A warm Arab spring or a bitter regional winter?

The Arab spring has turned into summer and looks set to continue through 2011 and beyond. Already, Egyptians and Tunisians have freed themselves from decades of autocratic rule. In Syria, a rising force of protesters is battling the army, which is still loyal to the brutal Assad regime – a close-knit family affair. Hundreds have been killed, while Bashar Assad – the President – clings onto power. Then there is Libya, where NATO forces continue to pound Col Gadaffi’s forces as they fight the rebels in a land war. So, what do I think is going to happen?

Firstly, let’s go back to January and Tunisia, where all this started. Having successfully ousted President Zine al-abidine bin Ali, Tunisians have managed to convict him of various crimes, including drugs smuggling and embezzlement. He, on the other hand, has sought exile in Saudi Arabia. This is, although a small step, a momentous event on the road to justice. Tunisia’s revolution was the spark and the most peaceful of the spring, and so it is of paramount importance that democracy is reached swiftly. If it is not, the whole civil-rights movement may fizzle out. I think, judging by the relative ease of the revolution there, Tunisia will manage to set up a stable government. The worry is that Islamic extremism will find a foothold. If this happens, the consequences for the Middle East will be horrendous, as unrest grows. A rise in Islamism in North Africa may help magnify the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (See below). A stable Tunisia, however, will be held up as an example by protesters in the area, and may help other struggles reach a successful conclusion.

Similarly, the revolution in Egypt went quite smoothly and President Mubarak, having stepped down, was almost brought to justice – but then he suffered a rather convenient heart attack. Since his resignation an armed forces council has been running the country. At first, the army seemed keen to meet the demands of the protesters and outside parties. On taking power, it immediately declared that it would keep all of Egypt’s international commitments. Elections were to follow. All looked well. However, once the news cameras had refocused on new revolutions – this time in Libya and Syria – the pace of change slowed. More people were killed as the army tried to clear new protesters, angry that nothing was happening, from Tahrir Square – the focus point of the demonstrations against Mubarak. My worry is that Egypt is stuck in a rut. The initial excitement has worn off and the army does not seem to be in a hurry to relinquish power. Egyptians, weary of further unrest, may not want to cause any more mayhem by protesting again – and who can blame them? After all, over 300 people were killed in the ousting of Mubarak. No one is quite ready to take that risk again. However, having fought so hard for freedom earlier this year, the Egyptians should not allow their army to hold on to power. If they do, it would give other powerful forces – such as those in Syria – an example to follow. In effect the Egyptian army have staged a coup with the help of their people. Freedom is still far off.

The Arab spring entered a new phase when Libya and Syria saw the beginning of their own revolutions. In Libya, the protesters soon became a rebel force, who went on to capture various towns like Misrata, their unofficial capital. The conflict brought in foreign forces for the first time, when NATO convinced the UN that action had to be taken to give the rebels a chance against Col Gaddafi’s vastly superior weaponry. NATO and American forces have since pummelled Gaddafi’s army and bases, allowing the rebels to advance and take more towns. However, in the last month or so the battle for land has reached a stale-mate. The rebels know that the regime will not collapse unless one of two things happen – either the rebels capture Tripoli, the capital, or the regime implodes from within. In my view, the latter is increasingly unlikely; having survived the last few months it is hard to imagine that Gaddafi and his cronies will suddenly give in to pressure. The former option, then, is the one the rebels must focus their efforts on. However, here, again, there are problems. Firstly, the rebels are continually failing to get anywhere near Tripoli. This is because they are lacking in everything. They have not established supply chains, and even if they had, there aren’t any supplies. They desperately need heavy weaponry of their own, rather than relying on NATO to keep up. Secondly, many people in Tripoli have benefited from Gaddafi’s rule and continue to support him. They are richer and have better living standards than those who live in the rebel’s stronghold. While they still feel that Gaddafi’s rule is right for them, the rebels have no hope of taking the capital. However, as time goes on and oil and food become scarcer, these people may start to resent the regime. If they finally rise up, Gaddafi will be on a plane before anyone can blink – especially as he has just been indicted by the International Criminal Court. The people of Tripoli hold the balance of power in their hands and it is hard to tell what they will do with it. A few journalists are now bringing up a new possibility, on the basis that the Tripolians will not do anything – paralysed as they are by fear (which I think is likely). If neither side makes any headway, the country may split: with the rebels in the East and Gaddafi maintaining power in the West. This is a real possibility, I think, because Gaddafi will never step down and should the rebels accept defeat, they will be slaughtered. Mercy is not a word in Gaddafi’s vocabulary. And if the split happens, what then? A dire spectacle such as that seen when Partition occurred (when India and Pakistan split in 1947) could repeat itself as people try to get across the border. Then, of course, the rebels would have to form a stable, democratic government, which is not a given. They too may hold onto power without an official mandate, but somehow I doubt it. They have fought too long and too hard for democracy, surely they believe in it? Whatever happens, both sides, as well as NATO’s pilots, have a long slog ahead of them.

In Syria, the protests started much as they did in Tunisia and Egypt. However the regime reacted as it did in Libya, deploying the army and arresting dissidents. The army shot at crowds, spreading fear through the country. So far, approximately 1,600 people have died and tens of thousands have fled to Turkey. Tens of thousands of people have also been taken as political prisoners, with some never returning. The country is gripped by fear as, each week, protests begin after Friday prayers. Just as in Libya, the protests have not yet reached Damascus, the capital. But this is only because people have been prevented from congregating by extensive road blocks and check-points. Bashar Assad’s government looks to be close to the edge. However, there is another layer to the situation in Syria: sectarianism. The majority of the population – 80% – are Sunni Muslims, 10% are Christians and 10% are Alawites, a small division of Shia Islam to which the Assad family belongs. There is a serious risk of sectarian fighting. The Alawites do not want to lose power and are supported by the Christians in return for protection. If the Assads fall, both of these groups will be subject to revenge. And if that happens, who knows what’s in store. I don’t really have any predictions for Syria, because nothing actually seems possible. Unlike in Libya, foreign governments are unlikely to become involved. This is because Syria is a regional peace-keeper, of sorts, and a regional power house. The event of sectarian violence in Syria could lead to intervention from Iran, which is a Shia Muslim Republic and supports the Alawi sect. It is widely thought that Syria was responsible for arming the Iran-based terrorist groups in Iraq. It is easy to see how unrest in Syria could escalate violence elsewhere, spreading much more fiercely than the protests in Tunisia or Egypt.

The big question surrounding the Arab spring is what effect it will have on terrorism. The most pressing example of this is in Yemen – a fiercely tribal country already known as a hot-spot for al-Qaeda. The government has lost control of the town of Aden, once the capital of South Yemen, which united with its northern neighbour. Therein lies the problem. Although many of the country’s protesters, particularly in Sana’a the capital, are demanding freedom and human rights, the government is also fighting southern separatists as well as al-Qaeda. The official army is weak and many terrorist organisations have taken towns. The President has been taken to Saudi Arabia for treatment, having been wounded in an attack on his compound. A completely lawless Yemen will be an even better hide-out for Islamic extremists, which is why the West is so worried about the situation in the country. I share the view of many analysts that Yemen is most likely heading for civil war.

Islamism has shown itself in other areas too – most notably in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. After President Mubarak was overthrown, the Brotherhood became a legal political party once more. They plan to contest the next elections, and there is a good chance that they could win – as they were seen to support the revolution and were popular as an underground party. It is hard to say what the Brotherhood would do in power; having once upheld Sharia law they have, in recent years, proclaimed to support democracy and freedom of expression. I, for one, would be pressed to guess whether they would return to their old ways or not. My hope still lies in the people, though, because having given so much for democracy they are not going to let it go easily.

The events that befall the afore-mentioned countries will have an effect in every Middle Eastern and North African state. The potential rise of Islamism will force Israel into a more protectionist stance, in turn hampering the peace process. The sectarian nature of events in Syria and Yemen could draw Iran and Iraq into the fray – although the latter is unlikely, considering the already-present problems there. The success of the current revolutions will bolster or dampen similar uprisings in other restive Arab states, especially the kingdoms of Bahrain, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The next few months will be critical to the future of the entire world – a stable Middle East will bring stability globally, but continued turmoil, especially in Libya, will force more countries into the conflicts. The people of the region still have the chance to change their lives for good – but there are dangers that must be avoided.

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