Wither Arab Spring?

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As the ‘Arab Spring’ heads into a sultry summer, the political landscape of the countries most affected by it presents a chaotic scene, to say the least.

Those who may have hoped for an early blossoming of the spring have long been dismayed by its arrival looking ever more distant. The yearning of those youths who primarily triggered the wave of popular protest across a wide arc of the Arab world is already being consumed by dejection and deep disappointment. A cursory look at the way people’s movement for radical change in their political fortunes in the concerned countries in the path of the ‘spring’–Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain–has been frustrated and stymied confirms the basis of mounting disappointment.

Tunisia was the trail blazer. That’s where the torch of anger that devolved into a mass movement against tyrannical rule of a dictator was first lit.

For the record, the dictatorial rule of Zein-el-Abedein bin Ali was consigned to the dustbin of history six months ago and the tyrant forced to flee the land. An interim government has been in place ever since and political freedom has been restored; banned political parties, such as the Islamic-thought-inspired Al-nahda led by Rashid al Ghanouchi, are back in action. However, the common man, especially the youth that had triggered the movement to topple the dictator still feel frustrated. Their frustration and sense of being cheated is anchored in the ground reality that much of the system that bin Ali had installed in his quarter-century-long rule is still in place and pervasive. The face at the top may have disappeared but the machinery he’d contrived is still largely surviving him. So popular anger continues to boil on the streets of Tunis and invokes more or less the same heavy hand of police repression and brutality that was supposed to have gone out with the dictator.

As a sop to the protesting Tunisian, the interim regime has held two trials in absentia of bin Ali and sentenced him to 15 years in prison. A third trial has just got under way. But it’s unlikely to fool anyone. Everybody knows that these trials are mock and there’s no way bin Ali will be handed over to Tunisians by his Saudi hosts.

Elections for a parliament–the first in Tunisian history–have been set for October this year but many political groups, with few roots among the people are trying to put off. The electoral machinery is sluggish as the interim government drags its feet. Out of 7 million eligible voters, only 2 percent are reported to have been registered, according to the latest figures. That clearly points to a paucity of willingness by the interim order to pave the way, quickly, for a participatory democracy so much desired by the youthful authors of the movement.

Egypt is in a truly chaotic mood. Hosni Mubarak may have been kicked out in disgrace but the roguish elements that had stood behind him and served his tyrannical regime as its apparatchiks are firmly still in control and keeping to their erstwhile roles as a class of the privileged unconcerned with the plight and suffering of the common man.

So the popular backlash is once again back in action. Cairo’s Tahrir Square is drawing large crowds of protestors who are clearly unhappy with the old ways still being the mantra with the interim regime, headed by Field Marshal Tantaoui. Mubarak may have disappeared but Mubarakism is alive and kicking.

The Egyptians understand that a heavy foreign interference in their affairs is also at work, and clearly working against their interest.

Egypt has been the lynchpin of US policy in the Arab world ever since Anwar Sadat was bought over and Egypt prevailed upon to sign a peace treaty with Israel. Notwithstanding the lip service that Washington may go on paying to the need of democracy flowering among the Arabs the primordial pillar of its ME policy remains untouched. Security for Israel at any cost trumps any other angle of approach to the Arab world in the US lexicon.

The Egyptian army has been a redoubtable pillar of strength to the Americans in ensuring that Egyptian subservience to US diktat on Israel isn’t trifled with. So the interim Egyptian regime, under the sway of the army, is dragging its feet on democratic reforms that would give a larger voice to the people in the policies of the state. The Egyptian generals and their American mentors are uncertain how would a truly democratic Egypt react to a rapacious Israel still firmly embarked on expansionism and brutal suppression of the Palestinians in occupied land, especially the ones in Gaza.

Simultaneously, on cue from Washington, a snide campaign is on in the American media against the popular Ikhwan, although they have voluntarily decided to contest only half the seats in the Egyptian parliamentary elections. But their protestations of honest intent are being taken with a good pinch of salt; the usual refrain is that the Ikhwan still have a ‘hidden agenda’ and that they may have their sympathizers and camp-followers running as independent candidates on those seats not contested by them.

The impact of dilly-dallying by the army-led interim government is reflecting badly on the popular mood, on one hand, and on the economy, on the other. Uncertainty and diffidence is taking a toll–a heavy one–of the investment market and, more ominously, on the lucrative tourist trade that has traditionally accounted for a huge chunk of hard-currency earnings for the Egyptian economy.

But while US ardour for democracy in Egypt may have cooled already, or cooling rapidly, it has been professing an unbounded zeal for the democratic rights and aspirations of the Libyan people battling the longest surviving dictator of the Arab world.

Because Muammar Qaddafi has long been an odd-man-out for Washington, a sort of a maverick crept under the American skin, the American policy makers feel they are on the right side of history in fueling the epic struggle of the Libyan people against their tyrant.

So the part of Libya still held under Qaddafi’s sway has become fair game for US and its NATO allies to bomb to their hearts’ content. UN Security Council Resolution 1973, passed under their pressure, is being stretched in its interpretation and application beyond all civilized bounds. The once defensive alliance of the Cold War vintage, NATO, has now become a tool of western powers’ naked neo-colonial ambitions. What this long arm of military prowess has done so extensively in Afghanistan the past ten years is being replicated on a minor–though equally lethal–scale in Libya. Even children and women in the Qaddafi held part of Libya are being incinerated in indiscriminate bombing raids in the name of ‘saving’ the rebel Libyans against the Qaddafi forces. Reports of the deadly enriched Uranium-tipped bombs being used against the Libyans have already filtered in.

The Libyan Spring, for all intents and purposes, has decomposed into a full scale civil war. People on both sides of the divide are bleeding in the cross-fire between an obdurate tyrant’s untrammeled lust to hang on to power and the rapacity of those outsiders who are arming and egging on the freedom fighters to fight on, oblivious of the huge toll this mad scramble for power is exacting from the land and its people.

What would it spawn, in the end, is a huge question mark. Qaddafi has demonstrated without an iota of doubt that he would fight on to the bitter end. Would his addiction to power divide Libya into two? Quite possibly, yes.

 Obama may be sworn to a regime change in Libya, as he would love to have one in Iran, too. But the Europeans of NATO would be quite happy with a truncated Libya as long as the part with oil ends up in their corner and they are given a free hand in its exploitation by a supine client regime. With an eye of this, the Europeans are scrambling, in a frenzied rush, to recognize the rebel-led government as the sole legitimate government of Libya.

Whichever way the chips may finally fall, democracy seems to be taking a low back seat in the whole fracas, which one is inclined to believe wasn’t the goal of the authors of the Libyan uprising when they set out to challenge Qaddafi at his turf.

The regime change objective is still not so clear or categorical in regard to the upsurge in Syria. Bashar Al Assad, whose family (father and son) have led Syria for well over forty years, has been a source of satisfaction to US and its European allies in as much as his policy of keeping the border with Israel quiet and unperturbed is concerned. For this reason, Washington, in particular, would be reluctant to experiment with a new leadership, not knowing how it would react against Israel still occupying the Golan Heights seized from Syria in 1967.

Conscious of the fact that it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to force the Security Council to sign on to its agenda the way it did on Libya–because China and Russia are disinclined from getting on board–Washington is still caught at an awkward tangent. Assad’s repression is no different from Qaddafi’s. However, Qaddafi never figured into the Israeli-security context the way Assad looms over it. So his continuation, sans such obvious brutality in quelling the uprising, would be a bonus to Israel.

But on the other hand, the Assad regime is a powerful crutch for Hizbollah in Lebanon. Hizbollah is a pariah and ‘terrorist’ to Israel and its American ally. They would be delighted to see it weakened by the disappearance of the Assad regime. However, there’s no guarantee that a successor regime wouldn’t be as friendly to Hizbollah, or fall in line to be as submissive on Israel. Hence the quandary for policy makers in Washington, and their failure to craft a policy that would blend their interest with that of Israel.

The obvious victim of this murky and blinkered prognosis of the Syrian uprising is that the people’s hankering for openness and democracy is being routinely neglected by default. The theatrical dash of the American ambassador in Damascus to the flash-point town of Homa–where Hafez Al Assad had butchered tens of thousands to suppress an uprising in 1982-in the middle of a melee may have earned him headlines back home in US but has contributed nothing to enhance the objectives of the uprising against the Bashar regime. Once again, as on so many occasions before, the American policy of vacillation and diffidence is costing lives and making cruel regimes more tyrannical.

However, the most depressing discourse in the ongoing saga of the Arab Spring is the way the Saudis have disrupted the popular movements for change in Bahrain and Yemen, both neighbours of Saudi Arabia.

Bahrain has, perhaps, been the most notable example of the western world’s blatant hypocrisy on the issue of democracy for the disenfranchised Arabs living under despotic regimes. The island-state has an overwhelming majority of Shiias in its population. Yet, they have virtually no role in its governance and have been brutally cheated out of their legitimate rights over decades. Theirs was an entirely peaceful and civilized protest for rights so blatantly denied to them for so long. But brute force was used to put it down, and then the Saudis came roaring in with their army to lend the Bahraini state a greater ferocity and cruelty to maim and torture the peaceful protesters.

But the gurus of democracy–US and its European henchmen–applauded the Saudis and their Bahraini cronies, rather than siding with the persecuted Bahrainis, exposing their double-speak and duplicity in crystal clarity. Bahrain is home to the US 5th Fleet, in the Gulf, and concern for security of the fleet obviously trumps any regard for democracy or democratic rights of an oppressed people in the American lexicon.

The Saudis peddled their fear of an Iranian hegemony in the region to touch sensitive American chords. Washington finds it ever so difficult to shake off its obsession of Iran on a mission of expansion; the Israelis and the Sheikhs of the Gulf share this paranoia to the hilt.

The fate of the Yemeni people’s struggle to throw off the yoke of their tyrant–Ali Abdullah Saleh, in power for 32 years–was sealed, like that of the Bahrainis–because of the common thread of Saudi interference in their affairs. Yemen traditionally was the source of cheap labor for the Saudis. However, in the wake of the cataclysmic 9/ 11, the Yemenis became overnight pariahs because of Osama bin Laden’s Yemeni roots. Striking a common cause with the US fear of an All Qaeda-infested Yemen, if the strongman rule were to disappear from there, was like a cake-walk for the Saudis, to whom Yemen is like a backyard that must not raise another man’s crop.

So Saleh has been removed to a sanctuary in Saudi Arabia but his repressive machinery of state and agents of repression, including his sons and clansmen, are still on the prowl to keep the ancient regime alive and kicking.

It’s unthinkable that things in the countries affected by the Arab Spring–or in others showing symptoms of it–would go back to the day before the torch of freedom was lit in the non-descript town of Siddi Abu Zaid. But this spring is being buffeted by strongly hostile winds and its early blossoming looks increasingly a distant dream.

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 August 2011 on page no. 26

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