Rapid change of Arab Spring slows in winter

The Washington Times, Dec. 27, 2011

When Mohamed Bouazizi, a young Tunisian vegetable seller, set fire to himself in protest over harassment by officials last December, he unleashed a wave of long-simmering resentment across the Arab world that swept away longtime leaders in Tunisia and Egypt over the next two months.

The Arab Spring set in with the hope that a huge democratic change finally was within reach for the region. Now, 12 months later, that initial euphoria largely has subsided.

Syria launched a brutal crackdown on dissent. Yemen is still in a suspended state of chaos, while Libya struggles to unite after overthrowing Moammar Gadhafi. Even in Egypt, the continuing role of the army has led to doubts over its revolution transforming into a representative democracy.

“The sense of disappointment comes from the fact that expectations were raised so quickly and these were impossible to fulfill,” said Christian Koch of the Gulf Research Center, a Dubai-based think tank.

“One has to be realistic that the switch over to a different type of government is something that will simply take time.”

Other analysts agree that change is going to be much slower than the rapid pace of events earlier this year may have seemed to promise at first.

“It will take the Arab world at least between 10 and 20 years to be able to transition from political authoritarianism to pluralism,” said Fawaz A. Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics.

“You have to build institutions block by block. You have to rebuild trust among the political players.”

In Egypt, trust seems in short supply. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which has ruled ever since the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in February, seems willing to use methods alarmingly similar to those of the old regime.

The brutal crackdown on the thousands who gathered in Tahrir Square in November to voice frustration at the pace of change raised concerns about whether the generals are even willing to cede power to a civilian government.

Meanwhile, Islamists have reaped the electoral victory in Egypt after the first round of voting that began Nov. 27. The more moderate Muslim Brotherhood secured 46 percent of the vote with the far more radical Salafists attracting 21 percent. This has raised concerns that the two will form a religious coalition, though the Muslim Brotherhood insists it would prefer to share power with secularists.

Moderate religious parties also have fared well in other countries. In Morocco, the Islamist Justice and Development Party won November’s parliamentary elections, called by King Mohammed VI after the adoption of a new constitution in which he conceded some powers.

In October, Tunisia’s moderate Islamist Ennhada party garnered the most support in elections to an assembly charged with drawing up a new constitution. It will hold power with a liberal and a left-wing party until fresh elections are called in the spring.

Many analysts are not surprised that religious groups have won elections in Arab countries. While most other forms of civil society were systematically crushed, Islam could continue to flourish within the mosques.

“These are the movements that have over the years been able to maintain a certain level of organizational ability and are now using that advantage to come to the forefront,” Mr. Koch said.

He predicted that Islamists may start to lose support as voters become disappointed with the slow pace of change.

“The economic problems in the region are tremendous, and the parties now coming into positions of power are going to be expected to deliver and pretty quickly,” he said. “This is going to be almost impossible.”

For the time being, the Islamists are in the ascendancy.

“We need to work with political Islam,” said Bruce W. Jentleson, a former policy adviser to President Obama who is a political science professor at Duke University.

He said the United States has to differentiate between the forms that are “intrinsically antagonist to our interests and values” and those with whom any differences can be resolved.

In Libya, meanwhile, the overthrow of the Gadhafi regime has given way to dangerous uncertainty as the various well-armed rebel militias wrangle for power. A government was only formed on Nov. 24, a few months after Tripoli fell to the rebels in August.

While these countries work out their messy transition, Syrians are still living under their increasingly erratic and brutal ruler, President Bashar al-Assad. Human rights groups say his security forces have killed at least 5,000 people since the unrest began in March.

The regime’s claims to guarantee prosperity and prevent sectarian violence are beginning to seem increasingly hollow.

“Many of the elites are seeing their interests fundamentally damaged,” said Mr. Jentelson, who predicts it is just a matter of time before Mr. Assad is ousted.

Observers also are concerned about continuing violence in a still volatile Yemen, where a new government took office on Dec. 8 following a transition deal brokered by the Gulf Co-Operation Council (GCC).

New presidential elections in February should finally see the departure of the unpredictable President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Yet protestors are suspicious of the deal, and thousands took to the streets on Dec. 9 to protest against the inclusion of Saleh loyalists in the new administration.

The situation is made more dangerous because the country also faces two insurgencies and al Qaeda terrorists.

“Getting rid of Saleh, even if that’s what the GCC transition plan actually accomplishes, does not do much, if anything, to help resolve the country’s other crises,” said Stefan Wolff, professor of international security at Britain’s University of Birmingham.

“The danger of a prolonged civil war is very acute,” he warned.

In Bahrain, where protests were brutally crushed earlier this year, aided by forces from Saudi Arabia, there are some signs of a willingness to pursue reconciliation. King Hamad commissioned a report, released in November, into the crackdown that saw about 35 people killed. The public prosecutor is investigating deaths and torture cases implicating the police.

However, analysts warn that the divisions run deep in Bahraini society, where a Sunni minority rule a Shiite-majority country.

“I’m afraid we are going to see a low-level-intensity conflict continuing in Bahrain,” Mr. Koch said.

Meanwhile, many of the oil-rich Gulf states are introducing limited reforms, hoping those measures will defuse resentments and head off calls for more radical political transformation.

“The citizens of the Gulf are no longer just happy having the opportunity to gain economic wealth,” Mr. Koch said. “They are looking much more at playing an active role in their own societies as citizens of their countries.”

While the pace of change may be frustrating, Arabs appear to be enjoying newfound freedoms denied to them for decades.

“What you are witnessing in Egypt and Tunisia and other places is that finally people are playing politics in their own way,” Mr. Gerges said.

“People across the Arab world feel empowered. They feel they can really determine their own affairs.”

Originally published in The Washington Times: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2011/dec/27/rapid-change-arab-spring-slows-winter/?page=all

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