Has the Arab Spring Stalled? Autocrats Gain Ground in Middle East


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Part 2: The Regimes' Message: Choose Us or Chaos

'Choose Us, or Chaos'

The Syrian government's crackdown on protesters most closely resembles the Chinese approach. Bouthaina Shaaban, the confidante and spokeswoman for President Bashar Assad, allowed a single Western journalist into the country last week, the Middle East correspondent for the New York Times. In a conversation with the reporter, Shaaban said the rebellion was the work of a "combination of fundamentalists, extremists, smugglers, people who are ex-convicts and are being used to make trouble." The end of the protests was near, she added, insisting that the regime had already survived the worst of the unrest, and that it was time to start a "national dialogue."

Meanwhile, the government struck back against the protesters even more forcefully than before. Several cities in southern Syria are completely shut off from the outside world. According to the trickle of information coming from Dara'a, the electricity and water supply have been cut off, hardly any food is reaching the city and the shooting continues. Syrian human rights activists reported 13 dead last Wednesday alone and noted that one of those killed was an eight-year-old boy.

Syria's security apparatus has also disabled mobile telephone service, reportedly using software and hardware provided to the regime by Iran. Tehran denies this, and yet it remains one of the few allies still supporting the secular Baath Party regime in Damascus.

The regime justifies its actions with the same arguments it has always used to defend its police state. "If there is no stability here, there will never be stability in Israel," said Assad's cousin, businessman Rami Makhlouf. The message: Choose us or chaos.

Syria has also been accused of inciting violence on May 16 along the Israeli border, where Israeli soldiers shot and killed some 15 Palestinians taking part in an annual march there to mark the nabka, or "catastrophe" of their displacement after Israel's founding in 1948. Washington alleged that the Syrian government encouraged unprecedented participation, with people coming from Lebanon, Gaza and Syria to overwhelm the Israelis and spark an incident to distract attention from the crackdown on protestors and prove that the delicate stability in the region could only be maintained if Assad stays in power.

Assad would hardly be taking such a brutal approach if he weren't convinced that officials in Washington, Ankara, some European capitals and even Jerusalem were quietly relieved that his country hasn't been divided yet, like post-revolutionary Libya, and hasn't descended into a religious civil war, either, like Iraq did a few years ago. For those practicing realpolitik in his neighborhood and in the West, Assad remains a predictable dictator. By last Friday evening, the British press had not commented on the fact that his wife, who grew up in Great Britain, and their three small children had flown to London.

Honoring the Counterrevolution

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh seems to be making similar calculations, as he coolly rides out a revolt that has been seething for four months and defies all attempts by his neighbors to convince him to make an honorable exit. He occasionally suggests the possibility of stepping down, and sometimes he makes threats, as he did last Friday, when he said: "We will counter every challenge with our own challenge."

The protesters fear that the man who has run the country for more than 30 years could succeed in stalling them. "With each additional day he remains in office, he weakens the youth revolution," they say. On Wednesday, snipers fired at a group of marching protesters once again, injuring dozens and killing a young man.

In Bahrain, the Sunni royal family has already completely stifled the protests by Shiites and reformers. The leaders of the movement have been arrested, the activists fired from their jobs and the press gagged. In the capital Manama, Pearl Square, the center of the protests, has been paved over and redesigned. It is now being referred to in the media as "Gulf Cooperation Council Square," in honor of the troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that helped quell the revolt there on March 14. Now even the Arab counterrevolution has its heroic square.

The United States, whose Fifth Fleet is stationed only a few kilometers away, has been silent on the incidents in Bahrain.

The governments in Manama, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi know that Washington is more interested in maintaining stable conditions in the Gulf and Syria than in North Africa. As a result, they have ignored their large ally and pursued their own "Yes, we can" policies without Washington.

Obstacles Ahead

The generals running the show in Tunis and Cairo since their governments were overthrown do not dare looking to the future with such confidence. If their statements are to be believed, they imagine a transition from dictatorial to democratic conditions based on the Turkish model. To achieve this, however, they must depend on support from the West to overcome powerful adversaries.

In Tunisia, the new government must contend with holdovers from the Ben Ali regime who have retained their positions in the Interior Ministry and in business.

In Egypt, it is the many criminals who were released or escaped from prison in the last days of the Mubarak regime, as well as the radical forces of political Islam who are testing the new freedoms. The threat that continues to emanate from these militants was reflected in the arson attack on the St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Church in Cairo's Imbaba neighborhood two weekends ago, in which 12 people died. The sectarian violence flared up there again on May 15, when clashes between the two sides left at least 55 injured.

While these incidents are still no proof of a religious war, like the Turkish model, they do show that the road to pluralism and democracy is full of obstacles.

The situation in Cairo is currently changing "from bad to even worse," warns the Egyptian Nobel laureate and possible presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei. "I'm more concerned about the Salafists than the Muslim Brotherhood." It was Salafists, members of a fundamentalist movement that invokes what it calls the original Islam, who assassinated former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981. They dream of the Middle Ages, demand the reintroduction of a special tax for non-Muslims not assessed since the 7th century, and prayed -- in a mosque next to the Coptic cathedral in Cairo -- for the soul of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden after he was killed.

Islamists were also present during the large demonstrations on Tahrir Square at the beginning of the year. At the time, the protestors, who relied heavily on Facebook to spread their message, managed to maintain the secular character of their revolution. But it remains to be seen how secular the Arab Republic of Egypt will be after the parliamentary elections scheduled for September. The Turkish Islamists had decades to prepare for democratic processes. Their Egyptian counterparts have seven months.


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