Aug 16, 2013

    Arab nations feel the heat after Spring

    IN LIBYA, armed militias have filled a void left by a revolution that felled a dictator.

    In Syria, a popular uprising has morphed into a civil war that has left more than 100,000 dead and provided a haven for Islamic extremists.

    In Tunisia, increasingly bitter political divisions have delayed the drafting of a new Constitution.

    And now in Egypt, often considered the trendsetter of the Arab world, the army and security forces, after having toppled the elected Islamist president, have killed hundreds of his supporters, declared a state of emergency and worsened a deep polarisation.

    It is clear that the region's old status quo, dominated by imperious rulers, has been fundamentally damaged, if not overthrown, in the three years since the outbreak of the uprisings optimistically known as the Arab Spring.

    What is unclear, however, is the replacement model.

    Most of the uprisings have devolved into bitter struggles, as a mix of political powers battles over the rules of participation, the relationship between the military and the government, and the role of religion in public life.

    While some of the movements achieved their initial goals, removing longtime leaders in four countries, their wider aims - democracy, dignity, human rights, social equality and economic security - now appear more distant than ever.

    "All the people in those countries lived under similar suppression despite the differences in their regimes, so the uprisings were contagious," said Mr Sarkis Naoum, a political analyst at Lebanon's An Nahar newspaper.

    "But nobody in Syria, Libya, Egypt or Tunisia who wanted to get rid of the regime was prepared for what came next."

    In many ways, the Arab Spring has revealed and exacerbated deep societal splits, between secularists and Islamists and between different religious sects.

    "This is political polarisation on steroids," said Mr Jeffrey Martini, a Middle East specialist at the Rand Corp. "You've got both sides trying to banish each other from politics."

    Throughout the region, the upheavals have so far failed to address the demands of millions of ordinary citizens who had clamoured for change - for jobs, food, health care and basic human dignity. If anything, their grievances have worsened.

    Historians said that, given the repressive autocracies among Arab countries, the convulsions in Egypt and elsewhere were painful but inevitable.

    "I am not writing these transitions off - I just think we're heading into a period of extreme unrest," said Ms Mona Yacoubian, a senior Middle East adviser at the Stimson Center, a non-partisan research group in Washington.

    Others noted that such turmoil often obscured subtle but profound societal changes. For example, Mr Ziad al-Ali, a Cairo-based constitutional expert, said it had now become normal for citizens of Arab Spring countries to insult their rulers - unthinkable only a few years ago.

    "This dynamic of free expression, of political liberalisation where now you have lots of political parties and people expressing themselves freely, this will lead us in a positive direction in the long run," he said.

    Mr Mohammed al-Sabri, an opposition leader in Yemen, where protests pushed longtime president Ali Abdullah Saleh from power last year, said this general sense of empowerment was the most significant accomplishment of the uprisings so far.