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Wednesday, Sep. 14, 2011

Prospects for the Arab Spring


LONDON — The Gadhafi tyranny in Libya has been overthrown although the "colonel" has not yet been found and elements of his regime and his mercenaries continue to pose problems for the new regime. Much needs to be done to restore Libyan infrastructure, including restoring water and power supplies in Tripoli, and to establish law and order.

The provisional regime has declared that there will be early and free elections and a new constitution will be drafted. Some question how democratic the new Libya will be. The future course of Libya is not yet clear, but the revolution has shown that tyrants who rely on mercenaries to enforce their will can be overthrown if grievances are allowed to fester.

In Egypt, former President Hosni Mubarak has been put on trial and elections are set for November, but the army retains power. It is conservative and xenophobic. Military courts have given prison sentences to activists calling for more radical reforms while officials accused of corruption and abuse of power continue in post. "Islamists" have backed the military's plan to postpone drafting a new constitution until after the elections.

In Syria unrest has spread throughout the country. The regime of President Bashar Assad, after hypocritically promising reform, has attempted to suppress opposition with brute force. Over four thousand demonstrators and opponents of the regime are reported to have been killed.

The Syrians have rejected foreign criticism including relatively mild protests by their Arab neighbors and more forthright criticism by the Turkish government. Sanctions against the regime have been watered down as a result of the opposition particularly from Russia and China who remain adamantly opposed to 'interference in the internal affairs of independent states'.

In Tunisia, where the Arab Spring, began remnants of the old corrupt regime have yet to be swept away.

In Bahrain following the intervention of military forces from Saudi Arabia — allegedly invited in to help re-establish order- protests have been suppressed.

In the Yemen chaotic conditions continue. The old guard do not recognize that their refusal to back reform provides a fertile soil for al-Qaida activities.

In the kingdoms of Jordan and Morocco limited reforms may have helped, for the time being at least, to damp down pressure for more radical changes.

Algeria has so far been little affected, but the Algerians have irritated the Libyans by granting asylum to one of Col. Moammar Gadhafi's wives, two sons and pregnant daughter. Opposition elements in Algeria may for the present be quiescent, but the successful overthrow of the Libyan tyranny is likely to inspire opponents of the Algerian regime.

Saudi Arabia has so far seemed immune to the revolutionary virus. The royal court with its wealth, its huge oil reserves, its powerful security apparatus and the backing of its Islamic puritan clerics no doubt hopes that immunity will last for the foreseeable future.

There can be no guarantee that the revolutionary changes which have been manifest in the Arab world will lead throughout the region to the development of democratic governments devoted to the furtherance of the interests of all their inhabitants instead of a corrupt few. Some of the regimes are too well entrenched and oppressive measures may suppress opposition at least for a time.

One important factor which has promoted change has been the growth of better educated middle classes which have increasingly resented the ostentatious wealth and arrogance of corrupt leaders and their henchmen. Women too, especially in Egypt, have found their voice.

Another element has been the development of the internet and social networking sites which have enabled dissident elements to coordinate action. The Arab tyrannies have not been able to control these sites despite the resources put into intelligence gathering backed by torture and threats. The Chinese, who fear that contagion from the Middle East will spread to China, have been more effective although even they have not been able to control totally what can be seen on the Internet.

The middle classes are largely a materialist and secular element in Arab societies, but they have been brought up as Moslems. Islamist elements such as the Moslem brotherhood in Egypt which were suppressed by Mubarak have revived and Islamic fundamentalism remains a potent force. But it is not a united one. In Iraq Shiites and Sunnis are as intolerant of one another as Catholics and Protestants were in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They are powerful elements especially in Syria and Iraq while Iran remains under a Shiite theocracy. The Wahabis of Saudi Arabia add another dimension with their puritanical anti-feminism.

The democratic powers have largely avoided in Libya the mistakes made in Iraq. NATO air strikes ensured that the bloodbath of civilians threatened by Gadhafi was prevented and enabled rebel forces to take over most of the country including the capital of Tripoli. Western ground forces have kept out of Libya. This has been essentially a Libyan revolution and the Libyans who suffered from Italian colonialism in the 20th century are understandably sensitive about foreign intervention.

If the Arab Spring is to blossom into a summer in years to come it will need sensitive nurturing. This means responding where possible, to requests for help in the development of democratic institutions and backing international measures such as sanctions against tyrannical regimes such as Syria. After the expensive debacle of Western intervention in Iraq no right thinking western leader is likely to want to intervene militarily.

The most valuable step that the Western powers can take to further peace and stability in the Middle East would be to push ahead in finding a solution to the problems of Palestine. But it would be foolish to think that the United States, which holds one of the keys, will be either willing or able to put pressure on the parties to reach a settlement in the run up to a presidential election.

We must also never forget the threat that Iran may succeed in developing nuclear weapons, which might lead to an Israeli strike with all that this would imply. The solution may only be found through progress on nuclear disarmament and that looks as difficult to achieve as a settlement in Palestine.

Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain's ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.


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