Brutal crackdowns chill the 'Arab Spring'

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 27, 2011 

CAIRO — The Arab Spring, which began with an exuberant burst in Tunisia and Egypt and swept up protesters from North Africa to the Persian Gulf, is running into heavy crosswinds in hard-line regimes: a brutal counter-revolution.

Syria was the latest country to respond to demands for political reform with a lethal crackdown last week. In Libya, Moammar Gadhafi's regime is still using deadly force to hold onto power despite a weeklong U.S.-led military campaign.

In Bahrain, a minority-led government invited its Arab neighbors to join a violent crackdown on demonstrators that has inflamed sectarian tensions. In Yemen, talks over replacing a U.S.-backed dictator who's pledged to resign stalled over the weekend, with the regime warning that chaos would ensue if he leaves.

The Arab counter-revolution is in full swing, as entrenched regimes fight harder to survive and young, would-be revolutionaries struggle to maintain their momentum in the face of ever more violent government reprisals.

"After the initial optimism of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, we've seen a shift in the opposite direction, where protest movements are losing direction while regimes grow more confident that they can stay in power if they resort to excessive force," said Shadi Hamid, a Middle East expert with the Brookings Institution.

"They're willing to kill their own people if their survival demands it. The lesson they learned from Egypt and Tunisia was, if you give too much to opponents too quickly, you're pretty much done," he said.

By some measures, the revolts already have been wildly successful, producing tectonic shifts in a region where political life had stagnated for decades. Of the Arab League's 22 member states, only the tiny island of Comoros is truly unaffected by the rebellions. Nearly all the others are facing some level of internal strife, from the modest list of demands submitted by the opposition in Mauritania to bloody, all-out war in Libya.

Most countries lie somewhere in between, facing sporadic protests that occasionally lead to violence and arrests. Qatar, for example, isn't fighting an internal rebellion, but is deeply involved as part of the coalition in Libya and as host to al Jazeera, the powerful satellite TV channel with correspondents on every front line.

"The genie finally came out of the bottle after many years of sleep," said Abdulkader al Guneid, 61, a Yemeni physician and pro-reform activist. "Every country has its own conditions and circumstances, but it's an all-new era for the Arab world. Now the people are revolting and speaking out loud, criticizing their governments and standing up to corruption and dictatorship."

The new spirit has proved too much for some dictators to handle.

For now, the worst-case scenario is Libya, where rebels who once vowed "Victory or death!" had to be bailed out by Western forces and are only now taking advantage of coalition airstrikes to regain territory they'd lost to Gadhafi's forces. The new guerrilla commander is a longtime U.S. resident newly arrived from Northern Virginia, a development that could cost the rebels legitimacy in the Arab world.

On Sunday rebels reportedly pushed past the city of Ben Jawwad, the westernmost point they have been since their uprising began last month. They vowed to move toward Sirte, Gadhafi's hometown and his last major stronghold before the capital, Tripoli, as Libyan state media reported airstrikes on the town for the first time late Sunday night.

Al Jazeera reported that some Gadhafi fighters were packing their bags and fleeing Sirte toward Tripoli, suggesting his troops were either defecting or preparing to defend the capital

Making a tour of the Sunday morning talk shows, Obama administration officials argued the case for U.S. military involvement in Libya as opposed to other nations, saying that the Libyan situation cried out for immediate action and that a coalition of nations joined the U.S. in pressing for action.

"Each of these situations is different," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on ABC. "But in Libya, when a leader says 'spare nothing, show no mercy' and calls out air force attacks on his own people, that crosses a line that people in the world had decided they could not tolerate."

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the implementation of a no-fly zone above Libya is "largely complete," and that the U.S. and its partners have made progress on humanitarian goals. "I think that we have prevented the large-scale slaughter that was beginning to take place," he told ABC.

Across the region, the complexities of the uprising go beyond common calls for elected leaders, jobs and effective governance. In many countries, the clamor for political and economic reforms is tied to longstanding internal conflicts that could seep into the rest of the region if left unchecked. Sectarian strife, Islamic militancy, tribalism and poverty are all potential spoilers to democratic progress.

Ripple effects also have aggravated the Arab states' neighbors: the Turks are fearful that Kurdish uprisings in Iraq and Syria will inflame their own disgruntled Kurdish minority, the Iranians support Shiite Arab demands but dispatch forces to crush pro-reform demonstrations at home, and the Israelis are sounding alarms that hostile Islamist extremists will seize power in the upheaval.

The countries now past the street protest phase face major challenges. Even newly "liberated" Tunisia and Egypt are struggling to fill leadership vacuums while under interim military rule.

In Tunisia, the small North African state where the overthrow of a 23-year dictator in January kicked off the regional unrest, few vestiges of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali's regime have been dismantled. Many Tunisians say that allies of the former regime continue to exert control over the media and that ex-members of the hated special police have merely been reassigned to other government posts.

Protests against poor working conditions at state-owned businesses have continued, and last week security forces arrested several demonstrators in the first significant crackdown on free speech since the revolution.

"All of these are worrying signs," said Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University. "But these revolutions, if they're going to succeed, are going to face a lot more difficulties than they already have."

Khalidi compared the ferment to the revolutions of 1848 in Europe, a wave of middle-class-led revolts that began against the monarchy in France and sought to promote nationalism and democracy. At first the changes failed and the pro-democracy movements suffered reversals. Yet by the time the French Third Republic was established two decades later, many of the revolutionary ideals had taken hold across Europe.

"I'm not suggesting that the Arabs will have to wait 20 years, but they may have to wait a little while," Khalidi said. "We're in uncharted territory, and there could be a lot of ebb and flow to this. The possible resignation of Saleh, the spread of demonstrations to Jordan and Syria could start things up again."

Khalidi said that one recent photograph from Yemen summed up the current moment in the Middle East: a young boy at an anti-government protest who'd painted on his bare chest two targets, one on his heart and one on his stomach, alongside the words, "I'm not afraid."

"Nobody is afraid of these regimes anymore," Khalidi said.

(Bengali reported from Tunis, Tunisia. Nancy A. Youssef in Benghazi, Libya, Chris Adams in Washington and special correspondent Mohannad Sabry in Cairo contributed to this report.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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