The crushed hopes of the Arab Spring

Wave of uprisings reaches one year mark with little progress towards modern democracy.

IDF Plane 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
IDF Plane 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On December 18 one year ago, a popular uprising erupted in Tunisia after a policewoman slapped a fruit vendor in a small town’s open market. The humiliating act unleashed a wave of protests that has now challenged oppressive regimes throughout the Arab world. Quickly dubbed the “Arab Spring,” the political upheavals have since ignited several civil wars, frayed Arab societies along tribal, ethnic and sectarian lines, and toppled three tyrants, with two more still in serious jeopardy. Yet a revolution launched by downtrodden citizens and hopefilled youths seeking democratic freedoms has turned into a messy, violent and drawn-out transition to what increasingly looks like a future dominated by Islamist rule.
A sudden wildfire  The surge of street protests stirred when Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight in the town of Sidi Bouzid one year ago, and rapidly spread from Tunisia to Egypt, Jordan, Yemen and Bahrain before triggering civil wars in Libya and Syria. Several long-serving Arab rulers quickly fell like dominoes, while others have clung to power in bloody government crackdowns.
The first to go was Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia on January 14, ending three decades of authoritarian rule.
World attention then shifted to Tahrir Square in Cairo, where 18 days of massive, round-the-clock protests eventually toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from power on February 11.
The Shi’ite majority in Bahrain then sought to oust its minority Sunni monarch, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, until Saudi forces rolled in to suppress the demonstrations, viewing them as an Iranian plot.
Faced with dogged protests in Sana’a, President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen agreed to step down on April 23, reneged on the deal, was wounded by a bomb blast in June, left his vice president in charge while seeking medical treatment in Riyadh, and has now returned to a still smoldering Yemeni uprising.
Jordan’s King Abdullah II has sought to appease growing domestic opposition by promising political reforms, sacking two successive governments, and opening a dialogue with leaders of the local chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The unrest next targeted Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi. Rival tribes from eastern Libya won foreign backing for its National Transitional Council, including NATO’s military intervention, and managed to overthrow Gaddafi on August 23. Two months later, he was finally captured and killed on the spot while leading a last stand in his hometown of Sirte.
The revolution was slower to take aim at its next tyrant, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but protests in Syria began in earnest on March 15 and have grown steadily in intensity ever since. The United Nations estimates that over 3,500 civilians have been killed so far in the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown, and the Arab League recently suspended Syria’s membership in the organization in protest of the mounting death toll. Even neighboring Turkey has now turned on its old ally in the Assad dynasty, but the minority Alawite dictator is well entrenched and hopes to weather the unprecedented challenge to his family’s 40-plus year dynasty.
The impact of the Arab Spring has been far reaching, with some claiming it even inspired the “Occupy Wall Street” protests in the United States. But the hopes and promises it once held are being crushed under the weight of the rising threat of Islamist takeovers in a number of Arab countries.
‘Islam is the solution’  Up until one year ago, Western leaders had been aligned for decades with authoritarian Arab rulers who brought stability to a vital yet volatile region, albeit at the cost of tolerating their repressive styles of governance. But this only built up seething popular resentment against the West and its Arab “agents,” which helped to fuel the uprisings of the past year. As a result, the entire world is now facing the prospects of a Middle East, along with its vast resources, under the control of various Islamist factions competing to see who can lead the charge toward a worldwide caliphate. This chilling outcome is portended by the first Arab state to hold free national elections since the uprisings started, the country where it all began – Tunisia.
Tunisia has long been considered the most educated, secular and pro- Western country in the Arab world. Yet the results of the parliamentary balloting held there in late October are troubling, as they indicate the Arab Spring is building momentum toward an “Islamist tsunami,” according to Saudi commentator Mshari Zaydi.
The Ennahda or “Renaissance” party won a plurality of 90 out of a total of 217 seats in the new legislature. Although the Islamist movement did not secure an outright majority, they will easily be able to dictate to any coalition partners its national agenda, which was summed up in the campaign slogan “Islam is the solution.”
Described as “moderates” by most Western media, Ennahda is committed to the vision of Muslim world dominance and in particular to Israel’s demise. During the election campaign, for instance, one party candidate called for the death penalty against anyone who advocates “normalization” with the Jewish state.
According to the media monitoring group CAMERA, Ennahda party founder and ideologue Rachid al- Ghannouchi once expressed hope that “the Arab region will get rid of the germ of Israel. Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, leader of the Hamas movement, once said that Israel would disappear before 2027. That date may be too far off...”
In 2009, Ghannouchi also told an Arabic TV station, “I quite like the Kassam rockets… It is a civilized weapon…”
After its recent election victory, Ennahda’s general secretary Hammadi Jebali, touted to be Tunisia’s next prime minister, appeared at a rally alongside a Hamas official from Gaza and declared that “the liberation of Tunisia will, God willing, bring about the liberation of Jerusalem.”
Jebali added that his faction’s ascendance in Tunisia marked “a divine moment” on the way to “a sixth caliphate.”
A similar outcome is likely in the next Arab country expected to hold free national elections – Egypt.
Mubarak and his sons are now on trial in Cairo, but the military elite which kept him in power for 30 years remains in place. The ruling army council postponed elections scheduled for September out of concern that parties affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood would sweep into power. Instead, a series of staggered parliamentary elections will begin in late November and go into January, while a new presidential election will not be held until 2013.
Meantime, the supreme military council is trying to insulate itself from future government oversight and wrest control over the committee that will rewrite Egypt’s constitution. This has sparked a recent backlash from Muslim factions, marked by renewed mass protests in Tahrir Square and dozens of deaths.Many of the pro-democracy reformers who first stirred the Egyptian uprising through social media outlets are also concerned with an Islamist power grab, while Coptic Christians in Egypt have reported rising levels of extremist Muslim violence directed against their community in the post-Mubarak era.
But latest polls show Islamist movements winning at least half of the seats in parliament in the looming round of voting. According to one recent online survey, 38 percent of Egyptians would choose the Freedom and Justice Party, linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, while an additional 12% would vote for the Al-Nour party, an even more radical Salafist faction. The most popular secular party, Al-Masreen Al-Ahrar, received a paltry 2% of votes.
In Libya, the National Transition Council that ousted Gaddafi, which includes elements connected to al- Qaida and other militant Muslim militias, is riddled with dissension among its ranks. One major concern that has emerged out of the tribal train wreck in Libya is the looting of Gaddafi’s vast stockpiles of advanced weaponry, especially shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles which could be used by terrorists to bring down civilian airliners. According to various media reports, al-Qaida’s affiliates in Western Africa have already boasted of receiving such weapons, as have Palestinian terror militias in the Gaza Strip.
Another country which is still languishing in chaos and violence is Yemen, where al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has boldly claimed control over large areas, including near the strategic Straits of Aden. Saudi troops made a cross-border foray last year against rebel Houthi tribes in mountainous northern Yemen, but suffered heavy losses before pulling back in defeat.
The failed military campaign was ordered by Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, the long-time Saudi interior minister who has just been tapped as the new crown prince. The Saudis have been able to quell any serious outbreak of the Arab Spring within their borders so far, but the ruling family monarchy is undergoing a delicate internal reshuffling to new leadership. Crown Prince Nayef, who likely will ascend to the throne soon, is considered a staunchly conservative Muslim. Although he has been a vociferous enemy of al-Qaida operatives inside Saudi Arabia, this is mainly because of the challenge they pose to the royal family.
Elsewhere, there have been vestiges of the Arab Spring in Algeria, Iraq, Morocco, Oman, Kuwait, Lebanon, Mauritania, Djibouti, Sudan, and Western Saraha. But it is protests in two countries neighboring Israel, Jordan and Syria, which have officials in Jerusalem most concerned.
Clinging to power  In Amman, King Abdullah II is struggling to maintain the loyalty of the Beduin tribes which form the backbone of his authority. Long dominant in the army, police and intelligence services, these tribes have upheld Hashemite rule since 1946. But their support is beginning to wane due to several grievances, including Abdullah’s Palestinian wife, Queen Rania, and his insistence on honoring the unpopular 1994 peace agreement with Israel.
The Islamic Action Front, the recognized political arm of the Jordanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, has taken the lead in regular street protests to force concessions. Many among Jordan’s large Palestinian population have also joined the demonstrations, hoping to foment hostility toward Israel.
But as hazardous as the situation in Jordan is for Israel, it pales in comparison to the brutal sectarian infighting now raging in Syria.
Grinding on into its eighth month, the great Syrian Revolt of 2011 has, according to a recent report by the UN, claimed the lives of at least 3,500 Syrian civilians. Syrian government sources counter that approximately 1,100 members of the Army and security services have also been killed, although opposition groups claim that many of those deaths have come when soldiers and police were shot by their own officers for refusing to fire on civilians.
Tens of thousands more Syrians have been wounded and/or arrested in the violence, and entire neighborhoods of rebel cities like Daraa, Douma, Baniyas, Hama and Homs have been destroyed by withering tank bombardments. Credible reports indicate the Baathist clampdown also has been aided by Iranian troops from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards as well as Hezbollah gunmen from Lebanon.
In response, a growing number of Syrian soldiers, mostly conscripts from the Sunni majority under the command of minority Alawite officers, have deserted to the opposition, bringing their weapons with them. They are being aided by an influx of al-Qaida fighters, and in recent weeks have begun targeting symbols of the Assad regime in and around Damascus.
The Assad regime has asserted that these “armed gangs” are largely “outside forces” sent in by Syria’s foes, such as Israel and the US. One early tactic employed by Assad was to bus Palestinians from refugee camps to the Golan border with Israel to provoke clashes that would hopefully reunite his fractured country against the common “Zionist” enemy.
Yet all these diversionary efforts have failed to stem the uprising, and the rising death toll has outraged the rest of the Arab world, particularly due to evidence that the regime has been torturing and executing children.
On November 12, the Arab League took the extraordinary step of suspending Syria’s membership, though the vote was not unanimous as usually required by the pan-Arab body.
Some analysts, however, assess that the Arab League action is primarily a move by Sunni Arab states to weaken a key ally of Iran and thereby foil Tehran’s bid for regional hegemony.
The bloodshed has also cost Bashar Assad his close alliance with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has turned into a fierce critic of Damascus in recent months. Turkey has given shelter to thousands of Syrian refugees surging over the border with stories of rape, murder and pillage at the hands of Assad’s forces. And Ankara has even hosted meetings of a new transitional council that is seeking international assistance to topple the Assad regime, based on the successful Libyan model.
Yet should the opposition succeed in ousting Assad, Islamic extremists could also be in a position to seize power in Damascus as well, whether by force or popular elections. Various chapters of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist factions are simply too well organized and popular for the secular, pro-democracy forces that launched the Arab Spring to overcome.
As veteran analyst Prof. Daniel Pipes noted in a recent column, “given a choice, a majority of Middle Easterners vote for Islamists.”