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Is the Arab spring over?

R S Kalha is a former Indian Ambassador to Iraq.
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  • June 26, 2012

    On 17 December 2010 when the 26-year old Mohamed Bouazizi, an ordinary street vendor in Tunisia, set himself on fire and thereby ignited what was euphemistically called the Arab Spring, there were high hopes in the Arab World as well as elsewhere that at last democracy would be institutionalized and human rights valued. Since then much has happened in the Arab World; some odious dictators have been overthrown, some honourably banished and some are still fighting hard to retain power. But has democracy been firmly instituted or has the respect for human rights been made a fundamental aspect of good governance? Hard to say and even harder to admit that there has been little progress forward. In fact, the trend is somewhat towards one set of dictators being replaced by yet another set.

    Tunisia, where the roots of the Arab Spring first sprouted, is at present struggling to come to terms with what role Islam should play in public life. It is a struggle that many Tunisians believe might prove to be the making — or the undoing — of their fledgling attempts to introduce democracy. Many moderates both in the Arab World as well as in Tunisia are increasingly worried at what they see as thuggish behaviour by hard-line Islamists that goes largely unpunished by the present ruling dispensation. Although in late May 2012, the authorities arrested some ultraconservative Islamists known as Salafis who had gone on a rampage, torching police stations and attacking bars selling alcohol in several towns, the moderate elements worry that the new government, led by the Islamist Ennahda party, is unwilling or unable to hold the Salafis to the rule of law. For their part, the Salafis remain deeply disappointed with the authorities being unable to enforce a much more vigorous religious way of life. The Salafis would probably continue to push for the Shariah law to be implemented and herein lies the danger for violence and discord and perhaps a return to a more dictatorial style of government.

    In Egypt, prior to the announcement of the Presidential election results, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces [SCAF] tightened its grip on power by gratuitously sacking the elected parliament. In a deft move, SCAF gave to itself control over the national budget, the right to appoint a panel to draft a new constitution, immunity from democratic oversight and the power to veto a declaration of war. The new president, Mohamed Morsi, is also expected to have no say in foreign policy particularly on relations with the United States. The US gives Egypt $1.3 billion in annual military aid which, therefore, means that the Pentagon will continue to have a major say in the affairs of the Egyptian military. SCAF’S unwillingness to cede power and allow a genuinely democratic government has been clear for months. The Muslim Brotherhood also made fundamental mistakes, which allowed SCAF to skilfully play on a sense of insecurity and economic instability that made people yearn for the more settled ways of the old regime. Egyptian Copts feared the Brotherhood more than they feared the rule of SCAF. The Obama administration too has had no qualms in restoring US military aid, waiving a Congressional requirement that links military assistance to the protection of basic freedoms. Washington also allowed US-made gas canisters to be used by security forces to put down demonstrations; all in the name of preserving the US-Egyptian military understanding. What advice the US gives SCAF as it handles the newly elected President is going to be the tipping point on whether democracy survives in Egypt or not. Most people know that Mohammed Morsi was not the first choice of the Muslim Brotherhood for the office of the President and therefore how he manages the transition to democratic rule will also be an important factor.

    It is also a fact that Libya after the overthrow of the odious Gaddafi regime is still in the throes of ‘war lordism.’ It is presently in a state of semi-disintegration. The euphoria of establishing ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’, which was largely fostered by some sections of the Western press, has completely disappeared. So is the situation in Bahrain. About 16 months ago thousands of Bahrainis, who are mainly Shiites, rose up demanding political liberties, social equality and an end to corruption. The Bahrain Sunni monarchy, seen both by the United States and Saudi Arabia as a strategic ally and a bulwark against Shiite Iran, never had to face opprobrium as the others did. More than a thousand Saudi troops helped put down the uprising and remain in Bahrain, making it a virtual Saudi protectorate. To be fair, the United States has called for political reform, although last month the Obama administration resumed arms sales to Bahrain. The US could not overlook its strategic requirements. In Yemen, the long serving dictator finally was ‘persuaded’ by the Saudis and the West to leave.

    The tragedy unfolding in Syria is there for all to see. Not only is there a civil war going on that is being fought largely on sectarian lines, but a proxy war between Iran and the Saudis and between the great powers is also in the offing. It would not be far wrong to say that about three different wars are being fought on the soil of Syria. The Sunni axis led by the Saudis and supported by Turkey and Qatar is determined to oust the Alawite-led Syrian government and is busy fuelling the conflict by sending lethal arms, including anti-tank missiles, to the so-called dissidents. The centre of distribution is in Turkey and there are reports about the presence of the CIA there. Equally determined is the Shiite-led block headed by Iran with active support from fellow Shiites from Lebanon. This sectarian struggle promises to flow over into other parts of the Arab World. In such a case the hardest hit could possibly be Saudi Arabia. It is indeed a geographical oddity that most of the oil bearing areas in the Middle-East are in areas dominated by the Shiites. Southern Iraq, North-East Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and of course Iran are Shiite areas that come to mind. With the Gulf region holding 27 per cent of the world’s oil and 57 per cent of its proven oil reserves along with 45 per cent of the world’s natural gas reserves makes this a very strategic and an immensely important area. Should trouble ensue in the Shiite-dominated areas of Saudi Arabia, its oil exports could be badly hit.

    Similarly, the great powers are also neatly divided. Whilst the US and most EU countries staunchly support the stand taken by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, equally forthright are the two other major powers, Russia and China, which support the Assad regime. Russia has too much at stake in Syria. It has a naval base on the Mediterranean Sea coast of Syria and is its chief arms supplier. There were reports that helicopter gunships were being sent by Russia to help the beleaguered Assad regime. Every day there are reports of fighting, loss of life, murders and the brutality of war. What are they now fighting for? Democracy or the replacement of one set of odious autocrats by yet another set?

    Whatever may be the eventual outcome in Syria, there is no denying the fact that for all practical purposes the dream of establishing democracy and the rule of law and the institution of human rights in the Arab World is almost over. There are many causes for this state of affairs, some internal and some external. We will probably have to wait for another generation to pass before the dream of democracy, the rule of law and human rights in the Arab World gets fulfilled.