Just when it seemed that the Arab Spring was almost over and the region (except Syria and Yemen) was entering a phase of political transition, a flurry of developments in the first week of October 2012 has brought the region back into focus. Parliaments have been dissolved in Jordan and Kuwait, the Prime Minister has been dismissed in Libya, there has been unrest in Iran because of a falling devaluation, the fallout between two political heavyweights in Israel could result in early elections, and Turkey is threatening military action against Syria.
The uprisings that were triggered by the self immolation of a Tunisian vegetable seller on 17 December 2010 soon engulfed almost the entire Arab world. Some dictators were overthrown and authoritarian regimes replaced, while the monarchies hurriedly offered economic and political concessions to appease their people and stay in power. As elections took place and new governments were sworn in, the region and the world at large thought that perhaps the worst is over and welcomed a new era of political participation and public freedom. But, it was not to be.
Peace and stability still seem far-fetched. Public unrest and discontent is still at large and there seems to be no clear roadmap towards democracy in most countries. The protesting population has therefore been left wondering whether they have been able to achieve what they collectively set out to or is the situation similar or worse to what prevailed before the Arab Spring.
The Arab Spring was about two major sets of events: the overthrow of dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen; and the attempt by the monarchies in Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan and Kuwait to extend their right to govern by buying off their people through economic and political concessions. Recent events suggest that these two trends have now been replaced by other issues. For one, the Salafists are emerging as significant actors in the region. The dissolution of Parliaments in Kuwait and Jordan are a clear indication that short term measures taken by the monarchies have not worked and people want tangible progress. The Syria conflict threatens to blow over with Turkey contemplating military action. The internal dynamics have been grossly disturbed in both Iran and Israel with consequences for the whole region. The newly elected government in Libya is discovering that countries cannot be governed just by getting elected to power. Has the Arab Spring lost its sheen? Is there another upheaval and unrest around the corner in the region? With Turkey asserting itself, Egypt recalibrating its foreign policy and Israel and Iran embroiled in internal issues, is the regional balance of power likely to change? Is the region likely to witness another bout of unrest?
Among the Arab Spring nations, Tunisia is the only country where the present government looks stable. It had come through the Arab Spring’s first electoral test with an election on 23 October 2011. It has an elected Constituent Assembly, a president from the secular parties and an Islamist prime minister. The country’s new constitution is being drafted and the coalition government will remain in power until that new constitution is enacted and new elections are held in 2013. Yet, just below and occasionally above the surface as well of this orderly and well managed process, there is an occasional spark of tension. The state of emergency has been extended for another month on 4 October due to the fragile security situation post the anti-Islam film protests and riots by the Salafists. The ideological divide between the secular and Islamist parties is omnipresent and surfaces often in interviews or even casual conversations.
In Egypt, President Morsi has focused on political consolidation and domestic stability. He has effected changes in the military and has constituted the Constituent Assembly for writing the constitution. Externally, he is eager to see that Egypt regains its status in the region. He has already attended the NAM Summit in Iran, addressed the UN General Assembly and visited China. However, the disturbing trend is the contradictions and conflict emerging in the second largest coalition to win the parliamentary elections earlier this year, i.e., the Salafists. Internal feud whether to remain as a pure Islamic movement or to further consolidate as a mainstream political party are now coming out in open. Also of concern is their ultra-conservative design of turning Egypt into a pure Islamic state under Sharia. With a significant public following, they could cause trouble for President Morsi over domestic as well as foreign affairs issues like relations with Israel and US. A hint of this was clearly evident during the anti-Islam film protests last month in Cairo.
Just when it seemed to be on the road to recovery, Libya has been served two severe jolts. The first was the huge anti-Islam film riots in the country, which resulted in the killing of the US Ambassador in Bengazi. And the second was the dismissal of Prime Minister-elect Mustafa Abushagur on 7 October, which has left the future of governance in disarray.
In Jordan, the King had to dissolve the parliament on 4 October and order early elections. Despite the concessions offered to people earlier in 2011, public discontent was pronounced. Jordanians have been pressing for a greater say in how their country is run and demanding that corruption be tackled. The Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood’s political party, the Islamic Action Front, has called for the monarch's powers to be curtailed and for an overhaul of the parliamentary system in which the prime minister is appointed by the king rather than elected.
In Kuwait, the Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah dissolved the country's parliament on 7 October and announced fresh elections. Parliament’s dissolution and new elections have been a major demand of the Islamist-led opposition. The latest development could spell trouble for the ruling family as well as for the United States, which has its largest military presence in the region in Kuwait, especially post-Iraq war. The Islamists, again, seem to be on the ascendant.
Iran seems to have become caught up with a new mess. This time, it is the sudden drop in the value of its currency, the rial, which has depreciated by 80 per cent in a year to almost 35,000 rial to a US dollar. The Iranian president has called this a conspiracy and an economic war against Iran. While public protests have been controlled, coming out of this economic crisis is likely to prove a huge task. An unstable Iran would do no good for the region’s stability.
Syria continues to boil. Its troubles have been compounded by the emergence of the Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant, an al Qaeda-linked jihadist group that is fighting Basher al Assad's regime. It has claimed credit for the majority of bombings including four bombings in Aleppo on 4 October that killed more than 50 people as well as for 26 of the 33 suicide attacks that have taken place in Syria since December 2011. The uncertainty and instability in the country has been compounded by Turkey’s declaration on 4 October that it could take military action if bombings and cross border attacks from Syria continue.
In Israel, the debate on the Iranian nuclear programme and the possibility as well as need for pre-emptive military strikes linger on with no clear road map or support. Compounding its domestic troubles is the latest spat between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak over relations with the US, which has fuelled talk of an early election. Their relationship has been further strained by the contrasting positions they have adopted on the issue of defence cuts, Barak’s dovish comments on peace efforts with the Palestinians and Netanyahu’s assertion at the UN that an Israeli strike against Iran is not imminent. Though the two leader have called a truce for now, the internal situation in Israel needs watching.
Bahrain too suddenly woke up to public protests on 5 October when the Police dispersed 100s of protesters after a memorial for a Shi'ite man, Mohammed Ali Ahmed Mushaima, who was jailed during last year's pro-democracy uprising. He had been in hospital since August 2011 and reportedly died of complications from sickle cell disease. Opposition activists say the authorities caused his death by denying him proper treatment. Despite a crackdown on the protests, clashes between police and protesters continue. The protesters, mainly from the Shi'ite majority, demand a bigger role for elected representatives and less power for the ruling al-Khalifa family, who are Sunni Muslims. The Bahrain chapter is far from being closed and it could erupt any time soon.
Thus, across the Arab world, unrest and uncertainty prevail. As we move into the second winter of the Arab Spring, peace and democracy remain distant dreams for the people in the region. Recent events highlight the fragility of the process underway for the past two years. A warning bell has also been sounded for those regimes and especially the monarchies which escaped the full impact of the Arab Spring last year. Perhaps there is more to the Arab Spring and Part-2 is still to be played out.