A climate of change
The spring proved fickle, but Arabs are still yearning for it, says Max Rodenbeck
ON FRIDAY AFTERNOONS two years ago, the picture on Arab television screens developed a curious habit of multiplying. It would split in two, then three, then more and more lookalike frames. At the end of noon prayers, as mosques emptied in sequence across four time zones, news teams in city after city beamed up dramatic imagery that was strikingly similar. The same vast, joyous, flag-waving crowds surged into the Pearl Roundabout in Manama, the capital of Bahrain, thronged the Tahrir Squares of Sana’a, the Yemeni capital, and of Egypt’s great metropolis, Cairo, and swarmed the beachfront at Benghazi in Libya and the leafy avenues of Tunis. Everyone was chanting the same refrain: “The people demand the fall of the regime.”
There were many such days in the spring of 2011, as if a hidden conductor had orchestrated a pan-Arab symphony of protest, and the uprising did bring momentous change. Before it began to stir in December 2010, the world’s 350m Arabs had seemed oddly immune to the democracy bug that had infected most corners of the globe. Whether republics or monarchies, nearly all of the world’s 19 predominantly Arabic-speaking states had solidified into similar political forms, their varied constitutional veneers flimsy disguises for strongman rule. The people, including legions of often jobless youths, had no say in how things were run.
In breathtakingly short order the decades-old dictatorships of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen collapsed. As popular pressure mounted, other Arab governments announced political reforms, more public spending and other concessions to appease their restless people. A region-wide burst of youthful energy that reminded Westerners of their own liberating social upheaval of the 1960s suggested a new sense of empowerment. The “Arab exception”—the apparent inability of these neo-patriarchal states to move towards political norms shared by most of the world—seemed to have been overcome.
Those heady, hopeful days have long passed. The mood across the Arab world now is gloomy. Some say sourly that the Arab spring has turned into an Islamist winter. They fear that after losing power in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood and kindred groups with strong religious leanings that did well in the Arab spring will may become even more combative. Many suspect that the Islamists have every intention of following the path set by Iran’s revolution three decades ago, and that to such people democracy is merely a vehicle for legitimising a new form of authoritarianism: “One man, one vote, one time.”
Yet Arab Islamists also lament the way things have evolved. Now in power in many countries after decades in opposition, they are learning hard lessons. Translating religious ideals into practical policies is tough when Islamists themselves are far from agreed over what those ideals should be, and tougher still when resistance to Islamist aims, whether from entrenched bureaucracies or from secular-minded elites, proves stiff and unrelenting. Even so, the overthrow of Muhammad Morsi, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood president, by a combination of popular rejection and military muscle came as a shock.
Other critics worry less about the Islamists’ intentions or the danger of political polarisation than about the messy, prolonged political transitions now in progress, which so far have done nothing to alleviate the social problems that spawned the upheavals in the first place. Nowhere, as yet, has the right to vote or greater freedom to speak translated into markedly better government, more jobs or brighter short-term prospects. No Arab country has emerged as a model for others to follow. Despair seems to be winning over hope. Countries such as Tunisia and Egypt could remain turbulent for years to come, whoever is in government there.
And those newly democratic countries have done relatively well. Elsewhere, the first flowerings of protest in the spring of 2011 brought not freedom but more tyranny and vicious civil strife. When the police in the tiny island kingdom of Bahrain failed to stamp out a raucous pro-democracy mutiny, the ruling family panicked. It invited nearby Sunni monarchs to send in troops, which lead to scores of deaths and hundreds of arrests. The result is a grim stand-off between the country’s embittered two-thirds majority of Shia Muslims and a wary Sunni minority. Not only has Bahrain failed to progress, it has turned the clock back to where it was after a previous bout of sectarian tensions in the 1980s.
Even that outcome pales next to the carnage in Syria. What has unfolded is far beyond the worst imaginings of the protesters who dared to challenge the government with peaceful marches two years ago. The death toll so far has now passed 100,000; more than a quarter of Syria’s 21m people have been displaced; half its main cities are in ruins; and, predicts the UN, half its population will be in need of food aid by the end of this year. What began as an inclusive popular uprising has turned into a fratricidal war with no end in sight. The only conceivable scenarios for the conflict’s outcome are dismally bleak.
A victory for the regime of Bashar Assad would perpetuate a cruel dictatorship in a physically devastated, psychologically traumatised and politically isolated land. Victory for his foes could unleash horrific sectarian vengeance against Syria’s multiple minorities by the long-oppressed and now enraged 70% Sunni majority. Should the current stalemate persist, the dissolution of Syria into hostile enclaves could become permanent, leading to strife as prolonged as the civil war that ravaged neighbouring Lebanon for 15 years.
There could be worse to come. Syria’s agony has already spilled across its borders, with nearly two million refugees now sheltering in neighbouring countries. Trouble has moved the other way, too. The men, money and materiel flowing into Syria are increasingly helping to turn this into a proxy war pitting Mr Assad’s allies—Iran, Iraq, Russia and Hizbullah (the Lebanese Shia group close to Iran)—against the Arab and Western countries that back his enemies. These, ominously, include extreme jihadist factions, among them al-Qaeda, whose ambitions extend far beyond imposing harsh religious laws. They seek to “cleanse” Syria and the region as a whole of anything they see as alien to their narrow interpretation of Islam.
The widening of the strife underlines the fragility of Syria’s borders. These “lines in the sand”, drawn a century ago by dominant European powers with scant concern for sentiments on the ground, may in future be redrawn in blood. Already, Kurdish groups in Syria’s north-east have carved out something akin to an autonomous zone linked, albeit tenuously for now, to the Kurdish part of neighbouring Iraq and Kurds in Turkey. Already, too, the increasingly open hostility between Syrian Sunnis and Shias has rekindled sectarian passions in Iraq, Lebanon and as far afield as Yemen, bringing closer the possibility of a direct clash between the Shia superpower, Iran, and big Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The 1,400-year-old great fitna (schism) between Islam’s main branches, given to periodic eruptions, rumbles ominously again. In the words of an Arab saying, “Fitna sleeps; God’s curse upon him who wakens it.”
The end of the beginning
Syria’s tragedy, and to a lesser extent the problems caused by the transition elsewhere, have other perverse effects. Regimes that have so far resisted reforms use them as excuses for sticking with their old ways. The oil-rich monarchies of the Gulf, in particular, have tightened restrictions on freedom of speech. Most of their citizens are comfortably off and have yet to voice dissent on any scale, but unease stirs below the tranquil surface.
In short, the scorecard for the Arab spring so far looks overwhelmingly negative. But this special report will argue that such an assessment is premature. Rather than having reached a sorry end-point, the wave of change may have only just begun. Judging by experience elsewhere, such transitions take not months but years, even decades.
Further unrest and almost certainly further bloodshed lie in store. But this may well be unavoidable in a part of the world where bewildering social change, including extremely rapid population growth and urbanisation, for so long went woefully unmatched by any evolution in politics. Debate on such crucial issues as the relationship between state and religion, central authority and local demands, and individual and collective rights could not be indefinitely stifled. Something had to give.