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

Burning churches in Cairo, dead and wounded in Syria, Libya and Yemen, and a deathly silence in Bahrain. The Arab protest movement has come to a standstill, and the kings, emirs and sultans are rallying to launch a counterrevolution.


By and

According to the "Fundamental Law of Revolution," regimes fall when those at the bottom are fed up with the status quo and those at the top are no longer capable of remaining in power.

That was the experience of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

But difficulties arise when there is one thing those at the top are still quite capable of doing, namely deploying tanks to deal with their opponents -- as is the case in Syria and Libya.

Last week, the Syrian regime sent heavy artillery into the rebel city of Dara'a, while its forces attacked protesting students with clubs in the previously calm city of Aleppo, in Banias on the Mediterranean coast and in the northwestern Syrian town of Homs. According to Amnesty International, by last Tuesday 580 Syrians had died in the unrest. The United Nations human rights office puts the number of deaths at up to 850.

In Libya, Colonel Moammar Gadhafi is attacking the rebels with snipers and mortars. Supported by NATO air strikes, the rebels did manage to capture the airport in the coastal city of Misurata. Nevertheless, it didn't feel like the revolutionary leader's days were numbered, despite rumors that surfaced on Friday evening that Gadhafi had been wounded in a bombing attack and had already left the capital city Tripoli. In a subsequent radio address, Gadhafi informed the "cowardly crusaders" that he was living in a place "where they cannot find and kill me."

Revolutions Can Fail

It becomes even more difficult when many ordinary citizens turn against the revolution, as has been the case in Tunisia and Egypt, as well as Yemen and Oman. As it turns out, it isn't just the elites most closely associated with autocratic leaders who fear for their benefits, privileges and positions. These fears are also shared by the thousands upon thousands involved in the bloated apparatus of political parties and governments. And the lower their position and income, the more desperately they sometimes cling to the traditional system, particularly because ordinary public servants were not able to line their pockets and open Swiss bank accounts.

The Arab revolution has come to a standstill, and all signs point to a restoration of the status quo. The new Arab world has reached a point at which many revolutionaries are worn out and those who are still in power refuse to give up control. Influenced by the images of celebration from Tunis, Benghazi and Cairo, many apparently forgot that revolutions could also fail.

What succeeded in Central and Eastern Europe 20 years ago is not necessarily destined to repeat itself in the Middle East. The Tunisians and Egyptians have undoubtedly made history, but the regimes in the countries to which their revolutionary virus has spread now have no intention of allowing their governments to implode.

The first act in the revolutionary drama in the Arab world ended when Libyan Colonel Gadhafi refused to go into exile, like Tunisia's former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, or to retire, like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, instead ordering his thugs to shoot at his own people. Gadhafi's stubbornness has emboldened many autocrats. If the Libyan dictator had followed in former Tunisian President Ben Ali's footsteps and stepped down, there would be no tanks in the streets or people being herded into football stadiums in Syria.

Three Different Approaches

The second act of the so-called "Arab Spring" smells more of gunpowder smoke and burned-out churches than of jasmine. In the light of early summer, some things look different than they did only eight weeks ago. In many cases, the status quo seems so entrenched that a Facebook revolution alone is no longer capable of suddenly transforming it into images of people dancing in the streets.

Despots frequently rely on a broad cross-section of businesspeople, party officials, civil servants and military officers who have nothing more to lose than their chains. For decades, rulers like Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, Gadhafi in Libya, the Assad family in Syria and the Khalifa clan in Bahrain have managed to build a network of patronage and play off individual clans and old-boy networks against one another.

In the harsh light of recent weeks, three approaches have emerged with which the anciens régimes are addressing the crisis.

The first is the path chosen by China's leadership on Tiananmen Square in 1989 -- brutally overpowering all resistance. The regimes in Libya, Syria and Yemen are currently trying out this approach to see if it works. Bahrain already seems to have employed it successfully.

The second is the method used by the Turkish military after its coups of 1960, 1971 and 1980 -- an uneasy but expandable democracy controlled by the military. This is the scenario that is unfolding in Tunisia and Egypt.

And then there is a third, narrow path of reforms directed from above. The monarchs in Jordan, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Morocco, as well as Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, know that the younger generation is demanding more participation and will not be satisfied in the long run with being placated in an autocratic manner. These rulers seem to be trying to hold onto power by making small concessions.


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