengthen the elected parliament, a move that the youth movement deems insufficient. But politicians say it could yet show the way towards peaceful transitions.

A shifting regional order

The forces of counter-revolution have been in action as Arab leaders have faced an unprecedented popular challenge, with Saudi Arabia standing out as the most eager to protect the old order.

Infuriated by the humiliating removal of Hosni Mubarak in Cairo, it acted quickly to bolster the Bahraini royal family, sending troops to Manama as part of a Gulf Co-operation Council force.

Riyadh also worked hard (though unsuccessfully) for a transition in Yemen that would provide for Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down. Its wish is for a smoother and more acceptable transfer of power than what is taking place in Egypt. Mr Saleh has been in Saudi Arabia receiving medical treatment for injuries he suffered in an unexplained explosion at the presidential palace.

Although the Saudi autocracy has comfortably co-existed with more democratic systems close by – Kuwait is the prime example – it is generally unsettled by any hint of instability around it. It worries about the impact of the uprisings on its own population and on the regional balance of power.

With Mr Mubarak gone, Egypt could emerge with a more independent-minded foreign policy, less in line with Saudi Arabia’s strong stance against Iran. In what was seen as an attempt to draw a line under the Arab uprisings and help boost the resilience of important allies, Saudi Arabia backed a GCC plan to invite Jordan and Morocco in as members, in effect making the organisation a protective club of Arab monarchies.

In terms of shifting dynamics, the Arab uprisings have also left Israel perturbed. They have thrown the (already dim) prospects for peace with Palestinians into uncharted territory and forced the Jewish state to take account of the sentiment of Arab masses rather than rely on the accommodating attitude of leaders.

For all countries in the region it is the turmoil in Syria, Iran’s closest ally in the Arab world, that could have the most significant ramifications. A collapse of the regime of Bashar al-Assad, who inherited the presidency from his late father Hafez, would deal a devastating blow to Tehran’s regional ambitions. Assuming a stable alternative emerges, that could play to the advantage of Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main foe.

The west must wait

With heightened instability in the Middle East and the shape of a new Arab order still in the making, western powers are scrambling to adjust policies and strike a balance between supporting democracy movements and backing their traditional allies in government.

Outrage at Muammer Gaddafi’s attacks against Libyan towns rising up against him drove an international coalition into a reluctant and now stalled military intervention that is not likely to be repeated elsewhere.

While pro-democracy activists argue that the US and its European allies should be more forceful in their discourse and their pressure on regimes harsher, no one is calling for active intervention, acknowledging instead that Arabs themselves, rather than the west, must be the drivers of change. Indeed, as the west pledges to help the transitions in Egypt and Tunisia with economic assistance, there is a recognition that the outside world has limited influence over the turn of events in the Arab world.

As one US official says: “On the edges we can help those who want to move to genuine democracy, but we cannot be decisive.”

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