The Arab Spring: Hobbled by Hostile Summer?

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Nothing in recent years captured the world’s attention quite like the ‘Arab Spring.’ The phenomenal pace of people’s agitation spreading from country to country like the jungle fire glued the world to it in a manner not known before. The quick success of the people’s movement for change in the political dynamics of Tunisia and Egypt gave the spring a hype that few could ever have conceived.

It seems, however, that the blossoming of an early spring in Tunis and Egypt has also unleashed a swift and, in most cases, violent backlash and the pace of the people’s march to freedom has been stymied in more than one place.

Libya, which has snarled into by far the most violent and virulent struggle between its people’s hankering for freedom from oppression and its ruler, Col, Muammar Qaddafi’s fierce resistance to checkmate the people and prolong the status quo, retains its lion’s share of the global media attention and interest.

But Libya isn’t only a focus of interest for the world news media. Western governments, led by US, are even more pumped up to wrest the Libyan people’s freedoms from the clutches of Col. Qaddafi. With the help of a UN Security Council that routinely finds it hard to resist the western powers once they may have decided to gang up against some ruler or country, NATO has armed itself with a UN mandate to cut Col. Qaddafi to size. In nearly three months since this western military alliance was equipped with a license to bomb Col. Qaddafi’s forces, NATO has launched more than ten thousand air sorties against their Libyan targets. The scope and boundaries of these ‘preventive’ aerial attacks have been progressively increased to include targets that zero in on Qaddafi and his family. Qaddafi’s compound in Tripoli has been deliberately targeted dozens of times; a son of Qaddafi has been killed in this bombing tirade.

However, despite pointed attacks against the resilient Libyan tyrant, he is still proving to be hard to get for NATO. With it, the virtual division of Libya into two halves, one still under Qaddafi with its centre in Tripoli, and the other under an interim National Council, in Benghazi, isn’t helping to realize the Libyan people’s dream for a united Libya sans Qaddafi and his oppressive regime.

The military struggle between the two factions has already degenerated into a war of attrition. The political stalemate is equally disheartening to the Libyan people who had set out to emulate the example of quick success of their neighbours on both eastern and western sides of the border, in Egypt and Tunisia, respectively.

Qaddafi was a welcome target for old western imperialists-Britain, France, Italy et al-because he’d constantly been an irritant to them and stayed in the cross-hairs of their hegemonic ambition to lord over Libya’s abundant oil and gas resources. Qaddafi’s obtuse resistance to his people’s demand for change has provided them a welcome opportunity to go for him and they seem to be taking full advantage of it.

In the latest instance, the American Apache gun-ship helicopters have been pressed into service by Britain and France for closer bombing raids against Qaddafi’s targets. And to crown this latest effort to dislodge a pariah British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has triumphantly descended on Benghazi like a Roman tribune inspecting his vassal fiefdom.
The old colonial powers are obviously determined to hasten Qaddafi’s political demise. They may, in fact, not be averse to somehow trigger his physical demise because target-killing of an unwanted quarry has become a favourite weapon with these decadent colonizers. They can always justify their terrorism as a step in the ‘noble’ cause of ushering in ‘democracy’ into an Arab country.

However, their ardour to bless the Arabs with the ambrosia of democracy cools down, abruptly, the moment it comes in contact with the Bahraini majority population’s vociferous demand for their democratic rights to be recognized and honoured. Over there, the flame of democracy is being put out because it runs into the heavy fog of Saudi resistance. The Saudi ruling elite isn’t only determined to deny their people any brush with democracy but also sworn to keep the Bahrainis away from this ‘poisonous’ barb because of fear that the contagion might quickly get across the thin stretch of water separating Saudi Arabia from Bahrain and infect the Saudi populace too.

The induction of sectarian issue by the Saudis into the Bahraini equation-their Wahabi ideology against the Bahraini majority’s Shia beliefs-is a lethal element that could potentially cause problems in many an Arab country. Kuwait, for instance, could also be confronted with it because of the near parity of numbers in its demographic mix between Wahabis and Shiias.

The Saudi drive to keep their sphere of geo-strategic interest intact is also affecting Yemen in addition to Bahrain.

Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen has so far proved to be as hard-headed as Qaddafi. Saleh had thwarted several attempts by the GCC to broker a deal between him and his enraged populace clamouring for his earliest demise. But, then, he stepped on too many toes in the process which, in the end, unleashed a deadly tribal and fratricidal feud, exacting a heavy toll of blood. The most violent and concerted struggle to topple a callously myopic Saleh from his pedestal of power saw the powerful Al Ahmer tribe challenging his oppressive rule right in the heart of capital, Sanaa. In the latest development, Saleh has fled to Saudi Arabia, with a clutch of close cronies for hospitalization and medical treatment for wounds inflicted on him in the cross fire between his forces and those of Al Ahmer. It remains to be seen if he would dare to return to Yemen or would the Saudis keep him in exile there as they have the Tunisia tyrant, Ben Ali.

It’s inconceivable that the Saudis should be making such daring forays into what may be described as ‘designer diplomacy’, i.e. trying to design and fashion the region’s policies to fit into their paradigms, without getting their oldest and closest ally, US, on board with them.

There is, without doubt, a broad-spectrum confluence on interests between Saudi Arabia and US in regard to these two, especially, neighbours of Saudi Arabia: Bahrain and Yemen.

While the primary focus of Saudi Arabia, in the context of subverting the legitimate democratic rights of Bahrain’s majority Shiia population may be the sectarian complex, it fully shares the US phobia that if Bahrain goes democratic Iran-to which both are allergic-may virtually come to sit on the door-steps of Saudi Arabia. The US allergy to Iran, of course, is also an off-shoot of its abiding bonds with a belligerent and war-mongering Israel which has been beating the drums of war against Iran for years.

The camaraderie of Saudi-US interests wields a similarly powerful influence in the context of Yemen. Both allies feel extremely nervous about the likely chaos that may come in train in the event of Saleh’s strongman-rule exiting from the scene. Neither of them relishes the idea of a genuinely democratic Yemen emerging from the ashes of the current confrontation between the forces of status quo and those of change. The fear of Al Qaeda and fellow-travellers making a bonanza of it must send shivers down their spine.

So the Saudis, with strong American backing from behind the scene, have been throwing their considerable weight around in Yemen in order to influence a denouement of the ongoing tussle for power between the people and forces of status quo led by Saleh that would suit their preferences. For tactical reasons, therefore, they may have removed Saleh from the scene in order to keep the flames of discontent and agitation under control. But partisans of Saleh are still actively present in the top echelons of the regime, especially in the army where the Saleh clan has been ruling the roost. Close blood relations of Saleh are in a position to call the shots in favour of the Saudi and American designs whenever the chips are down.

But the Saudis are also keeping a foot in the door of the forces arrayed against Saleh. They have also allowed wounded clan members of Al Ahmer tribe, now actively fighting Saleh’s forces, to seek medical help in hospitals in Saudi Arabia. From their point of interest, that’s a smart tactical move.

However, it’s Syria which must frighten the power brokers engaged in designer diplomacy the most.

The authoritarian Assad regime in Syria enjoyed tacit blessings of the US-and to some degree the Saudis-because it was keeping the radicals firmly under control while, at the same time, keeping the borders with Israel quiet and undisturbed. That sheepish posture, vis-à-vis America’s aggressive regional vassal, had Washington’s nod without any reservation. But the popular agitation against the repressive regime of Basher Al Assad, unleashed under the Arab spring, is threatening to disturb the Syrian applecart. The regime’s brutality-with nearly 1200 killed in three months and more than 10,000 in prisons-has forced Washington to publicly scold Bashar and insist on accommodation with the forces of change.

Interestingly, however, Obama & Co. haven’t, to date, called for regime change in Syria while the demise of the Qaddafi regime in Libya is a principal demand of Washington and its European allies. But Bashar is being hobbled by the democratic movement’s gathering momentum. Agitation is rapidly consuming city after city in Syria’s heartland. It has now reached the city of Homa, which was the flashpoint of a massive backlash against the regime of Bashar’s father, Hafez Al Assad, in 1982. The late Assad had indulged in a wholesale massacre in Homa, killing at least 20,000 people. The incumbent Assad is quite capable of being no less ruthless than the departed one.

Bashar is also capable of turning the heat against Israel. A taste of it was given to the Israelis and their American mentors on June 5 when hundreds of Syrians turned up at the Golan Heights, seized from Syria in the Six-Day Arab-Israeli war of June 1967, and tried to breach the razor-wire Israeli fences. Several of the protestors were killed by the trigger-happy Israeli forces. But Bashar has made his point: Israelis should have cause to worry about their choke-hold over Golan if his regime is rattled.

To the dismay of all those who may have hoped that Tunisia and Egypt would become role-models for other Arabs hankering, likewise, for political change in their societies, a backlash by the still powerful vestiges of the old, repressive, order is trying to raise its ugly head.

In Tunisia vestiges of Ben Ali’s anti-Muslim regime-with some of them still in influential positions-are painting scenarios of dire consequences if the reformist, and very moderate, Al Nahda party, led by the scholarly Rashid Al Ghanouchi, gains the upper hand in the forthcoming elections to decide Tunisia’s democratic future. The New York Times, of May 29, quoted a former interim Interior Minister, Farhat Rajhi, suggesting that if Al Nahda gained control after the elections the army may stage a coup.

The flowering of the Egyptian revolution is being stymied by accentuating religious divide between the majority Muslims and the minority Coptic Christians. The recent bloody clashes in Cairo between the two communities were an ominous sign. The interim regime, dominated by the military, still has powerful influences of Hosni Mubarak’s ancient regime trying to subvert the people’s revolution and unhinge it from its new moorings. The upcoming trial of Mubarak and his two sons on charges of corruption could only be a ruse to divert people’s attention from focusing on the interim order’s backtracking. One positive development, in this otherwise rather worrying ambience, is the decision to reopen the Rafah border with Gaza, thus bringing some relief from the suffocation that Israel’s brutal blockade of the Palestinian enclave has been imposing on its toiling people.

The Arab spring is the best thing that has happened to the Arab peoples in decades. Its full flowering is still distant. However, hope for it is still alive. Heroic sacrifices by the people in the ongoing flashpoints -in Bahrain, Syria, Yemen and, of course, Libya-are still fuelling the flame and keeping the people’s torch alight. And yet the backlash from the forces of repression is a cause of deep concern to all those who are conscious of the formidable odds still at work to rob this generation of Arabs of the fruits of freedom the Arab spring  bears in its bosom.

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-30 June 2011 on page no. 26

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